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Religious heritage and contemporary design

Religious heritage and contemporary design

Buitenplaats Doornburgh in Maarssen was built in the 17th century as a place of relaxation for wealthy Amsterdam families. It has since become a place where art and science come together in stimulating exhibitions, workshops and lectures. During the exhibition Vorm aan de Vecht, Doornburgh is dedicated to religious heritage and contemporary design. FritsJurgens' golden pivot door gives visitors access to the impressive cloisters, whose design follows the plastic number of monk-architect Van der Laan.

Historic country house on the Vecht

In 1623, Amsterdam merchant Jan Claesz. Vlooswijck a piece of land on the river Vecht to build a country house. In this location - called the Gouden Bocht, like the most expensive piece of Herengracht in Amsterdam - he and his family could escape the stench and heat of the exploding commercial city in the summer. This estate will eventually grow into Doornburgh country estate, a place of great historical value. Among other things, the mansion and surrounding park have been recognized as a national monument for several years.

Residents through the years

After Vlooswijck, the estate had many residents, including members of the Huydecoper patrician family, which produced several Amsterdam mayors. Many country houses did not survive the disaster year of 1672, as the Netherlands was attacked from all sides. Thanks to a generous donation from Joan Huydecoper to the Paris authorities, Doornburgh was spared. Because the three neighboring estates - Vechtleven, Somersbergen and Elsenburg - did disappear, Doornburgh's garden underwent some drastic changes. Mat this originally 0.85 hectares, now the buitenplaats counts more than 9.

In 1684, Willem Pietersen van Zon became the owner of Doornburgh. He had the large baroque entrance gate installed that can still be admired in the garden. After a period of varying ownership, the estate came back into the possession of the Huydecoper family in 1772 until 1912. In the 19th century, the Huydecopers commissioned landscaper J.D. Zocher to create an English landscape garden. Zocher also designed the Vondelpark with his son. The garden of Buitenplaats Doornburgh has always retained this original English style.

Religious turn

In 1957, the estate was purchased by the Order of Regular Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, which seven years later had an imposing monastic complex built on it: Emmaus Priory. Architect Jan de Jonge of the Bossche School designed the austere building especially for the sisters. As soon as they entered the monastery, they began their religious journey, leaving behind all their earthly possessions. Because its severe architectural style differs greatly from the other buildings, the monastery complex initially evoked a great deal of resistance from local residents. Meanwhile, appreciation for the priory has increased and since 2016 it has even been a national monument. The mansion was used as a guesthouse after the sisters arrived.

The Bossche School

The difference between the 17th-century Doornburgh mansion and the modern Emmaus Priory could not have been greater: while the former is richly decorated, the latter, on the contrary, looks very austere. Still, the modern monastery in the Bossche School style is considered an architectural masterpiece. The Bossche School was founded just after World War II by Benedictine monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan. The Regular Canons of the Holy Sepulchre first addressed their request to design a convent complex to Van der Laan himself. Due to lack of time - after all, he was also a monk - he passed the task on to his student Jan de Jong. Together they came up with the final design of the priory.

The Bossche School is characterized by strict dimensional relationships, based on our three-dimensional perception of the world. Everything revolves around the ideal ratio of length, width and height, creating a space that is beneficial to both body and mind. Never before has the theory of symmetry been so strictly implemented in one delineated architectural theory. Ultimately, the search for perfect proportions led to Van der Laan's definition of the "plastic number.

The plastic number

According to this doctrine, a design can have up to seven different dimensions. If these become more, people no longer manage to see connections, said monk-architect Van der Laan. He calculated the ratios between the various distances within a design far beyond the decimal point: 1.324718. If this number is the result of the formula width/length = length/height = height/(length + width), a building has ideal proportions according to the Bossche School. Applying this algebra consistently gives each building a reassuring logic.

In other words, in the Bossche School style, rooms, columns and window frames always face each other in a ratio of 3:4 or 1:7. In each case, this refers to the divine number seven, which was considered sacred within the Benedictine monastic order to which Van der Laan belonged. The rules for this order were established in the year 529 by the Italian hermit Benedict. Rule one was that the monks should pray seven times a day. So for Van der Laan, the number seven had special meaning in more ways than one.

Golden section

The plastic number is derived from the golden ratio: a divine dimensional ratio frequently used in art and architecture, among other things. You get this "magic number" by dividing a line into two parts, where the larger of the two parts relates to the smaller as the entire line segment relates to the larger. For Van der Laan, the golden ratio did not go far enough, because it says something about only one dimension. On the contrary, architecture works with two- and three-dimensional relationships. Therefore, he developed his own size ratio, which did accommodate three-dimensional designs.

Van der Laan was fundamentally interested not in the dimensions of the spaces themselves, but in what the relationship between the dimensions produced in people. Plastic number, then, has its origins in the way we experience the space around us. So the term "plastic" should be interpreted as "expressive" or "formative. As the monk-architect himself put it, "You can't tell how big something is until you see it in relation to something else. You can't estimate the size of a tree until you see it in a room next to another tree." So the way elements relate to each other determines how you perceive them.

