Space, Time & Van der Laan

Architectural theory has a bad habit of being self-referential to the point of absurdity. With the current, modish swell flaunting proud titles amounting to an Autoarousal of Architecture, it is small wonder that one is tempted to draw discretely away to the other disciplines for sound edification. Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel is an essay by the Russian literary critic, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin that has plenty to say to the architect: ‘Chronotope’ is Bakhtin’s invention and simply a conflation of the Greek – ‘time space’. Bakhtin uses the term to describe the interdependent spatio-temporal matrices that characterise the distinctiveness of a novel, and the visceral grasp of the created world therein that the work excites. In a figure-ground relationship, therefore, the chronotope is the ground to a novel’s narrative figure. Whilst Bakhtin is specifically concerned with the chronotope in literature, its application to architecture (and indeed the arts in general) is worthy of attention. The notion was borrowed for this study of the unique space and time at play in the Abdij St Benedictusberg, near Maastricht:

space time & van der laan

The monastery was built in the last century by the architect-monk, Dom Hans van der Laan, who was also incumbent sacristan in that Benedictine community until his death in 1991. My research was richly augmented by staying three times as a guest of the abbey between 2007 and 2010, where I followed the self-abnegating rhythms of the monastic day that begin with the awakening call Benedicamus Domino at 0430 and end with the dismissal from the Compline at 2045 after much antiphonal Gregorian chanting throughout the day. The research formed the basis of the paper, Space, Time & Van der Laan: an examination of the sacred chronotope at the abbey-church during liturgical office. This necessitated an exposition of the theological premise for a sanctified spatio-temporal existence by the mystery of the incarnation (and the material paradox that this represents). Essentially, this was a study of the theology of Van der Laan’s architecture and the construction (in time) of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Van der Laan’s oeuvre was modest, building only a handful of projects (four conventual including St Benedictusberg and one private dwelling) and authoring two books (Architectonic Space and The Play of Forms; Nature, Culture, Liturgy) but as an ordained Father, the analogy of that work with the miraculous nourishment of five thousand, feasting on similarly humble quantities of barley loaf and fish, would not have been lost on him.

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