The challenge of the MAS

It seems like centuries since a brand-new museum was built in a Flemish city, but this spring sees the opening, after a twenty-year process, of the Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp. Designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects (NRA), the building is an extremely clear, lucid and self-conscious expression of what is at stake. It renders the surroundings, the programme and the desires legible for everybody.

The architecture of the MAS conceals nothing, and makes no illusions about what is taking place inside. As many people as possible can look around in admiration here — on the one hand you have the Antwerp skyline, a 360-degree panorama, and on the other you have the thousands of items that, until recently, belonged to the collections of the Museum of Folklore, the National Maritime Museum, and part of the Vleeshuis Museum.
The design of NRA is literally based on the circulation of the teems of visitors. Eight ‘stone boxes’ are stacked as blank floors, and each is turned 90 degrees with respect to the one beneath. The effect is that of a giant swirling movement upwards, enhanced by escalators. The spiralling circulation space is enclosed by undulating glass and is open to the public as a ‘city gallery’. The temperature is attuned to the outdoor climate and varies between 12 and 30°C. Located on the top floor are an expensive restaurant — which is not quite in keeping with the principle of open access —, a reception room and a panorama terrace.

Architectural creativity is a relative notion here: it is not the architecture that wants to provoke our admiration; rather, it is the radical elaboration of the programme. After all, nothing distracts attention, nothing stands in the way, and everything is functional and understandable in every way. It is pointless to dismiss as ironic the cladding theory that is employed at the MAS. For the ornamentation gives the people what they want, to the point of weariness if necessary. Composed of red stone tiles, the facade is studded with thousands of tiny metal hands, the symbol of the city of Antwerp. Inside the building this pattern continues with medallions, adorned with a circular verse by Tom Lanoye that can be read round and round: ‘waar water waakt en wat er waard was later werd bewaard als’. Art, too, is integrated: Luc Tuymans created a mosaic on the museum forecourt at the foot of the tower. Illuminated walls by Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, with a multitude of references to the history of Antwerp, embellish the walls of the pedestrian route that winds upwards.
The schematic clarity of the architecture of the MAS — the way the architecture works — is sometimes literally unbelievable. The austere and mechanical efficiency, which is nonetheless accompanied by an almost cartoonesque extravagance of imagination, references and complexity, is not for sensitive souls who expect architecture to be poetry, culture, or a gentle play of light. The MAS thus amounts to a seldom seen challenge for the contemporary art of making exhibitions.
That is not to say that something new happens in the MAS. The evolution that museum architecture has undergone over the past 200 years just reaches an extremity here. In the nineteenth century a museum consisted of a series of interconnected spaces, which were never accessible independently of one another. In 2011 the MAS is a perfect parallel circuit —— more than the Centre Pompidou for example — because the circulation and exhibitions are completely separated from each other, and because the division between the two constitutes the backbone of the architecture. The boxes designed for the exhibitions are illuminated artificially (the majority of the items on display tolerate no daylight), but the spatial character is so clear that everything, intellectually and conceptually, is exposed to bright light.

Today, as the opening ceremony reveals, the challenge posed by this architecture has gone unanswered. That is because B-Architecten from Antwerp, who are responsible for the exhibition design and scenography, treat the black boxes as separate museums. The initiative handed over by NRA is not even understood, never mind responded to. An illustration of this are the thousands of internally threaded holes in the wall to which material can be attached, and with which the interior walls are adorned like wallpaper, which serve up a quasi-evident scenography. These holes are actually used in just one of the eight galleries, and even then only sporadically. B-Architecten want to give us an interior that impresses, and that often forces itself on you like a clever installation. The exhibition about the ‘display of power’ consists of three staggering sculptures in the style Richard Serra that make any contact with the objects or with the information impossible. Elsewhere, for example in the ‘visual storage’ on the second floor, nothing short of deceit is committed; an elaborate structure with fencing and display cases should give the impression of open access to the depot, whereas it amounts to just a senseless labyrinth. B-Architecten wants to tell its own story with small buildings and dead matter, yet it never does justice to the complexity of history. Consequently, the MAS is not a ‘treasure trove full of stories’ as the promotalk would have us believe, but a tiring succession of mini sensations. Only a few curators — each floor was compiled by a different team — have been able to offer resistance to this.
Another related problem is that the spatial composition of the galleries is deployed for questionable purposes. The arrangement suggested by the visible trusses that extend from the central core remains largely a dead letter. That results peculiarly in a lot of ‘empty space’. The U-shaped galleries designed by NRA provide enough structure in terms of both content and organisation. Now the entrance halls are deployed as a ‘wake-up room’ on the one hand, where visitors are presented with a ‘multimedia experience’, and on the other hand as a departing act in which visitors can leave behind a trace by inserting a piece of paper into a bottle in a silly manner. Between the entrance and the exit desperate efforts are made to create an exhibition, an attempt that occasionally succeeds in places with as little exhibition architecture as possible.

Since the announcement of the building plans, the immediate surroundings of the MAS have flourished in an unexpected way. Moreover, we should not doubt the symbolic importance for the people of Antwerp, even though this architecture is by no means for ‘everybody’ and will not reconcile all sections of the population to one another. That is not the intention either, no matter how much people would like to. What is more important is that the MAS relates histories in an intelligent and profound manner with the help of objects that have accumulated in Antwerp over the centuries. That assignment seems to have been asking too much. One cannot blame that on the architecture of the MAS; let’s hope that the building exists for long enough for us to witness the right response to the challenge it has posed.