A Boulevard Leading to Heaven

architects Willem Jan Neutelings, Michiel Riedijk
project Museum Aan de Stroom, Antwerp, Belgium
written by Claus Käpplinger

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Antwerp enjoys the reputation of being the showcase of Flanders; now it has an unusual museum that makes it even more so. Standing in the place where the old city core of Antwerp meets the old docks of the port, there is a new building which attracts much attention with its height of 62 metres and its sculptural form. The museum, called MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom), was created by integrating five collections that used to be scattered across the city. In May 2011, the exhibits of the Ethnographic Museum, the National Naval Museum, the Ethnology Museum, the Vleeshuis Collection and the pre-Columbian art collection will be unified in MAS, the museum of the history of Anwerp and its port. In 1999, however, when the architectural competition was held, and even later than that, the architect Willem Neutelings knew only the spatial programme, but not the museum concept.


He had the opportunity to design freely and he took it. In fact, he designed this 10-storey museum very freely and unusually. It is located on the ‘Eilandje’, between the docks called Willem and Bonaparte, with all the museum rooms concentrated in the core of the building. The ground plan rotates by 90 degrees on each floor, leaving plenty of space for a vertical boulevard, each floor offering different views of different parts of Antwerp. Impressively, this ‘boulevard’ rises in the form of a spiral around the building, but also through the building by means of wide escalators and spacious terraces. The façades are also unusual, with powerful strips of sandstone and large undulating glass panels, reaching the impressive height of 11 metres at the corners of the building.


Neutelings’s museum tower majestically rises over the nearby bodies of water. In front of the building in the direction of the city, there is a slightly lowered plaza paved with a floor mosaic with a skull motif by the artist Luc Tuymans. A series of four sponsor pavilions frames the approach to the museum entrance, which is withdrawn from the city and almost hidden in a remote corner. Yet visitors cannot miss the approach to the mu­seum, a project that clearly counts on the Bilbao effect. Where else but in MAS would we find such a vertical boulevard, available even outside working hours? The architecture of the museum can also be compared with Bilbao. The computer-generated slabs of Indian sandstone from Agra are combined into the complex patchwork of the building’s shell. Despite their large size, these 100 x 60 cm slabs in four shades form a gentle relief covered with 3,185 aluminium ornaments in the shape of hands, the symbol of Antwerp. It is Flemish playfulness, like the overripe worlds of forms and symbols of Peter Paul Rubens, the most famous artist born in Antwerp.


Sandstone slabs represent a contrast to the vertical waves of the glass membrane, which makes the ‘boulevard’ visible from the outside and reminds the viewer of drops of water. Neutelings and the glass specialist Rob Nijsse from the engineering practice ABT, who worked with Rem Koolhaas on several occasions, developed this impressive glass membrane. Its standard elements, 5.50 m high and 1.80 m wide, are at the building’s corners, completely without frames, put together. Connected with barely visible U-profiles, they are only 12 mm thick, but their load-bearing is secured by the waves’ 60cm depth.


The concrete core of the building has a basic area of 12 x 12 metres, from which double T-beams ‘stretch’ the ceilings up to the membrane without any props at all, using the principle of ‘carrying buckets of milk’ (as the architect put it). At present the building core space is still dominated by full-height V-beams. The core’s outer walls along the boulevard were built from expensive prefabricated concrete elements with yellow pigment and decorated with 50,000 visible screws. A surprising luxury, considering that B-Architecten have been hired for the exhibition architecture, which means that many of these surfaces will disappear behind panelling even before the museum is opened.


MAS will offer plenty of virtual and interactive contents, and many exhibits will end up in storage. The first floor has already been taken by the new museum management, the second floor will publicly exhibit a part of the exhibits, and one of the floors will be used for temporary exhibitions. The concept of the museum is completed by a tasteful café on the ground floor and a two-star restaurant with a hall for special occasions. The museum is entirely focused on events and fun. This new landmark will surely attract many visitors to the Flemish metropolis. Its unusual architecture, allowing for numerous interpretations, layered and rich in detail, is definitely worth a trip to Antwerp, a revamped city.