The Benedictine monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan was a self-made man in the sense that he followed his own path. In architecture he sought answers for questions nobody around him asked. He suspected that meaningful architecture had far deeper roots than rules of style through the ages. He searched for those roots neither in technique nor in ideology: he looked for them in our experience of architecture.
Early life and student years
Hans was born in Leiden on 29 December 1904 as the ninth child of Leonard van der Laan (1864-1942) and Anna Stadhouder (1871-1941). Leonard was an architect who had opened his office in Leiden in 1891; his eldest son Jan worked together with him. Even as a young boy, Hans wanted to become an architect too. He achieved his goal, but the route he took was not the conventional one.
In 1921 after secondary school Hans contracted tuberculosis. At the time the treatment was a year’s residence in a sanitorium. The following year Hans worked in his father’s office. In 1923 he enrolled in the architecture department at the Technische Hogeschool (now the Technical University) in Delft. Thanks to his independent study of mathematics during his year in the sanitorium, Hans was exempt from several required courses. That meant he had extra time to read, and read he did. Berlage’s book Schoonheid in Samenleving (Beauty in Society) impressed him particularly. Because Hans wanted to plumb the depths of architecture—how we experience it and how we make it—he missed credible sources of knowledge in the curriculum in Delft.
When Prof. M. J. Granpré Molière began to teach in Delft, Hans at first thought had found someone who could help him with his questions. In his own way the professor asked deep questions of architecture, and he opened his home to the group of students Hans had brought together to discover and discuss principles of architecture. At first Hans was hopeful that this Bouwkundige Studiekring would help him discover the essence of architecture; but when he became disillusioned, he bade farewell both to the group and to his formal study. He would have to design his own curriculum.
Life as a monk
Hans was concerned with the essence not only of architecture but also of life and living itself. At the end of the academic year in 1926 he left Delft and began his preparation to become a monk. He entered St. Paul’s Abbey in Oosterhout in 1927, where he studied philosophy and theology. In 1930 he became an architect of sorts: he designed and made vestments and liturgical vessels. He was ordained priest in 1934.
Though he was now a member of a community, Hans kept in touch with friends he had made at the architecture school. His younger brother Nico had studied architecture in Delft as well, and together the brothers searched for inherent patterns or laws in architecture. Their first chance to test their ideas in practice was in the design of a new guest wing for the abbey.
Course in church architecture
Not only the populace but also many buildings in the Netherlands had suffered during the Second World War. Nico was asked to contribute to a course in church design in the province of Noord-Brabant. It was only natural for him to invite his brother Hans to join him. And this experience marked the beginning of a more intense search for the essence not only of church architecture, but indeed of all architecture. Hans considered a church as essentially a house; and a house dedicated to God would surely have to be the best house people could make.
After each lesson in the course, the brothers (with Hans in the lead) typed a summary of the discoveries. In the initial sessions the participants looked at Early Christian churches, many of them in Syria. In 1948 the discussions led to a design they built in Helmond: St. Joseph’s chapel. It was an octagonal structure built in brick with particular attention to proportions and tectonic details. Between 1948 and 1960 the monks of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Zevenkerken, Belgium, published in their magazine L’ Art d’ Eglise the ideas and the buildings that had resulted from the course. The architects who had taken part in the course became known as the Bossche School since the course was held in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thanks to the magazine, their work now received international attention.
In 1956 the abbot of the Abbey of St. Benedictusberg in Vaals invited Hans to design its church. The original buildings dated from before the war, but the war intervened before the original design for a church could be executed. In 1960, before his design for the church had been built, Hans published his first attempt at a theory of architecture as Le Nombre Plastique. It was translated into Dutch in 1967, appearing as Het plastische getal. The books dealt principally with proportion.
In 1968 two important events in the life of the monk-architect took place. The church Hans had designed for the community in Vaals had reached completion. And Hans himself moved from the abbey in Oosterhout to the abbey in Vaals. There he became sacristan, quite in keeping with his experience in the vestments studio in Oosterhout.
Celebrating in a church is a form of praxis that informs designing a church. In his daily experience of the church he had designed, Hans began to realize that the plastic number (het plastische getal)—the ratio that relates measures of materials or spaces to each other—could not alone guarantee the quality and the form of a space or a building. In the free moments he had as a monk, Hans devoted his energy to redefining his theory of architecture. He more or less began all over again. The result was his book De architectonische ruimte. It appeared in 1977 and included the theory put forward in Het plastische getal. Richard Padovan translated it as Architectonic Space.
Architectonic Space is a dense book. It covers quite a lot of material and experience in a minimum of words. The descriptions remain abstract, with only Stonehenge as concrete example of the theory. Though the content is significant—and revolutionary—it lacks the charisma people experienced when the author spoke. An exhibit called Architectuur, Modellen en Meubels (Architecture, Models, and Furniture) in 1979 helped make the discoveries in Architectonic Space tactile and accessible. The exhibit travelled to various cities in the Netherlands and Belgium. Response to the exhibit encouraged Hans: it helped give him the impetus to describe his discoveries and approach in a more direct, even personal way than in his earlier books.
The Play of Forms: Nature, Culture and Liturgy
The new book was published in 1985. In Het vormenspel der liturgie (translated by Richard Padovan in 2005 as The Play of Forms: Nature, Culture and Liturgy) Hans described in effect the source of his approach to architecture. In his earlier books, he steadfastly avoided language referring to or used in the Church. Now he wrote as an anthropologist who tries to understand what we do in the dance of the liturgy and what we do in the craft of building. Hans differentiated functional, expressive, and monumental forms—all resulting from functional, expressive, and monumental attitudes. In the liturgy we employ and move among visible forms. Why? In order to make invisible forms and experiences tactile and present.
Building with visible forms in order to make invisible forms and experiences tactile and present: this is in fact the goal and the method in the discoveries and work of Hans van der Laan. We build in order to know where we are in the tiny part of the world we’ve created. And in realizing that we ourselves are creators, we become more aware of the invisible source of Creation itself.
In 1989 Hans took the opportunity to crystallize his discoveries and his theory in his succinct but eminently clear essay ‘Instruments of Order’. When we make architecture, we make order—in the world we build and in the world we experience. This reminder was the legacy of Hans van der Laan, who died in 1991. He hoped that his discoveries would spur future architects on in the search for a timeless, meaningful architecture. Hans van der Laan wanted nothing more—but nothing less—than a built world that comes alive for us.
Here you can download a story about the life of Van der Laan, handwritten by Van der Laan himself. PDF>