Sunday, 13 November 2011

To begin again at the beginning

Benedictine abbey of Sint Benedictusberg
Dom Hans van der Laan described his career as a 'quest'. Through a long life as architect and monk he devoted himself to search for the primitive origins of architecture. His church at Vaals was designed between 1956-1957 and build 1961-1968. He invented a chain of proportions that binds the largest dimension (of the church) to the smallest, the wall-thickness.  His form-bank (plastic number) consists of blocks, bars, slabs and white forms with the basic proportions: 1/1 3/4 4/7 3/7 1/3 1/4 3/16 1/17 together with the deducted proportions 6/7 2/3 1/2 3/8 2/7 3/14 1/6 1/8 these 16 proportions can create a house, a town, a world.

Unlike the Golden Section or the Modular proportional system of form by Le Corbusier the plastic number is not flat but a three-dimensional system based on a sense of small, medium and large. A complex system where one form relates to another. Van der Laan compared the form-bank to the color-spectrum. Block, bar and slab corresponds to the three primary colors and the other forms to the various nuances of color.


The atrium with the stair leading to the colonnade of the Church.

Arriving at Vaals on a sunny autumn friday has a peaceful effect on me. I stand in front of a big wooden door. The abbey is behind it. It all feels very solid, like a fort. There is a doorbell but I rather stand here for a while taking it in. Suddenly the door opens and a young blond man with a big camera around his neck steps through the door. I smile, for the image confirms that people from all over the world still come here to observe what has been build many years ago.
The keys to my room (8) 
What does it mean to inhabit a space? I will ponder that thought the coming days while I'm being greeted by a monk. He introduces himself and when I tell him my name he knows I will be a guest. He guides me through the inner courtyard, through doors and hallways that echo our footsteps. When we enter the room where I will be sleeping he shows the daily schedule and the different books for prayers. He leaves with a gentle smile addressing the fact that there will be coffee in the round tower in 15 minutes. I take the leaflet from the table and look at it. The first prayer begins at 05:00 (Metten)  and the last one will be at 20:30 (Completen). A warm meal in the afternoon together with the monks and bread in the evening with the other guests. I go for coffee and will come back later to read a bit more about the rules and regulations. 

Round tower that is used for reading, breakfast and recreation

As soon as i set foot in the round tower the symmetry strikes me. My research has begun... The other guests look at me and I sit uncomfortable at the head of the table. We have a little conversation about the duration of my visit and my motivation to be at the abby. When the church bells interrupt, everybody cleans their place and heads of to their room. They appear with little green books, so I'll bring mine to. In silence we walk to the courtyard, up the steps and into the church. I see rituals everywhere, and try to fit in. You bow before you sit, you stand when the monks come in and you bow again when the words Spiritus Sanctus or Sanctum Domini are spoken. The service is in Latin and I find it hard to keep up. My eyes wander around, without decorations this place is filled with meaning and measure that you can sense but not obviously see. 
There is an intense energy when the service is over and people remain seated. In silent contemplation. While the world outside darkens quickly I rise, bow and walk my way back to my room where I have to make my bed and drink a glass of water. I close the curtains. Find my place at the desk and start unpacking my books. There is a very comfortable silence here. For today I see there is a bread meal served with the monks at 19:30 and afterwards is the last service of the day. Written underneath 
Desk, chair and closet
is the text: we would like to have silence in the house from 20:30 until the morning. I start reading and making notes. Van der Laan sees art, not as an imitation of nature or a continuation of its process, but as our reaction to a conflict between ourselves and the natural world. Nature is the starting point of art, but it does not follow that the work of art should have a quasi-natural character. He sees art as:


It's a nice thought to keep in mind when I go to the dining room....

-to be continued-

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