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Ascent into Antwerp

MAS in Antwerp: a new museum by Neutelings & Riedijk takes city history to a whole new level. By Roman Hollenstein

Antwerp is an unappreciated beauty with a dubious reputation. But the city, which has fallen into disrepute as a bastion of Flemish nationalism, surprises its visitors with its cultural cosmopolitanism. A top source of pride is the fashion scene, which showcases its creations in the hip neighbourhood surrounding Dries van Noten's fashion temple and the Fashion Museum opened in 2002, which the Ghent architect Marie-José Van Hee furnished with a theatrically stepped foyer serving both as an ideal place to pose and a catwalk. As the city on the Schelde became a fashion mecca towards the end of the 1980s, thanks to the meteoric rise of the "Antwerp Six", a small architectural miracle emerged. On the rundown waterfront along the Schelde, Bob van Reeth, the father of new Flemish architecture, built the eye-catching, striped Huis Van Roosmalen and also – as part of the restoration of the burned down riverbank terraces – the Zuiderterras Café that resembles the form of a ship, while Willem-Jan Neutelings erected an apartment building whose wooden facade was intended to recall Antwerp's maritime tradition.

Huis van Roosmalen and Zuiderterras Cafe
by Bob van Reeth © Antwerpen Toerisme & Congres

Gradually, politicians began to realise that Antwerp, all too entrenched in its glorious past, needed an urban renewal initiative. Inspired by the revitalisation of decrepit ports in Barcelona, San Francisco, and Sydney, a competition was organised for rejuvenating the "stad aan de stroom" situated between the highway intersection to the south and Eilandje Docks to the north, now made redundant by the new container harbour – with awards going to big names, such as Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Bob van Reeth, and Manuel de Sola-Morales. But the ambitious projects ended up being shelved, and revitalisation – based on a new master plan – proceeded on an informal basis and haltingly. The cultural scene had already claimed the Eilandje long before the Palace of Justice by Richard Rogers with its white sailing roof became the new landmark of south Antwerp in 2006. It was certainly still a real problem area when the Koninklijk Ballet van Vlaanderen am Kattendijkdok opened the t'Eilandje Theater and Dries van Noten moved into his studio in a former storehouse on Godefriduskaai.

Palace of Justice by Richard Rogers
© Antwerpen Toerisme & Congres

Since then, Robbrecht & Daem have refurbished the venerable Sint Felix Storehouse as the headquarters of the City Archive, and the French landscape architect Michel Desvigne has converted the Willemdok quays, which had been turned into an elegant marina, into an urban walkway. Corresponding to this, although farther east – behind the white rectangle of Hans Kollhoff's "Entrepot" and the dark slice of residential building known as the London Tower – is the Spoor Noord Park opened in 2009, which was designed by the Italians Secchi & Vigano on the site of an obsolete railroad line. Beyond the Willemdok you can see Roger Diener's mother-of-pearl toned residential towers, which are to be followed by additional skyscrapers by Gigon Guyer and David Chipperfield on the Kattendijkdok extending towards the container harbour. Construction has not yet begun on Zaha Hadid's port house, a spectacular, diamond-shaped wedge structure, which Hadid intends to erect on top of a former firehouse; someday this should draw architecture tourists all the way to the north end of the revitalised docklands.

Port House (rendering)
© Zaha Hadid Architects

But now the Eilandje already has a tourist attraction with the so-called city historical Museum aan de Stroom, which was officially inaugurated last week. The seemingly precariously stacked building with its rust-red speckled sandstone walls and undulating glass curtain walls rises out of the centre of the old harbour district between the Willemdok and Bonapartedok, on the very site where the Hansahuis, dating from 1568, an immense storage building belonging to the cities of the Hansa league, burned to the ground 118 years ago. In the hopes of generating a Bilbao effect, a decision was made in 1998 to make this the site of a new museum situated only a few minutes walking distance from the town hall, cathedral, and fashion mile – a museum where the dispersed and poorly administered collections of the Craft Museum, Shipping Museum, and Ethnographic Museum were to be brought together and presented in an appealing display. The Rotterdam firm Neutelings & Riedijk then managed to win over the jury in the competition announced a year later with its museum tower project.

MAS © Filip Dujardin

As with the apartment building that he built in 1992 on the Schelde, in this case too Willem-Jan Neutelings first studied the urban context. The result was a 62-metre high building with both a monumental and fragile appearance made of stacked exhibition containers – comparable to the Dutch Pavilion by MVRDV at the Expo in Hanover. The exhibition rooms are conceived as black boxes and each consists of a main hall with adjacent rooms. These rooms are arranged in a U-form around a central access core, which carries the support-free floors of the building. On each floor the arrangement of the rooms is rotated 90 degrees. They are accompanied by a glassed-in access corridor, which wraps around the building two and a half times in staggered levels. Riding on escalators, you can glide from the ground floor up to the restaurant on the ninth while enjoying constantly changing panoramic views of the city, almost like watching a film. With the so-called MAS-Boulevard, the upward path through the building, which is freely accessible as are the restaurant and roof terrace, Neutelings & Riedijk have taken the idea of the rising into the city landscape, as attempted with the Centre Pompidou, to a whole new level.

MAS © Filip Dujardin

Thanks to MAS, now it is possible for the first time to look out over the curves of the Schelde, the container harbour, and, most of all, the flat city with all its accents, the church steeples, Europe's oldest skyscraper, and the dome of the railroad station. From various perspectives this serves as an ideal extension of the city history highlighted on the fourth to eighth floors – from trade to the rise in power, foreign rule, religion, and colonialism – which is supplemented by a viewable storage area on the second floor.

MAS © Filip Dujardin

A show running through the end of 2012 in the temporary exhibition spaces on the third floor illuminates the significance of Antwerp as an art centre. With exquisite works by Jan van Eyck, Quentin Massys, or Rubens, the famous red and blue Madonna by Jean Fouquet, and contemporary works from the city's art museums, MAS is not only a destination for architecture and city history aficionados, but also a must-see for art lovers. In addition, for the square in front of the museum Luc Tuymans has created a permanent installation and contemporary icon, a 1600 square-metre stone mosaic of a "Dead Skull", as the work is titled, which is only ascertainable from high above.

Unable to see this vanitas symbol, those idling in front of the museum cafe enjoy watching the new life flow past. Soon they will also be able to marvel at the historical ships that will transform the Bonapartedok originally commissioned by Napoleon into an open-air museum. Directly behind this, on Rijnkaai, an Emigration Museum is planned to open in 2012 in the "Red Star Line" building, which is to be refurbished by the New York architects Beyer Blinder Belle. Simultaneously, more buildings are being renovated and new residential buildings are being built for approximately 5000 inhabitants in the Montevideo and Cadix neighbourhoods flanking the Kattendijkdok. Natives are also intended to prosper from the new life along the water.

This article was originally published in German in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 17 May 2011.

Roman Hollenstein is architecture critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation:ls - let's talk european