Neutelings Riedijk and the Rebirth of Monumentality
Museum an de Stroom by Neutelings Riedijk Architects. Photo: Courtesy Neutelings Riedijk Architects
The life and death of a city stand intertwined in the new Museum on the Stroom (MAS), designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects. Rising up to 160 feet on an island just next to Antwerp, Belgium’s historic core, the museum is devoted to the city’s history. The architects designed it as a spiral, in which you move up past viewing platforms that look out over the living city at every angle and which alternate with windowless boxes that will contain exhibitions about the city’s dead history. The building is finished now, though the exhibitions will not open until next spring, and this weekend Willem-Jan Neutelings, who lives just across the small harbor from his largest design to date, toured me around.
Monumentality was the way in which architecture used to honor and fix the past. The core of the architect’s activities was creating buildings whose appearance, position, and scale were divorced from the complexities of everyday life and whose interiors were dedicated to framing important activities that regulated or gave meaning to that life. That tradition broke down starting in the 19th century. The ability to break power down and distribute it was one of Modernism’s desires, and its collages, anti-hierarchical constructions, and open forms are one of its enduring legacies. At the same time, the extremes of monumentality to which totalitarian regimes had recourse gave the tradition a bad name. Finally, our modern life has little truck with fixed forms or values, and wasting natural resources on inflexible buildings would seem to most of us a needless waste.
Photo: Courtesy Neutelings Riedijk Architects
It takes a building such as this to make the argument that a certain kind of monumentality is necessary. It would be one that would be open and flexible, while standing above and beyond daily life in order to provide reflection on that quotidian reality. This the MAS achieves, partially through its fortunate siting: on an island in the middle of the old harbor, so that it is slightly isolated, but still very close to the city’s core. From the building, you can see that historic Antwerp, the yuppifying old harbor, the Schelde river, the suburbs, and the new harbor reaching out towards the sea. As you move up through the building, rising up on escalators to open halls, you look out through floor-to-ceiling glass that is corrugated, so that it needs no supports. Every time you rise up a level, you turn ninety degrees, and a different view at a different height opens up to you. Moreover, these viewing platforms are open to the public without paying an entrance fee. They are even not fully climatized, so that you feel as if you are outside.
Building section. Courtesy: Architecture Today
On every level, a closed, concrete box contains exhibits that help you understand aspects of Antwerp’s past. One houses open storage, so you can see the city’s treasures stacked up. Others display artifacts from its history, including ships and political documents. The wealth of colonial artifacts “appropriated” from former colonies is also there, and changing exhibitions will explain both the city’s place in the world, as well as the world’s presence in Antwerp. Each of the five boxes start with an introductory space, then lead you into a 17-foot-high rectangle covered in concrete, where thousands of bronze disks break down the scale while allowing flexible exhibition elements to be tied into the walls. A final gallery offers you a chance at concentrated reflection before you move back out into the public space.
After this spiral rhythm, the restaurant and viewing platform at the top almost seem like a disappointment: The city revealed in its totality is not nearly as interesting as the framed and changing perspectives you have experienced up until now. You do get a view of the artwork native Luc Tuymans designed for the plaza next to the tower. What appeared to be variegated paving reveals itself as a skull picked out in different hues of gray, providing you with a memento mori at the moment of your victory over gravity.
Neutelings Riedijk designed the MAS as a tree, with the concrete blocks cantilevering out over the open viewing platforms from a central core. The firm clad the solid elements in thick slabs of Indian sandstone, so that the contrast between the seemingly heavy and abstract containers of the past and the wavy voids to view the present stands out clearly. Small hands, Antwerp’s symbol, cover the stone and break down its scale from close by.
After visits in recent weeks to the big, bland museum boxes in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston that stand in for monuments to civic generosity and give no acknowledgment of the treasures they house, the MAS’s soaring achievement stood out all the stronger for me. And to this that the building, all 200,000 square feet of it, with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space, cost less than $50 million including its public spaces, and the achievement is all the more astonishing. It just proves that we can honor and fix in sight our past, while we build with a view to our future.