Mark Lamster | Essays

Big Red: Antwerp’s New MAS Museum

The Bilbao Effect remains in full effect. Last month I wrote about the Orange Cube, Jakob + MacFarlane's day-glo office building that would bring new energy to the Lyon waterfront. Perhaps you've read elsewhere about Zaha Hadid's new Riverside Museum along the Clyde, which has similar aspirations for Glasgow. The subject here is an even more ambitious project, one that would similarly spur the development of a once derelict industrial waterfront in a historic if somewhat provincial European city.

That city is Antwerp, and the building in question is the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS for short), the city's extraordinary new municipal museum, designed by Willem Neutelings of Neutelings Riedijk. From a distance, this tower of red sandstone looks like an extruded Chinese puzzle, an enormous child's toy set on the edge of a tub. As I write in the Architectural Review:
Structurally, the building is a marvel. The offset sandstone boxes each project 12 meters from a concrete service core, held firm by massive steel trusses that remain exposed in the galleries. During construction, these metal braces were installed with a slight upward shift - the precise angle of deflection calculated by computer programme - and then allowed to sag into place with the added load of the sandstone panels. Another computer algorithm is responsible for the disposition of those panels, which were taken from four separate quarries and therefore have subtle gradations in tone.

The patterning is random, but constrained in such a way that three panels of the same colour never touch. In the sun, the result is a dappled effect that is beautiful; under the flat grey skies that are so common in Flanders, the panels add a surface depth and visual complexity. Inside, the sandstone panels act as pavers and wall surfaces, lending the building an overall unity and distinct sculptural quality.

The building is essentially a circulation diagram writ large. One travels up a "street" that spirals around and up the building, identifiable from the outside by its curtain wall of wavy glass. In effect the museum works something like an inverted Guggenheim, the mother of all iconic modern museums, except that here one looks out at the city rather than in at the building itself. The black box galleries are somewhat dim, but the display design by B-Architecten compensates, and there is much wonderful material to lose oneself in for many an afternoon. 

Antwerp's town fathers hope that the dramatic museum will act as a visual beacon leading visitors from the city's adjacent historic core to the dock area known as Het Eilandje, which is being vigorously replanned as a mixed-use neighborhood. Another new museum, for the Red Star Line, will open in the coming year, there are various new developments, and some beautiful old industrial buildings under restoration

The views from the MAS's walkways are almost mesmerizing. I imagine that Sebald's fictional Austerlitz, if he were around, would be captivated by the perspectives it affords of Antwerp's various warehouses, wharves, churches, towers, and—of course—its magnificent train terminal. I suspect he would also note the painful irony represented by the small metal hands that ornament its facade. These hands reference the defining urban legend of the city, in which a mythical giant would cut off the hand of anyone passing along the river who refused to pay his toll, until a local hero paid him in kind. Inevitably, though, they also recall the fate of so many Congolese victims of the Belgian colonial project, who were subject to that same brutal punishment. Their exploitation provided the capital for such grand projects as Antwerp's train terminal, and more indirectly, one could say, the MAS itself. To its credit, the museum does not shy from this history. 

A few images follow in a slideshow, for the curious.

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