The work of architect Dom Hans van der Laan (1904-1991) is more influential as a system than as a design. The Dutch Benedictine monk is acclaimed by those who embrace modernism as a style rather than as an outlook or philosophy. To the brick-ish modernists he is one of the truly original thinkers of 20th-century architecture. To those who believe in a democratic approach to architecture which embraces the technology of the day he is a throwback. Van der Laan sought a formal language for his architecture which could easily be compared to the catechism.
As Alan Power describes it here: ‘Van der Laan made his own number sequences in order to achieve a wider range of combinations and possibilities.’ The nature of this number sequence is key to our understanding of the architect however. It wasn’t a conceptual approach nor was it as Powers puts it ‘the kind of mystical essence or absolute truth’. According to Dom Hans van der Laan, the essence of architecture lies in its proportion. His architecture is based on his discovery in 1928 of the Plastic Number, a system of measurement and proportion he developed, partly as a consequence of finding the Golden Section too limiting.
Powers is wrong though to see this as arbitrary. Van der Laan certainly sought to replicate a sense of order; not a divine one perhaps. He was a good monk and knew that no mere mortal could achieve heavenly order. However he could achieve an order which in its earthly purity praised the greater divine order. For Van der Laan the creation of a module which dictated overall formal relations at a grand scale in his architecture was not just about creating rules to work by. He stuck to his rule in his practical way of course, which explains the astonishing ascetic rigour of much of his interiors. The Refectory of the Abbey Sint Benedictus Berg is not a place in which to indulge pleasures of the flesh but to remember the divine. But they are hymns to a great order.
Van der Laan built a small number of buildings mainly for church purposes. His architecture conveys in its unique relationships an imposed order. It’s hierarchy is not absolute but generated, as Powers rightly says, from the natural world. Before his death, he had become an influential figure to a pan-European minimalist movement. And yet what has happened to his influence is interesting. Certainly one cannot look at Chipperfield’s work without thinking of van der Laan. The regularity of the pillars.
The creation of a formal set of rules. However if we look at another area where van der Laan’s work has most been felt in this country, namely biq’s beautiful redevelopment of the Bluecoat we can see that van der Laan’s main influence has been to help architect’s impose rules on existing structures. Whereas as van der Laan, created monastic structures, an architect like David Chipperfield has used van der Laan’s example to impose order on dilapidated structures.
If one looks at either the renovated part of the Literary Museum in Marbach am Neckar or the Neue Museum in Berlin, you see rules extrapolated from the original ne0-classical principles of the project and abstracted to a minimalist principle and imposed again on a disrupted built fabric but sensitively. Indeed the new built section of the Literary Museum is oppressive in its Van der Laan like rigidity, an over historicised rationalisation of the classical order like the worst of Aldo Rossi.
If one looks at Biq’s stunning work at Bluecoat, here they were able to rationalise a Georgian school which had been destroyed and rebuilt in adhoc fashion for over two centuries and impose an order onto it in sensitive fashion. One thinks in particular of the colonnade down the large gallery. It’s been influenced by van der Laan clearly but it’s not a new build. Fragments of the old wall line are exposed at the end of the corridor.
Powers idea that Van der Laan’s rigid order is not absolutely intrinsically connected to his ascetic religious convictions is misguided. Perhaps in a desire to confirm his wider influence but he needn’t have worried. Anywhere where architects impose a minimalist order on a disrupted urban fabric, his influence will be felt.