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An ‘Other’ World, by Kenneth Frampton
‘A Hard Act To Follow’. So goes the famous vaudeville phrase but it can surely be applied with equal force to architecture, since within the opus of any architect of caliber there are always works which attain canonical status and others which fall short. Thus, all too early in his career appears the Maastricht Academy extension by Wiel Arets; a building that will be hard to follow not only for his compatriots but also for himself, for within the seeming cornucopia of Dutch late modernism, few works can command the respect that is surely due to Arets’ interstitial graft within the complex core of Maastricht. Thus, despite the awkwardness of its circulation (the extremely protracted access to the workshop block) and the picayune faults, which invariably arise in any work of architectonic quality, the Maastricht Academy extension rises to force for its ability to transcend its antecedents in the field of late Minimalist Art, in particular the work of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Close to Tadao Ando in this regard, but capable of extending the generic trabeated grid beyond formal limits, Arets’ academy expansion achieves a surprising sense of dynamic movement within the modularity of its strictly orthogonal frame.
Comprising in essence four, nine-square ‘cubes’ and a semi modular, thirteen square bridge, the ‘promenade architecturale’ thrives as a spatial narrative on a dialectic of surprise and postponement. Thus the nine square portico serves a s a threshold to the disjunctively-conjunctive, the ‘Neo-Corbusian’ ramp with the attached fourth ‘cube’, the refectory, the library and the lecture hall. This ramp falls through a seemingly endless light slot set to the rear of the new tripartite public core. Many other intrinsic gestures, within the opacity of the whole, are equally refreshing, above all perhaps the approach to the existing wing of the academy facing the square, where a black rendered triadic portico plus entry stair gives on to the principal foyer and administration offices. These last have been cunningly re-furnished so as to totally conceal any categorical distinction between the old and new. Last but not least is the aforementioned bridge that serves to link the first three cubes (arranged in an L-formation) to the fourth, while crowning the re-structured academy as a whole. However unconscious, this feature surely recalls the Dessau Bauhaus as it spans between the workshop block, with its luminous glass-block stair hall, and the shaded confines of the four story public core. With its own boundaries deftly raised above its nine-square cubic abutments, this glass-roofed portal, enclosed by full height concrete walls, is perhaps the most utopian space in the entire complex. With the entire glass lensed surfaces above and below and plate-glass steel frame pivoting doors, it speaks of another world lying beyond the destitution of this late modern present. All of this seems to acquire, its full meaning as one descends from the elevated box-bridge to an incidental sun-terrace on top of the portico, overlooking the nearby slate pitched roofs of Maastricht in its earlier prime. This clearly is an ‘other’ world that lies equally beyond both Ando and the indisputable affinity that the building has for Pierre Chareau’s Maisn de Verre. Even further, ‘ce toit jardin inconnu’ challenges the author himself, since it totally transcends the dry neo-avant-gardist linear perspectives from which, ostensibly, it appears to have derived. Hence the hardness of the Maastricht Academy, as an act that is as hard and as hermetic as the glass block membrane with its slot apertures, serves to sustain the inner secret of the building on every side.
Location: Maastricht, the Netherlands