Tim Van Laere Gallery by Office KGDVS

Tension is high at Tim Van Laere’s new gallery space in the Nieuw Zuid district of Antwerp. Nestled among rows of sleek residential towers and swarms of construction cranes, a squat and chunky concrete ‘art bunker’ sits awaiting its coronation. A gathering of artists and gallerists dressed in a uniform of millennial pink sweatshirts, watch on nervously as a gargantuan bronze sculpture is lowered, inch by inch, onto the rooftop of its clustered forms (CHECK). Weighing close to 1,000 kilos, the crowning jewel is a towering sci-fi humanoid figure brought to life by Jonathan Mees, one of 22 artists represented by Van Laere.

Spotting the gallerist amid the sea of pale pink is easy enough; he looms a full head height above the rest. Although he stepped into the art world at a young age, opening his eponymous gallery in 1997 in Antwerp when he was just 27, Van Laere enjoyed a rather unconventional past life as a professional tennis player in Florida. After graduating from Rollins College in Orlando, the gallerist spent time in Miami - a detail that does much to elucidate his passion for pastels—and maintains a deep reverence for Americana. It’s a fixation that Van Laere shares with the gallery’s architects, Belgian practice OFFICE KGDVS, and that ultimately fed into their design of the new space.

‘I wanted three things for this gallery,’ shouts Van Laere over the roar of construction. ‘It needed to stand tall, be confident in its material simplicity, and exist totally for the art.’ This noble ambition was made somewhat more challenging by the gallery’s context: smack centre of Nieuw Zuid, a massive private development marketed as Antwerp’s new smart city district. Luckily, Van Laere knew who to call.

‘I first met OFFICE KGDVS at a show at the Prada Foundation in Milan - we were both fighting with a security guard who insisted that we needed to be accompanied into the exhibition,’ Van Laere recalls. They bonded through the argument, and Van Laere kept a close eye on the practice as its international profile rose, until it finally came time to pack up shop at his old gallery a short walk north of Nieuw Zuid.

The resulting structure is comprised of five volumes: the white cube, its largest gallery space; the chapel, a smaller adjacent gallery with a dramatic slanted ceiling; the house, which contains the gallery’s office and meeting space, as well as Van Laere’s private office; an artwork storage space; and finally, an outdoor patio. Made from board-formed concrete cast in situ, the façade takes on a grid-like pattern reminiscent of Superstudio’s fictive Continuous Monument; the grid continues throughout the inside, chased by millennial pink accents.

They all agreed the project needed a colour pop, but Van Laere rejected the architects’ bid for red, instead opting for a pale pink, which the gallerist deemed a ‘non-political’ colour (this writer begs to differ). That it seems to precisely match the pink of Franz West, the famed sculptor represented by Van Laere since 2007, is a happy coincidence. The library, front of house, work station, and of course the gallery’s merchandise has followed suit. The brand loyalty is fastidious, even boiling down to the gallery’s own tea kettle, a bubblegum pink SMEG.

The gallery does away with most standard art world signposts, including the omnipresent curatorial statement typically adhered to the entrance wall. Instead, the building’s only text is its big, bright, bold signage running alongside its exterior that proudly announces its presence to passer-by.

The overarching aesthetic of Nieuw Zuid is one of light and elegant, if somewhat corporate, modernism. Comprising of eight residential towers designed by a combination of Belgian and international practices (including three Pritzker Prize winning architects), it is a brave new world whereearthy brick cores overlaid with white concrete frames and cross-laminated timber balconies are standard issue..

The architects’ tactic was to design a building of a very different feeling. ‘The gallery occupies a material ambiguity, with the dimensions of an industrial hall and the details of a villa,’ suggests Kersten Geers, who co-founded OFFICE KGDVS in 2002. ‘When a building is good, it tells several stories at the same time.’

Seeking inspiration in frontier Americana aesthetics, desert architecture, and Los Angeles, the birthplace of their practice, the architects worked with Van Laere to envision a building that feels more like a cluster. Caught somewhere between Scott Brown & Venturi’s Decorated Shed and a traditional European city centre with skewed proportions, the gallery appears instantly familiar yet foreign. It exudes a low-key glamour that becomes more or less pronounced depending on the time of day, your mood, and the work on show - essentially a gallery that moulds itself around the work.

This is done through KGDVS’s ever-elusive hand, which juxtaposes traditional gallery architecture with unexpected details. Take, for instance, the 14x14m main white cube space. Its high ceilings enable northern light to cascade down from above - the Platonic ideal of exhibition display - but look up and you will find a latticed ceiling with alternating rows of track lights and incandescent tube lights overlaying the angled skylight.

The chapel next door stretches over 8m in height - a direct response to Van Laere’s artists’ request for higher ceilings. A small door at the back corner of the room leads out onto an enclosed outdoor patio that curls around the northern end of the gallery. Tucked underneath a looming residential tower by Danish practice C.F. Møller Architects, two more bronze figures by Meese have the stage.

Climb the angular staircase leading up to Van Laere’s personal office and you’ll find a light-flooded, sparsely-decorated private space for the gallerist, with more art than furniture. A portrait of Van Laere’s late grandfather by the Antwerp-based painter Kati Heck, one of Van Laere’s cohort, sagaciously overlooks his modernist desk. Nearby, a psychologist’s chair on spindly metal legs reclines beside a paint-smeared bust by West and another painting by Meese. Van Laere’s office can be read as a portrait of its owner - a lens into the close relationship the gallerist has kept with his artists.

Van Laere’s office leads out onto the rooftop courtyard. Currently home to Meese’s metal soldier, it will continue to exhibit sculptural work throughout the gallery’s six shows each year. From here, a rolling expanse of construction sites and grassland stretches out to the River Scheldt.

Originally an industrial railway site in the 1950s, the land of Nieuw Zuid was purchased in 2010 by local developer Triple Living. From an open call organised in collaboration with the city, Triple Living selected a proposed masterplan by Milanese practice Studio Secchio-Viganò, who previously worked on Antwerp’s Theaterplein and Park Spoor Noord. Since breaking ground in 2014, thirteen of thirty-eight blocks have been completed, but when the low-emission, car-free district is finally complete in 2028, it will be the largest private urban development in Belgium.

It intends to set the future of sustainable urban development as a scalable green city-neighbourhood of residential, commercial, and office units, schools, student apartments, a hotel, and social housing that unfurls around a central promenade. The social housing, however, is contained to three clustered buildings designed by Belgian practice BOB361 architects. It tops out to 11 per cent of the 2,000 living units planned for the area.

‘In order to make something sellable, you have to start strong,’ says Jeff Cavens, director of Triple Living. In the case of Nieuw Zuid, that meant beginning with a residential tower by Peter Zumthor and ending with a building by Japanese practice SAANA. The area also needed to develop a cultural identity: a sweet selling point for galleries like Tim Van Laere. Following a debate with the city over whether an art gallery really had a public function, the developers offered Van Laere the 1,000 sq m plot of land despite having permission to build a five-storey apartment building on the same spot.

As the first ‘pioneer’ gallery to take the leap further south, Van Laere and Nieuw Zuid’s developers hope others will follow suit. So far, so good: in addition to a string of commercial galleries, the district is also beginning to attract institutional stalwarts like Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which just announced plans to move 1 km to the south. Whether the polished digs of Nieuw Zuid will prove hospitable for Antwerp’s larger art scene remains yet to be seen, but this pink-tinged ‘art bunker’ may well be the splash of colour this new neighborhood needs.

(Published on: ICON 193 )