Edmund Fowles’ inspiration: Roosenberg Abbey, Flanders

Roosenberg Abbey 3

The Feilden Fowles director on a remote Belgian monastery designed by a monk who devised his own version of the golden ratio

Roosenberg Abbey, Belgium | Dom Hans van der Laan | 1975

I first visited Roosenberg Abbey while leading a design studio at the Cass in 2017. The studio’s agenda that year was focussed on education design. Some of the most enduring education buildings, early universities, emerged from the building form of Cisterian monasteries with their interconnecting quadrangles defining a strong spatial logic for the organisation of rooms. We were drawn to the work of the 20th century Dutch Benedictine monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan, and his implementation of ideals of proportion and of monastic architecture as a basis for education space.

Hans van der Laan had a very limited output, completing just four convents and a house. The commission for Roosenberg came from the Marian Sisters of St Francis in Waasmunster, and was van der Laan’s first opportunity to demonstrate in built form his unique proportioning system, which he called the ‘plastic number’. In this, he rejected the ‘golden ratio’, instead deriving his own system relative to the individual in his search for the archetypal basis of the act of building. This was based on a ratio of 1.32471 (rounded to 4:3), and was capable of interrelating the whole building and its elements into a complete hierarchy.

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