Van der Laan's approach and discoveries
Inherent laws in architecture
The key to understanding Dom van der Laan and his discoveries in architecture is experience. How do we experience a space—a room, a hall, a square, a street? How do we meet, move through, and come to know the world we inhabit? Experience for Van der Laan cannot be reduced to functional, ideological, or social aspects: experience is far more basic, direct, all-inclusive. Our experience is objective. What and how we build makes space for that experience. There must therefore be inherent laws in architecture itself, concluded Van der Laan : laws based on our perception, our awareness of our body, and our reflection on our place in the world.
Rather than study the history of architecture in terms of typologies or styles or significance based on associations, Van der Laan leads us back to the activity and experience of building itself. He asks what we do when we build—and why we do it.
How and when do we perceive differences in measures, in the size of a space and the materials that bound it? Van der Laan’s answer to this question is the plastic number: a ratio that relates measures to each other in a way we can immediately perceive. We perceive the differences between different notes in music, and the notes are related to each other according to a recurring ratio. Through simple empirical experiments Van der Laan discovered the ratio that could relate different measures in space and materials to each other. This was the first step.
Then Van der Laan concentrated on building spaces. How does the plastic number enable us to build spaces and buildings and even towns that are inherently meaningful for us thanks to the way we perceive and experience them? This was the second step.
In later life Van der Laan directed his attention to the forms of buildings themselves. He distinguished three kinds of forms: blocks, bars, and slabs. We see our own body in them. A block sits; a bar stands; a slab lies. How do we perceive the proportions between the proportions of the three forms? Van der Laan called the composition of the three basic forms thematismos: the ordered arrangement of different forms. This was the third step.
Nature and culture
We do not create the world of nature, but we do create the built world we live in. The relation between the two worlds fascinated Van der Laan and formed the guiding theme in his research. Nature itself is the ground of our being and the background of the foreground we ourselves create.
We learn by doing, by building. And when we build, we add onto nature: we complete her. The language of creator and created is appropriate here. We, the created, create. We thereby contribute to creation. We too are creators.
Space, form, and size
Space in nature is boundless, formless, and measureless, Van der Laan reminded his students in a lecture. When we build—when we make architecture—we tame a boundless, formless, and measureless space: we make a space we can inhabit, perceive, and measure. Our body can inhabit the space because it feels at home in it. Our eyes and our senses can perceive the space that is no longer boundless. And our intellect or awareness can appreciate the composition of the space because we can distinguish the measures of its components.
Van der Laan begins and ends with our experience, our objective experience of spaces, of their boundaries, of creation itself. We build walls to separate the space we make from the outside world, from nature. The walls have a particular form. They also have a particular size; and the size and composition of the walls help us become aware of the size of the space between them.
The difference between Van der Laan and other architects or architectural theorists is clear. Van der Laan examines the world we build in terms of how we experience it: the difference between inside and outside, the form of the boundaries that establish that difference, and the size of both the space and the boundaries. Experience is a river that continues to flow past fleeting styles, uses, and ideologies.
Knowing the world
How can we meet and understand mankind? By naming and getting to know particular individuals. How can we come to know, get acquainted with, relate to a world that’s boundless? By building parts of it that we can perceive, feel, and thus name. We name a space or the materials that bound it when we can discern their identity—their size and position. By building a world we can know viscerally, cognitively, and spiritually, we separate from created nature our own creation. And this creation, Van der Laan is convinced, mirrors the created nature we’ve inherited. We don’t try to copy the forms we encounter in nature: we create in order to experience the nature of the Creator.
Spatial cell, court, domain
We distinguish spaces of different size—a room, a great hall, a garden, a park. Can we experience the size of a great hall because we can relate it to the size of a room? Van der Laan thought we could. He divided the spaces we experience into the spatial cell, the court, and the domain (the room, the house and its yard, the district or town quarter)
The domain contains the court. The court contains the spatial cell. But what contains the spatial cell? The walls that surround it, that define the space to begin with, allow us to experience the space. In terms of our perception, Van der Laan noticed an ideal relation between the width of a space and the thickness of the walls that form it: seven to one on centre. If the basic unit of space exceeds the ratio of seven to one, it loses its relationship with the walls that bring it to life. In Van der Laan’s words the walls on either side of the space no longer stand in each other’s neighbourhood.
If we need walls in order to experience space, then we need building blocks in order to experience walls. Is the wall a mass of building blocks with holes cut at regular intervals? Or is the wall a series of columns that stand at greater or lesser distance from each other? Van der Laan looked at, experimented with, and played with the ingredients that form a wall. The relation of building blocks to the openings between them, he discovered, is just as important for our perception as the relation of the walls to the space they contain.
Richard Padovan, who translated Van der Laan’s book De architectonische ruimte as Architectonic Space, reminds us that it’s no accident that the architect-monk’s buildings let us recall the architecture of ancient Egypt, Sumeria, and Greece. As architectural historian Siegfried Giedion explains, that architecture embodies our primary experience of space as something contained between massive elements.
Building blocks: the abacus
How do we distinguish easily between a block or a space of one size and a block or a space of the next size? Based both on experiments and mathematical logic Van der Laan arrived at a ratio he called the plastic number. This ratio of four to three provides the increment of change we need in order to relate units of different sizes. Imagine a set of cylindrical building blocks: the blocks grow in length in relation to their smaller neighbour by the ratio of four to three. This set of blocks was the first abacus that Van der Laan made.
Building blocks: the form bank
Since walls and spaces are more varied and more complex than cylindrical blocks, Van der Laan went on to develop another set of blocks: the form bank. This set consists of 36 orthogonal blocks: while they share the same depth, their widths and lengths increase, again according to the plastic number ratio of four to three. The result is a series of blocks, bars, and slabs. If the width and the length are roughly the same, the pieces are blocks. If the length is pronounced in relation to the width, they are bars. If the width and length begin to resemble each other, they are slabs. The blocks help us become aware of the three dimensions in the architecture we build.
Building blocks: thematismos
In the first set of blocks, Van der Laan varied only the length. In the second he varied the width as well as the length. In the third set he let all three dimensions vary while he kept the volume of the blocks the same. It was as though he moulded each piece out of the same amount of clay. The abacus had helped Van der Laan discover how we distinguish differences in size. The form bank had taught him how we distinguish the proportions of different blocks or spaces in relation to each other. Thematismos brought a new aspect to awareness: the play of forms which we experience as lying, sitting, or standing. It helped him compose buildings and parts of buildings in relation to each other.
When we build, we let space come to life. We have differentiated it from the measureless space of nature. We can now see space, feel space, know space. The space emerges between blocks and bars and between bars and slabs. The building blocks that make space possible are like the musical notes that enable us to meet silence. By taming nature, we give our own creations back to her. We too become creators.
Van der Laan liked to cite the Chinese parable of an emperor who speaks to his son about their chief task: to encourage the people to sing and to build well. If they sing well, their music will order time harmoniously. If they build well, their architecture will order space harmoniously. And if the people experience harmony in time and in space, they will know harmony in their hearts.
How better could Van der Laan have reminded us what the purpose, the responsibility, and the joy of building are? When we build according to elementary and universal principles, Richard Padovan reminds us in ‘Architectuur en de noodzaak van begrenzingen’, we learn not only how to build and how to think: we learn how to live.