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In his true colours

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Dom Hans van der Laan

By Alberto Ferlenga and Paola Verde. Architectura & Natura, 2001. 204pp. £27.50

Like the Jesuit Abbé Laugier and Franciscan Carlo Lodoli, the Benedictine Dom Hans van der Laan (1904-91) belongs to a small, but distinguished, company of architectural practitioners and theorists whose lives were spent in religious service. The ninth child of an architect father, van der Laan was, however, more than a talented amateur: he studied architecture at Delft before taking his vows at the age of 25, and throughout his life worked with the practical support of his architect brother, Nico.

In the black and white photographs through which his work is generally known, van der Laan's buildings can appear forbiddingly austere; seeing them in colour, as we do in this fine new monograph, is a revelation: austerity mellows and sweetens into beauty.

Most accounts of his work, of which the best known in English is by Richard Padovan (AJ 6.4.95), revolve around attempts to explain the fascinating but elusive proportional theory van der Laan called the 'Plastic Number'. Ferlenga and Verde prefer to allow the work and ideas to speak for themselves: the documentation in drawings and photographs of his few, hard-won buildings is thorough and persuasive, while the long essay 'Architectonic Space' - one of three by van der Laan with which the book concludes - contains a complete account of his architectural system.

Van der Laan liked to quote SaintExupéry's observation that 'rites are in time what the home is in space'. He saw architecture as the counterpart of liturgy, a symbolic transformation of everyday materials into clear forms, and conceived his task as being that of stripping his buildings bare to reveal their essence.

It is tempting to explain the austerity simply as a necessary consequence of their monastic function, but as Ferlenga argues in a widely allusive essay, van der Laan's goals and methods have much in common with the wider architectural culture of his time.

He shared with Mies van der Rohe a determination to re-establish architecture as the art of building - in which endeavour, we may recall, Mies drew deeply on Catholic theology - and his commitment to archetypal forms and a system of order which transcends function has obvious affinities with Aldo Rossi's typological conception of architecture. Nor is it entirely coincidental that the models he used to study proportions recall both Elementarist art and the maniacal urban visions of Ludwig Hilbersheimer.

Like Le Corbusier, van der Laan had a passion for the Cistercian monastery of Le Thoronet: the austere spaces he built for his own monastery at Vaals, and for a convent in Roosenberg, were grounded in the same fundamental culture of making, the same search for order, the same struggle to render wild nature habitable. These remain the perennial challenges of architecture, and you do not have to fully grasp, let alone subscribe to, the proportional theory which guided their composition to sense here the hand and eye of a master builder.

As with many of Aldo Rossi's buildings, in distant views van der Laan's exteriors can appear almost toy-like. From closer to, any suggestion of schematic reduction is eliminated by the tectonic vigour of the brick walls and piers, and, once inside, the clarity and power are compelling. Kahn, Lewerentz, Ando, Utzon's 'Can Lis', Aldo van Eyck's blockwork church in The Hague - all come to mind; and it is no exaggeration to say that, judging by photographs, Van der Laan's spaces can stand comparison with these modern masters of the elemental. And for anyone who doubts his gifts as a designer there are the working drawings and photographs of the furnishings - as beautifully made and definitive in form as the architecture.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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