Archive for September, 2010

The Plaque on Hejduk’s Wall


The Hallucinatory effect derives from the extraordinary clarity and not from mystery or mist. Nothing is more fantastic ultimately than precision.

Robbe-Grillet’s comment on the work of Kafka


I am thirsty


A Phenomenal Encounter with Van der Laan


Thus spoke Perec on the difficulty of imagining an ideal city: “I wouldn’t like to live in a monastery but sometimes I would.[i] So it was that I found myself shading under the portico of the entrance to the Abdij St. Benedictusberg, Vaals on the 24th August 2007, hoping that when the porter answered the door, there would be a guest cell available for me to spend the night in. The architect responsible for the design of the building had also been a resident Benedictine monk in that community until his death in 1991.

I had first encountered the work of Dom. Hans Van Der Laan some ten years previous to my unannounced arrival at his monastery, whilst in my first year of studying architecture under Richard Padovan at Bath University.  Padovan had been responsible for introducing (even now, the still relatively unknown) Van der Laan to an English-speaking audience with his translations of the latter’s De Architectonische Ruimte [1983] and his own monograph, Dom Hans Van Der Laan: Modern Primitive [1994]. At that time, Padovan was finishing Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture [1999] and his translation of Het Vormenspel der Liturgie [1985] would not be published until 2005.

In any case, the opportunity had presented itself to experience the work of the architect-monk first-hand, and eventually, after twenty minutes or so of waiting, the door was opened and I was led into the building. Since the porter spoke no English and I no Dutch, I followed his beckoning through the dark entrance, out into the external, double-height, and colonnaded atrium and up the slow steps, turning at the top towards another large, timber, closed door.  As the hinges creaked under the weight of the door opening, my senses were overcome by the visceral character of the space of the church inside and the nature of the events unfolding therein.  I had inadvertently arrived during the Mass. As I took my seat on the pew at the rear of the nave, the sweet reek of incense singed my nostrils and shafts of brilliant, angled, clerestorey light penetrated its haze. The hard slurried-brick surfaces reverberated with the antiphony of the choirs’ Latin chants. I looked on as this strange and solemn theatre of unfamiliar rites and gestures played out before me.

Following the dismissal from the church, the Abbot introduced me to another visitor; a septuagenarian monk named Wim Johannesma,  (Father William), who spoke good English and was at leisure to provide me with a thorough tour of the building and its grounds.  Over the course of the next day or so we talked as much as a man of silence would permit, which was a good deal – happily Wim is quite the conversationalist! It transpired that he had been visiting from Brussels where he is a member of the Order of the Brothers of Jerusalem,[ii] but had been a good friend of Van der Laan for thirty years up until his death and knew the monastery as a second home. In addition to furnishing me with fascinating anecdotes and insights about his times with Van der Laan, Wim was also able to provide answers to my questions relating to the liturgy and permitted me access to those parts of the monastery otherwise denied to visitors. Since returning to Glasgow from that serendipitous meeting at Vaals, a correspondence has been maintained with Father William. Eventually, in November 2009, I went to visit him in Brussels, whence two more of Van der Laan’s buildings were easily reached: the lesser known convent, Moederklooster Mariazusters van Fransiscus at Waasmunster and the conventual retreat with its octagonal chapel in nearby Roosenberg.  At least to my mind, neither of these buildings had quite the same primordial power that imbued the Benedictine monastery. Thereafter, Wim and I returned to Vaals together, where we stayed for three days in order that I might carry out the study and research that constitute the basis of a forthcoming paper ‘Space,Time & Van Der Laan‘ – an investigation into liturgical time and space manifest in Dom. Hans van der Laan’s masterwork, Abdij St. Benedictusberg.

[i] Perec, G. On the Difficulty of Imagining an Ideal City IN:Perec, G. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

[ii] The Order of Jerusalem is a new monastic order, founded in Paris on All Saints’ Day 1975, by a former chaplain to the Sorbonne, Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux. Having lived as a hermit in the Sahara for two years, he felt called to find the desert in the city. The foundation of a monastic community was a response to the urban environment, creating an oasis in the modern desert of the city.