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Museum aan de Stroom by Neutelings Riedijk Architects, Antwerp, Belgium

Improbable geometries of variegated stone and wavy glass loom over the Antwerp dockside. Photography by Paul Raftery

Five centuries ago, an immense red structure emerged from the pilings of an Antwerp wharf, a warehouse for the storage of precious objects. At that time Antwerp could be counted among the great metropolises of the world. It built the first modern stock exchange, an open square with a central trading floor, and there its bankers refined the instruments of modern finance. Its bustling harbour on the River Scheldt was the nexus of European commerce. That massive pile of Flemish brick was to form the headquarters and warehouse of the German Trading Federation.

Although its port remains one of the busiest in the world, Antwerp is no longer a great financial capital. Instead it has rebranded itself as a centre of culture and design, a vision embodied by its municipal museum, the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), a 60m-tall tower block on the site that was once home to that Hanseatic warehouse. Standing sentinel over the Antwerp Harbour, it is, like its historic forebear, a red container for prized possessions. From a distance, it appears like a Chinese puzzle, a giant’s toy set out on the side of a tub.

Designed by Willem Jan Neutelings, of Neutelings Riedijk Architects, the development cost about €56 million (£50 million) and has been more than 15 years
in the making. It was conceived as a collective facility for the city’s respective ethnographic, maritime and historical collections, each then requiring a new home. During the planning stages, though, the museum was slated with an ambitious urban function that exceeded even that challenging programme.

In the early 1990s, Antwerp’s old port area, Het Eilandje, a mouldering maze of locks ringed by dilapidated warehouses and other detritus of industry, had begun the slow process of gentrification. The city’s active port facilities had long been removed from the scene to a location farther up the Scheldt, leaving the area, adjacent to the historic centre of the city, ripe for development. Situated at a crucial axis point, the MAS would become both a lynchpin and a beacon for the revitalised neighbourhood.

Neutelings has delivered on this brief. His MAS is a nine-storey stack of cantilevered volumes dressed in rough-hewn red sandstone from Rajasthan. It is, essentially, a diagram for itself: you ascend the structure on a broad path that winds up and around the cantilevered gallery volumes.

From this corkscrewing ‘street’, which is open to the public without charge, you can gaze at the city through large picture windows that undulate like dangling theatre curtains or - in keeping with the maritime theme - the waves of the Scheldt. (The river accounts or the museum’s quirky name, which translates from the Dutch as ‘museum on the stream’.) The views are extraordinary, as are the fluted panels of glass, specially made for the project in Verona.

Structurally, the building is a marvel. The offset sandstone boxes each project 12m from a concrete service core, held firm by massive steel trusses that remain exposed in the galleries. During construction, these metal braces were installed with a slight upward shift - the precise angle of deflection calculated by computer programme - and then allowed to sag into place with the added load of the sandstone panels. Another computer algorithm is responsible for the disposition of those sandstone panels, which were taken from four separate quarries and therefore have subtle gradations in tone.

The patterning is random, but constrained in such a way that three panels of the same colour never touch. In the sun, the result is a dappled effect that is beautiful; under the flat grey skies that are so common in Flanders, the panels add a surface depth and visual complexity. Inside, the sandstone panels act as pavers and wall surfaces, lending the building an overall unity and distinct sculptural quality.

On the exterior, these panels are accentuated by decorative metal hands, a touch of ornament that references Antwerp’s foundational urban legend, whereby a cruel giant would cut off the hand of all those who would not pay a toll, and throw it across the Scheldt. According to folklore, the city gets its name from this myth (hand werpen means hand-throwing in Dutch), but linguists think otherwise. These hands, in any case, helped to pay for the museum as a premium to donors, at €1,000 (£890) a pop. The panels inside the building are similarly adorned, but with metal medallions modelled on manhole covers.

If the hands brand the building as a product of Antwerp, in its translation of programme into form, the MAS seems a Dutch, or at least Koolhaasian building. Neutelings, in fact, worked at OMA before establishing his firm; in 1992 he collaborated with Michiel Riedijk, and now resides in Antwerp. Its closest visual counterpart is probably the Dutch pavilion for Hanover’s Expo 2000 by MVRDV (AR September 2000), whose partners were also Koolhaas alumni.

Yet the coiled circulation route also inevitably recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, the progenitor of all museums as icons, although here the focus is directed outward at the city, rather than inward at the museum itself. The procession through its spaces is also far less dramatic than in the New York building, at least from an architectonic standpoint. As you go around and around, from escalator to escalator, the experience can border on the tedious.

Neutelings’s MAS is also akin to Wright’s Guggenheim in that it is less than optimal, to be generous, when it comes to the display of the objects it is ostensibly intended to present. Not a single ray of natural light penetrates any one of its black box galleries. Paintings fare poorly in the dim environment. To be fair, Neutelings was asked to keep light out of the galleries, to protect the objects. Dramatic installation design, by local firm B-Architecten, works heroically to mitigate the ship’s hold conditions, with generally positive results. The ‘depot’, an open storage gallery in which visitors can explore the warehoused collection - in operable drawers, cases and racks - is particularly successful.

A trip up the building culminates on a roof deck with yet more spectacular views. One floor below is an upmarket restaurant and formal dining space manned by Viki Geunes, a starred Michelin chef. The prices are high, and its presence has irked some locals, who believe that a museum financed with public money should feature a more proletarian establishment in its signature space. An inexpensive café, on the ground floor, sits next to a desiccated open plaza that is in fact a mosaic by the Antwerp artist Luc Tuymans.

Cavils aside, Antwerp’s town fathers can take no small pride in what they have delivered. They asked for a landmark, and that is exactly what Neutelings has given them. But it’s telling that the museum’s entry is on the facade facing Het Eilandje and not the city’s historic centre, from where most traffic will come. MAS may be a museum dedicated to Antwerp’s colourful history, but it is in fact a sign of its future.

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