words Alan Powers
Minimalism is now so well rooted in British architecture that it is like a quiet uncle sitting at the family table. Behind his chair, however, stands a figure who is almost out of view, but he needs a spotlight because he did it first and had a great influence on those who came after. This is the Dutch Benedictine monk Dom Hans van der Laan (1904-1991), one of the truly original thinkers of 20th-century architecture.
The question van der Laan spent his life asking is: if architectural form is not entirely a subjective issue, on what basis can a choice be made between one form and another? Every now and then, someone thinks they have the ultimate solution. The idea of form derived from function was one such solution, and it has proved hard to dislodge – despite the evidence that very few functions can actually predict forms, and when they do, the resulting buildings are horribly inflexible. Hugo Häring’s famous farm at Gurkau housed 42 cows and one bull, and the 43rd cow would break the system.
Van der Laan – who is currently getting the recognition he deserves with a retrospective at the NAI Maastricht – never built a cowshed, but his architecture aimed to come close to nature, by seeking a formal language with the same kind of irreducible certainty that one finds in natural growth. His deep thinking was undoubtedly helped by becoming a monk at the age of 23. He trained as an architect at Delft, and felt that what he was being taught was a mash-up of empirical experience and repeated but barely understood axioms. He was determined to go deeper.
Being a monk is no picnic, but if you want thinking time, you can have it. Van der Laan became a notable architectural teacher, and built a small number of buildings mainly for church purposes. Before his death, he had become, largely through the efforts of his English interpreter Richard Padovan, a figure on the map of modernism whose ideas were highly relevant to the unfolding minimalist movement. You can’t look at van der Laan’s stripped down cubic shapes without thinking of David Chipperfield.
We are so used to connecting nature with the word “organic”, and inclined to interpret this as something irregular and possibly alive with tufts of grass, that the austerity of van der Laan’s work might look like the opposite. Neither is his idea of naturalness based on the relationship of inside and outside, or on the graininess of timber, to mention two other popular signifiers for nature.
Numbers are the key issue, and rather than settling for the simple pleasures of the Fibonacci series, van der Laan made his own number sequences in order to achieve a wider range of combinations and possibilities. He did not attribute to them the kind of mystical essence or absolute truth that le Corbusier was trying to reach through the Modulor. In fact, having looked at the work of another architect monk, Dom Paul Bellot, he dismissed his use of the Golden Section as “just another arbitrary mathematical formula”. There was an equivalent in his mind between architecture, play and the business of being a monk. Each activity requires rules, and it is less important that these should be expressions of absolute truth than that they should produce good results in practice.
In his search for systems, van der Laan produced things that can be enjoyed without knowing the rules, yet, appropriately, they always have a didactic intent, like the charming little bags of pebbles that he would pick up on the pathways of the monastery and grade in order of size, as a handy reminder that the relationship between things matters more than the things themselves.
images Frans de la Cousine
top image Dom Hans van der Laan in 1982 at the Abbey Sint Benedictus Berg, Waals
Refectory of the Abbey Sint Benedictus Berg, designed by van der Laan in five phases between 1956 and 1991