IN THE ETHER

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Rubens is being excitingly creative here with the triumphal arch motif for this structure in the garden of the Rubens House and he stays within the rules of classical architecture - just - which is why it is so impressive. It pushes the boundaries of how to conceive things - which he does to greatest perfection in painting.

You can see, though, that his architectural creation is essentially drawing-based by comparing it with one of his drawings with arches in - as here in an etching displayed at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. His inclination seems to be to represent depth two dimensionally (rather than both two and three dimensionally as in the case of Michaelangelo).

For his monumental triumphal arch near Gillisplaats (and it is best seen at monumental scale) one's first reaction is to exclaim how astonishingly creative it is but it also steps outside the language of architecture. No architect would design like this - it is impractical and untutored - but, nonetheless, it is thrilling.


A Napoleonic eagle that was borne into battle.

A sculpture of a rapacious eagle near the Rubens House - perhaps a fitting symbol of the French republican and imperial armies' rapacity when it came to art treasures - many Rubens disappeared from Antwerp's Cathedral, St Paul's Church and elsewhere. Most were returned at the behest of King William I of the Netherlands in December 1815.




ANTWERP: A CREATIVE CITY


Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT


I first came across the Willemdok and Bonapartedok in Antwerp's Het Eilandje docklands area on the northern edge of the city's centre in late 2007.




Willemdok in 2007

They were like you would hope to find a Mediterranean port - lightly populated with vessels and with elegant former warehouse buildings lining the quays, some restored, some disused and some in between but all providing large quantities of inexpensive space to any takers.


It was said to be the next upcoming artistic quarter and there was no reason to doubt it. Dries Van Noten had taken over a massive warehouse on the Willemdok, the city of Antwerp was starting to convert an even larger one into the city's archives and the future site of MAS or Museum Aan De Stroom (Museum on the River) was represented by a solitary crane, unfeathered, doing something or other.



A view of the Willemdok in 2007 with a solitary crane

This was the place to be creative. There was little chance of the area slipping back into any form of poverty. The finance ministry and the port of Antwerp had moved into newly built offices at one end. These unthreatening wide open spaces were the new secret draw of Antwerp that made one want to come back and see how things had gone.



The Willemdok in 2013

Despite a recession dreams of renewal have materialised untrammeled. The Willemdok is now a thriving marina, still uncrowded by usual standards. The Bonapartedok is being restored and on its quays building opportunity remains.



Artistic hoarding on the Bonapartedok

Between the two stands the MAS, visually one of the most striking museums built in the 21st century.

Telling a lady from the port of Antwerp, who cleary loved the port, that we had visited five years previously when there was nothing on the site of the old Hansa House (the only building spared by Napoleon's port builder) she exclaimed in unexpected mutual recognition "and we all thought five years ago wouldn't it be nice to buy something here" - as, indeed, what couldn't imaginative people have achieved here, given a little capital?




Museum on the site of the old Hansa House

The MAS, though within the modernist architectural language, pushes it onwards. This exploring of the limits to find a new world has historical precedents in Antwerp. Rubens does it with his excursions into architecture. The economy of elements used in the aesthetic of MAS - the Indian red stone used for all surfaces at right angles; the 'Antwerp hands', medallions, lighting and ventilation points that all adorn or pierce the stone in a similar manner; the rippling glass; the sculptural cubism - is a new departure: not austere, no superfluity, no age or class differentiators, no hierarchy, a little exhibitionist. (A metaphor of the way architecture expresses hopes for the future - a European economy without austerity, without superfluity, with style superseding marketing?)



Rippling glass, panoramic views

MAS, in its economy of aesthetic, but not of resources devoted for expression, has something in common with Le Corbusier's Maison Guiette, also in Antwerp, but more of that later.


MAS is on its second exhibition, Bonaparte Aan De Schelde (Bonaparte on the Scheldt), which opened on the 23 March 2013. It also has extensive permanent collections.

No places that fell under Napoleon's rule are uncritical of him but Antwerp is more willing to concede him credit than most.

Antwerp had had its glory as the leading Continental port but the Spanish had closed the Scheldt to commercial navigation after the Treaty of Munster in 1648, a closure which lasted until the arrival of French revolutionaries in 1794. Napoleon, wishing to have a secure inland port from which to attack England, and after Trafalgar to defend his empire instead, opened the river and built commercial docks, the Great Dock and Little Dock, later the Willemdok and Bonapartedok, to the north of the city and naval shipyards to the south, further upstream, where 40 warships were built. Begun in 1803, the two docks were opened to commercial shipping in 1811 and 1812 and by 1813 had 35 warships anchored in them.

Though Vlissingen (Flushing) was bombarded with Congreve rockets, one of them on show in the MAS, and surrendered eventually after 22 days resistance, with Napoleon's hidden fleet there destroyed, Antwerp escaped attack due to its natural defences, its army of 35,000 cobbled together by Bernadotte, and polder fever, a form of malaria that afflicted the British troops who had landed at Walcheren.

This is a very extensive exhibition about Napoleon's influence on the city extending into nearly every area of life.


By opening up the river he handed Antwerp another turn, eventually, in the late 19th century until 1914, as the premier Continental port and today it is the second largest port in the EU with the largest petrochemical centre.

In many ways Antwerp reminds us what London was or is. London was a great port inland on a river, though now it concedes most of its old port functions to Felixstowe and Southampton.
Antwerp has over 42 billion euros of diamond trade, the bulk of world trade, passing through its diamond square kilometre annually, a not dissimilar trading specialisation to the City of London.

It is also, like London, a creative city.

What it can build on, and is evident in the citizens, is a creativity and curiosity that crosses disciplines.




Maison Guiette and its neighbour

Just south of the orbital road is a Le Corbusier house, the only one in Belgium. It and its neighbour appear to be occupied by the Antwerp Six fashion designer, Ann Demeulemeester.


It was built in 1927 as both studio and home of a painter, Réné Guiette, the second floor with its big street-facing window containing the studio. There is a roof terrace at the rear partially lit by an oculus on a third, mezzanine floor off the studio. The neighbouring building, picking up some of the lines of Maison Guiette, is of a construction post-1988 and by another architect, Georges Baines, who also restored the Le Corbusier house.






It is not clear why this building has had so much ivy grow on it over the years (the old saying is 'doctors can bury their mistakes, architects have to cover theirs with ivy') - perhaps it conceals a width that upsets the strong verticals of the houses as seen together or perhaps it is a Goth-clothed twin.





Maison Guiette has three principal floors, a third floor mezzanine and a basement. The subtle lights of the latter are easily missed walking past. All in all, the street corner is turned well enough to be bookended by Maison Guiette.





Le Corbusier could hardly have grumbled that tram lines pass in front of the house, a residential tower block soars behind and an underpass for a major road roars near its foundations given his vision of modernism, which has come to pass.

In 2005, an application to list Maison Guiette as a UNESCO world heritage site was made, there being no Le Corbusier building listed as one, a significant omission given that he was the most influential architect of the 20th century. An application to list 19 Le Corbusier buildings was deferred in 2011. Since it is private property without public access it is unlikely to be chosen on its own but the recent precedent in Antwerp is the listing in 2001 of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, one of the world's great residential museums with its oldest printing presses, and currently showing off the museum's finest mediaeval illuminated manuscripts.




Plantin-Moretus Museum