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Set back from the broad, tree-lined Avenue de Tervueren in a well-to-do district of Brussels, the Palais Stoclet can be seen from a distance, as it was meant to be, though it doesn’t come right out and say it. With its bare-faced front and regular punches of delicate windows, it isn’t the palais’s conservatory that first catches your eye nor is it the double-height entrance loggia topped by a brassy statue of Athena. Dripping with garlands and topped by four imposing bronze male nudes standing guard, the most arresting feature of the palais is its massive tower. But while it may draw your attention as a beacon set against a sea of traffic, it, like a lighthouse, at the same time sends a clear message: “Go away.”

The palais was originally built between 1905 and 1911 for the wealthy industrialist Adolphe Stoclet by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, all of 35 at the time of the commission. As a founding member of the Vienna Secession, a movement which had turned its back on the art establishment back home, Hoffmann enlisted his peers to oversee every last detail of the house’s construction and, more importantly, its design. From the marble exteriors to the marble interiors, from the wallpaper to the cutlery and door handles, every last piece of the puzzle was beautifully rendered by some of the most famous artists of the period, including the painter Gustav Klimt and designer Koloman Moser, not to mention Hoffmann himself. So thorough a union of art and craft is the result that this maison enchantée, as it was known, has become a prime specimen of that rarest of gems, the Gesamtkunstwerk.

The term Gesamtkunstwerk may or may not have been coined by one of the most magnificent practitioners of the art, the composer Richard Wagner, with the overarching idea being one of romance: Individual art is made subordinate to a higher purpose. In other words, a total work of art (“Gesamtkunstwerk”) is greater than its parts. For Wagner, this meant a synthesis of music and drama. To him, these had become so separated since their origins in ancient Greece, that an aria, for example, merely represented a “mutilated folk-tune,” music a means to a fruitless end, sheer spectacle. The result of his efforts can be directly tied to his notorious Ring cycle, which rejects the more common operatic format of bombastic showstoppers tied together by a thin plot, in favor of a system in which music and drama are inextricably interwoven throughout, until the end—in this case quite a drawn out one: The cycle takes roughly 15 hours to perform in its entirety.

The idea that all parts can come together for a common good is an idealistic one and precludes the presence of a figure that can get them all to harmonize as one. For the architect of several buildings showcasing the power of the Gesamtkunstwerk, for example the Gamble House (1908–1909) in Southern California or the Robie House (1908–1910) in Chicago, it was a matter of judgment: “[The architect] not only sees more or less clearly the nature of the materials but […] qualifies it all as a whole.” Thus spoke Frank Lloyd Wright. But that’s also where the language of a Gesamtkunstwerk becomes the limit of its world.

Where there is totality, there is total control. And total control means that the successfully executed Gesamtkunstwerk—be it musical, architectural or otherwise, like the artist Bruno Weber’s eponymous park near Zurich—does not allow for free progression or natural evolution. Not only that but it in fact negates the founding concept it is built upon, namely that of collective effort. In the case of Wright, at least one of the architectural movements with which he was affiliated asserted architecture’s responsibility to provide jobs and quality housing for skilled workers but eventually failed to deliver the latter when it proved too costly. Once the Ring cycle was complete, even Wagner had to break away from his self-imposed rules and quietly move on to creating more “operatic” operas.

As for the Palais Stoclet, it is currently wrapped up in a lengthy legal dispute pertaining to the four Stoclet heirs. After a foray was made by three of them to sell off some of the furnishings, the Belgian court passed down the verdict in 2011 that the villa be preserved as a total piece of art. It has only been opened to outsiders on a handful of occasions and remains closed to the general public.

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