The Human Habitat – Dom Hans van der Laan

The architecture theory of the Benedictine monk Dom Hans van der Laan (1904-1991) is all-embracing and difficult to grasp. In 2001 the Bonnefantenmuseum attempted to shed light on his search for the origin of architecture and the Plastic Number. The museum succeeded only partially, so the NAi Maastricht chose another approach.

The idea is that the built works, more than the theory, shed light on what Dom Hans van der Laan had in mind. To experience that, the NAi built replicas of a vestibule (entrance to a monastery), a monk’s cell and Dom van der Laan’s own study. No attempt was made to clothe the naked spatial proportions, and that is entirely in line with the master’s own thinking. Attributes are scarce, there are no text panels (just brief ‘guides’), and materials are sober (bare walls of MDF mark the limits). On display are models, liturgical attributes, furniture at full scale and robes, all designed by Van der Laan. In this minimal arrangement in the Wiebenga Hall, the visitor is offered three approaches: ‘Habitat’, ‘Applied Arts’ and ‘Time’.

In the vestibule, ‘Habitat’ features the famous series of photos by photographer Kim Zwarts of the Saint Benedict Abbey near Vaals. The small black-and-white prints force the visitor to absorb fully the sober play of lines that define volumes, light and materials, to open one’s mind to such superhuman notions as timelessness and eternity, captured in architecture. ‘We are conscious of the space around us, amidst the space above the earth,’ writes Dom van der Laan. ‘Architecture is not about creating from nothing, but recreating things that already exist,’ clarifies the Guide to Habitat. Creating a space begins with demarcation by walls. The incidence of light is important, as are a wall’s thickness and the size of a monk’s cell. They form the basic units of each building.

The Guide to ‘Applied Arts’ draws attention to a number of miniature models in the vestibule. Van der Laan had them made so he could create mock-ups of spaces. The furniture is subject to proportions dictated by the architecture theory, not to function or comfort. Upon their completion, he explained his designs in writing to the Sisters of Mary at the convent in Roosenberg as follows: ‘Everything has been done to make the chairs easy to sit on and simple to maintain, but in practice a number of difficulties must certainly be overcome. I am therefore relying on goodwill to abandon lower interests for higher ones, just as that has to happen so often in spiritual life.’

The Guide to ‘Time’ leads the visitor through the fourth dimension: time as a meaningful system. Time is a measurable principle of organisation and, as such, forms part of the architecture theory of Van der Laan. The vestibule offers insight into the daily timetable of the Carthusian Order by featuring the celebrated documentary ‘Into Great Silence’ by Philip Grönberg. The daily schedule of the Benedictine monk is also severe. Eating, working, praying and contemplating take place at fixed times. When the monks are engaged in prayer services (Sext, Nones and Vespers) Gregorian song is heard in the exhibition spaces. The Wiebenga Hall is only cleaned when the Benedictines (specialists in stone carving and bookbinding) are at work. Time is relative in a life devoted to God. ‘Our life has no purpose’, says Brother Mark Loriaux. ‘We achieve nothing. But it is not without purpose.’ The end of time on earth acquires form in a gravestone, also designed by Van der Laan.

Anyone still doubting the practical possibilities of applying the theories of Dom van der Laan at all imaginable levels of (religious) existence should head straight to Maastricht. Then forget the earthly polemics about the aesthetics of the Bossche School, leave behind the daily grind, and just experience the Plastic Number.