This ‘Museum on the River’ in Antwerp was opened in 2010 after fifteen years of preparation and construction. I don’t know how much it cost or how controversial it was or is, but I was surprised to find that it is strikingly beautiful and evidently quite popular with locals and tourists alike.
The façade of the MAS building is partly glass (fluted panels of glass, especially made in Verona for this project) and partly a mottled pattern of red sandstone slabs from Rajasthan, of all places. I was puzzled about the arrangement of these sandstone slabs, so I later did some clicking around (what we quaintly used to call “research”) and found an article from the Architectural Review explaining that these sandstone slabs “were taken from four separate quarries and therefore have subtle gradations in tone.”
The article goes on: “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.“
The building was designed by the Dutch architectural firm “Neutelings Riedijk Architects”, whose proposal was chosen from fifty-five submissions that were sent in from all over the world.
My first visit to the MAS was in 2012 with a group from the now-defunct website VirtualTourist, during a meeting that happened to coincide with an unusually severe heat wave. We started out by having drinks and a rest at some of the outdoor tables of the STORM café on the ground floor. Then those of us who were not suffering from heat exhaustion rode up the escalators to the rooftop observation deck on the tenth floor, where there are great views in all directions of the city, the river and the harbor.
The escalators were all in operation, by the way, and all running smoothly — not something you are likely to find at a big prestige project in Germany.
In 2012 we unfortunately arrived too late in the day to visit any of the museum exhibits, but I went back seven years later and had a look at them. They combine the collections of Antwerp’s old ethnographic, maritime and historical museums, but have been put together in new ways to tell “new stories” about the city, the river and the port and about Antwerp’s connection with the rest of the world.
One of the things that struck me particularly was the exhibit of the “dance organs”. These are mechanical self-playing musical instruments similar to the ones I saw in Bruchsal, Germany, but much bigger, each covering an entire wall. The accompanying text panel says that these dance organs “are a Belgian phenomenon. Around 1900 these were unusually popular, particularly in Antwerp and Brussels, but also in the south of the Netherlands.”
Several of these organs are on display on the fourth floor of the MAS.
“The organs were ingenious machines that got people dancing. They were created before the invention of the radio. The organ rental sector became a strong competitor to dance orchestras.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t hear them play, because there weren’t any curators around to turn them on, but you can see and hear some samples here if you want to.
My photos in this post are from 2012 and 2019. I revised the text in 2020.
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