Eye for culture and nature

After this architectural excursion, let's return to the history of the buitenplaats. In 2017, the last seven nuns left the priory and Doornburgh came under the management of the MeyerBergman Heritage Group. This organization breathes new life into historic heritage. She was previously involved in the redevelopment of Soestdijk Palace and the Westergasfabriek site in Amsterdam.

MeyerBergman has made several changes to further enhance the nature of Doornburgh. For example, less mowing is being done to allow more Steinze plants to return - a special group of naturalized spring flowers found mainly around country houses, castles and estates. In addition, a local beekeeper installed hives to increase biodiversity. And there are more animals in the party: the pigs from pig farm PigMe root around the pastures every year, for example, and a tawny owl box has been placed on the estate in cooperation with the Utrecht Bird Watch.

New function for Emmaus Priory

The priory now includes the opening of The Sisters restaurant, which works with local suppliers and produce from its own garden. A special feature is that each course is served in a different room: the culinary adventure begins in the basement near the kitchen, continues in the dining room on the first floor, and ends in the former living room further down the building. Next to the priory is the cemetery for the Regular Canonesses. Sisters still living can also be buried here in the future, if they wish. There are plans to build a chapel of silence at the cemetery.

In addition to being used as a restaurant, the former Emmaus Priory is also used as an exhibition space. For example, the exhibition Vorm aan de Vecht features work by several renowned designers, artists and photographers in a special combination of religious heritage and modern design. The exhibition is curated by Nicole Uniquole, who has been working internationally as a curator, concept developer and exhibition maker since the 1990s. Several sister houses have been transformed into spaces where artists and researchers can stay temporarily to develop and carry out projects. Throughout the year, therefore, various creators live as
artist-in-residence in the former monastery to create new designs.

Gilded opening piece

The literal and figurative opening piece of Vorm aan de Vecht is FritsJurgens' golden pivot door. This seems at odds with the intentions of Van der Laan and De Jong, according to curator and journalist Jeroen Junte. "Their collaborative design of the priory turns away from the worldly enticements and pompous excess of a golden door. Unless this door is a final reminder before entering the hallowed architecture of this former nunnery." Directly behind the door is a massive bronze trash can by Studio Job, where you can imaginatively leave all earthly items before entering the realm of the clergy.

From another perspective, the gilded door actually fits perfectly with the ideas of the Bossche School, Junte thinks. "The proportions are harmonious and in keeping with the distinctive dimensions of the priory. Almost as if this modern door was co-designed by the architects. It could hardly be more minimal: door handle and frame are missing and the hinge is invisibly incorporated into the door. When opened, this produces a graceful choreography in which the flowing door movement both confirms and breaks the rigid composition of the stone architecture."

Present and past

The double role of the golden pivot door fits well with the purpose of the exhibition, as Maya Meijer-Bergmans describes it. She is co-owner of MeyerBergman Heritage Group and chair of the Doornburgh country estate's Art Committee. Meijer-Bergmans: "We want to surprise visitors. By combining heritage and contemporary design in this exhibition, they will discover more about past and present." And let that be precisely one of the areas of expertise of curator Uniquole, who is known for exhibitions in which she idiosyncratically connects disparate worlds.

According to Uniquole, the strength of Vorm aan de Vecht lies in the combination of the historic heritage of the buitenplaats and contemporary design. "This exhibition reflects on the extraordinary history of the buitenplaats by showing it in a new light. In this way, we tell the story of this impressive location and, through the art and design on display, create a surprising perspective on the future."

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Inspired by monastic life

Thanks to her experience with exhibitions at historic heritage sites, Uniquole was able to select creators who reinforce the strength of Doornburgh. She took as her guide the daily rhythm of the nuns who once inhabited the priory, as well as the regular forms in the architecture. Uniquole: "The participating makers draw inspiration from the place. Studio Stefan Scholten created the exhibition design, based on the monastery's striking architectural principles. In close conjunction with the furnishings and styling by Maarten Spruyt, this creates a gesamtkunstwerk."

Consequently, the art on display during the exhibition refers to the former residents and their daily lives. Both Jan Taminiaus dress with cape and Moncler designer Pierpaolo Piccioli's quilted long coat with hood are reminiscent of nuns' habitats. Again, there is an interesting contradiction in this: where nuns wore the habits because of their reclusive and devoted existence to religion, clothing in a similar style is actually now on public display.

Connection through contradictions

Both the exhibition Vorm aan de Vecht and buitenplaats Doornburgh are characterized by a multitude of contrasts. The great contrast between the opulent 17th-century mansion and the austere Emmaus Priory stands out the most, but certainly not the only one. Modern art in a place where nuns lived without earthly possessions, an extravagant gold pivot door in an otherwise subdued building designed by the Bossche School: precisely because past and present seem to repel each other, they attract each other. Thus, a unique collection of contemporary design breathes new life into the centuries-old buitenplaats and modern makers offer us a fresh perspective on history.

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