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Antwerp cool

The Belgian fashion metropolis celebrates the architecture duo Sanaa. By Roman Hollenstein

The metamorphosis is impressive: anyone who hasn't been to Antwerp for some time will hardly recognize it. Historic monuments like the Gothic Cathedral, the Renaissance Town Hall and the Rubens House shine with new splendour, while the many cool bars and trendy shops make it unmistakeably clear that this is Belgium's new style Mecca. Visitors to Nationalestraat can submerge themselves in the fashion enclave of Dries van Noten or browse through art, design and architecture books next door. And just down the street is the new MoMu Fashion Museum, set up four years ago in a turn-of-the-century block with a stage-like entrance. The museum documents, among other things, the success of the "Antwerpse Zes," six Antwerp fashion designers who set out twenty years ago to conquer the world of the beautiful.

Zollverein School of Management and Design, Essen by SANAA © Walter Niedermayr. Photos courtesy "deSingel"

The Fashion Museum, designed by Gent architect Marie-Jose van Hee, also demonstrates that the city on the Schelde is becoming increasingly interested in contemporary architecture. The start was made in 1988 with Bob van Reeth's black and white striped Van-Roosmalen-Haus, inspired by Adolf Loos. After that, revitalisation continued in the former dock area of Eilandje in the north of the old city. The warehouses around the Godefriduskaai, some of which date back 450 years, were carefully restored and converted into temples for music, dance and fashion. Between them, architects from all over the world have created new living spaces. Thanks to this activity, Antwerp's north is now slowly starting to compete with the stylish Zuid and its Museum Mile. At the same time, the square in front of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts), once grey with traffic, is the epitome of Antwerp elegance. And still today Ann Demeulemeester's clothing paradise, staged like a minimalist artist's studio, is considered the expression of a new, almost Protestant sparse good taste. This beautifully complements Flanders' baroque joie de vivre, which nowhere finds a more complete expression than in the disciplined, sensual craftmanship of Antwerp fashion.

Zollverein School of Management and Design, Essen by SANAA © Walter Niedermayr

If you set out from the trendy Zuid and move south-east through turn-of-the-century neighbourhoods, you come to the modern "deSingel" cultural centre, not far from the southern highway ring. Starting in 1958, the great Flemish architect Leon Stijnen (1899-1990) created his most important work here in several stages: an ensemble centred around two courtyards with a conservatory, concert and theatre hall and long corridor serving as an exhibition space. Despite its somewhat peripheral location, "deSingel" has become the internationally best-connected centre for modern and contemporary culture in all of Flanders. Besides its key role in music and performance, it also plays a key role as a platform for architecture. Since 1985, the exhibition hall has mostly staged exhibitions on architecture. The work of Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel and Aldo Rossi - all guiding lights for the new Flemish architecture - have been exhibited here alongside Belgian architects Marie-Jose van Hee, Robbrecht & Daem, Xaveer de Geyter and Stephane Beel.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2004 by SANAA © Walter Niedermayr

At the moment, Beel is designing a new building for the centre which as of autumn 2009 will offer dance rehearsal space, a theatre workshop, a bookshop and a cafe, along with a new exhibition room. In the evenings, the hall used today serves as corridor and foyer for theatre and concert visitors, and is only partially suited as an exhibition space. Yet it is perceived as a challenge by many architects. Now Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the distinguished Tokyo office SANAA have put themselves to the test - and passed with flying colours. Starting from the assumption that architecture can only be experienced through movement in space, they have spruced up the almost 50-metre long hall with their own furniture, lightened up the discrete grey-beige of the floors, walls and ceiling with a white curtain along the window-front that disperses the light diffusely, and in so doing created their own work, as well as making a clear reference to the fashion city.

Zollverein School of Management and Design, Essen by SANAA © Walter Niedermayr

Stijnen's corridor now has a reduced feel to it, appearing almost immaterial, as is characteristic for Sejima and her partner Nishizawa. At the same time, the glistening transformation, accentuated by a video alcove, is reminiscent of the spaceship interiors in Stanley Kubrick's "Space Odyssey." In contrast to the big Sanaa retrospective shown last year in Vicenza and Chur, which offered visitors a multiplicity of plans, figures and models - this exhibition features just a few photos, which hang on the walls like meditation objects. The dozen or so diptychs and triptychs by Southern Tyrolian photographer Walter Niedermayr show the buildings from slightly different perspectives, and so bring movement to the static architecture photos.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 2004 by SANAA © Walter Niedermayr

White on white, these photographs are like a hint of nothing, and yet in a suggestive way they give the eleven SANAA buildings a strong presence - from the Art Museum in Kanazawa to the glass pavilion of the Toledo Museum of Art and the Ferry Terminal in Naoshima right through to the Zollvereinschule in Essen and the Novartis office building in Basel. Niedermayr is brilliant at making visible the true qualities of Sanaa's work: the puristic reduction and transparency, the subtle dialogue of light tones typical of the Japanese culture of grey, as well as the overlapping of horizontal and vertical layers. Which is why Niedermayr's groups of images blend into the Sanaa scenography, just as in the catalogue - the most harmonious architectural publication of recent years - buildings and photos weave together into a whole. Even if this publication only starts to relate the cool beauty of the minimalistic Antwerp show, it gives a strong feeling for the culture of reciprocal approach. This is evidenced in the years of cooperation between SANAA and Niedermayr, as well as between Sejima and Nishizawa, who alongside projects of their own keep coming together to take on joint challenges.

The exhibition "Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) / Walter Niedermayr" can be seen until May 6 at the "deSingel" cultural center in Antwerp. Catalogue: "Walter Niedermayr. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. SANAA." German / English. Hatje-Cantz Publishers, Stuttgart, 2007. 39.80 euros.

The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on April 2, 2007.

Roman Hollenstein is architecture critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: jab.

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