Instruments of order
In one of his lectures the Dutch architect-monk Dom Hans van der Laan asked: 'Who as a child has not climbed a dune, and suddenly found himself on top, facing the enormous, deserted beach, with beyond it the grey immeasurable sea?' The space of nature leaves us at a loss, he argued, being 'unlimited, without form and without measure', but architecture anchors us and makes that space habitable - 'delimited in relation to our bodies, visible to our senses and measurable for our intellect.'
Van der Laan built relatively little - the Abbey of St Benedictusberg at Vaals is deemed his finest work - but he was an industrious theorist and teacher who developed his own system of proportion, 'the plastic number', to ensure the harmony of part and whole. This was not, he insisted, an invention but the rediscovery of something fundamental to earlier architecture, and its complexities are the basis of his book, Architectonic Space.
So why is an exhibition devoted to van der Laan now at the Henry Moore Institute, usually the home of sculpture shows? Because, says the accompanying leaflet, of the comparisons it might suggest with aspects of Minimalist and Conceptual Art and, above all, for its concern with 'the experience of space'.
The exhibition consists almost entirely of objects, mostly made of painted wood, which van der Laan used as teaching aids. In the first room are eight black tables (to van der Laan's design), on which sit such items as the 36 gradated pebbles that underlie 'the plastic number', and the 'form banks' of wooden blocks derived from it. One of these form banks, with ivory blocks of various size slotted neatly together in a small ebony case, looks just like a sophisticated puzzle. The materials on four of the tables can be handled and rearranged, acknowledging that they were meant as working tools.
In the main gallery there are two floor-based pieces at some distance from each other. Both are distinctly Minimalist in character, with The 3 zones of the experience-space and their demarcations - a systematic exploration on 12 low-relief wooden squares of ideas of enclosure, clustering, centre and periphery - recalling the permutated cubes of Sol LeWitt. All the other objects in the room are on four broad shelves climbing high up one wall. They investigate, for instance, the intervals between pillars or the relationship of solid and void - but they are frustratingly out of reach and hard to scrutinise. The installation aestheticises them, forgetting that they were instruments and making them ends in themselves.
It's not unreasonable to bring these objects into a Minimalist arena: think of the importance of proportional systems to Donald Judd in the fabrication of his sculptures. But in his architecture, working primarily with redundant buildings, Judd was a pragmatist who adapted the ideal to the existing (aj 2.10.97). This exhibition gives us no sense of the architectural outcome of van der Laan's procedures and whether they too ended in compromise. There are no photographs of built works. Nor is there much explanatory text. To gain any understanding of his methods and principles one must turn to Architectonic Space; or to Richard Padovan's book on van der Laan, Modern Primitive (aj 6.4.95), which answers an obvious question: how 'the plastic number' relates to other proportional systems - Golden Section, Modulor, Fibonacci.
But despite the aestheticising, the rigour of van der Laan's approach prevails, uniting the stern and the serene - and it may have a more than fleeting impact on visitors' perceptions. This is a didactic world of fine gradations in size and volume, of nuanced spatial relationships: a means to interrogating architecture with a keener eye. These building blocks are for serious play.