Born in Ghent, he was first attracted to the architectural profession when he helped his uncle on a building site at the age of twelve. He studied in Gantois, but left to become an interior designer living in Montmartre in Paris. There, he was inspired by the emerging impressionist and pontillist artists, and also by the possibilities of working in steel and glass.
In Brussels, Horta built a friendship with Paul Hankar, later also to embrace art nouveau. Horta did well in his studies, and was taken on as an assistant by his professor, and architect to the king, Alphonse Balat. Together, they designed the royal Greenhouses of Laeken, Horta's first work to utilise glass and steel.
By 1885, Horta was working on his own, and designed three houses which were built that year. He then decided to avoid residential work for wealthy clients and instead devoted himself to competitions for public work, including statuary and even tombs. He focused on the curvature of his designs, believing that the forms he produced were highly practical and not artistic affectations.
After art nouveau lost favour, many of Horta's buildings were destroyed, but his former house (which he designed in 1898) is now the Horta Museum, dedicated to his work.