Building as exhibition: the Guggenheim pioneered the larger-than-life model we’ve come to expect from any international museum worth its salt. New York and Bilbao have their Guggenheims, and Rome has its MAXXI. Now, Antwerp has its own iconic piece of museum architecture and it’s poised to make the medieval Flemish town a global destination. The Museum aan de Stroom opened last weekend to an estimated 100,000 visitors, including the Belgian royal family. (Yes, they’ve got a royal family.)
First, some context. Antwerp is a harbor village with a massive port more than seven times the size of its commercial center. In the 1600s, the city was the seat of the Dutch superpower, establishing the nation’s merchant status for centuries to come. Though Antwerp now belongs to Belgium and Chinese harbors have taken precedence in the world’s shipping market, it’s still a city defined by its watery borders. And it’s there, just off the River Scheldt between the historic city center and the up-and-coming industrial neighborhood het Eilandje, that the MAS Museum steps into its starring role.
An icon the city elders ordered, and an icon they got, with a striking ten-story monolith of stacked boxes in alternating red Indian limestone and undulating glass. The architects, Neutelings Riedijk from Rotterdam, rotated each level 90 degrees, allowing the escalators to ascend around the perimeter of the museum. The effect is a moving viewing platform affording wraparound views of the city, from the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady to the domed Centraal Station to the grittier docklands and warehouses in the immediate vicinity of MAS.
The exhibition spaces, designed by B Architecten, highlight the social and economic culture of the Dutch lowlands and draw from the permanent collections of Antwerp’s more established museums. The 470,000 objects come from three of the city’s historical museums, along with temporary exhibitions of pieces from the contemporary art museum, MuHKA, and the Koninklijk fine arts museum, currently closed for renovation. Highlights include the Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) pairing Northern Renaissance still life paintings with found objects and scientific artifacts, and a floor devoted to harbor history, including miniature ship models and counterfeit goods seized from the ports. All eight floors of exhibition space are outfitted in interactive technology as well — should you be curious about that minutely detailed illustrated map of Antwerp from 1566, use the handy QR code to go back in time to the 16th century.
Taking the international and interactive themes online, MAS Museum also offers a quirky virtual tour on its website. From your computer, you can reserve a real live museum guide and steer them through the building according to what you want to see. For the less dictatorial, a video library lets you experience the museum inside and out.
Those visiting the museum in person should take note that beyond the fascinating works on display within and the impressive exterior are some places of note not to be missed. Ranging from a cafe perched upon the River Scheldt that offers stunning views to a young gallery with an eye for works that rival what is housed at the main attraction, here are our five recommendations for places to visit after you’ve had your fill of everything this new cultural landmark has to offer.
Bar Berlin is a dark and roomy all-day affair that acts as a cafe, meeting spot, and at night, a bustling bar with attractive young Antwerpers and their international friends. Order a bolleke, the Antwerp nickname for the local pale ale by De Koninck brewery. Kleine Markt 1
One of the standout shops on the antique-heavy thoroughfare of Kloosterstraat, Viar offers both hand-picked vintage costumes and blue-chip furniture and objets d’art: mid-century Italian desks, Baroque floor mirrors, and sinuous silver candlesticks. Kloosterstraat, 65
Gilded in a heavy helping of Dutch design and Tom Dixon lighting, Glenns Restaurant is carved out of a former garage near the fine arts museum and named after Antwerp’s most famous hairdresser (yes). The menu is a careful, but not overly precious, demonstration of local seafood and crisp, elegant wines. Graaf van Egmontstraat 39
Zuiderterras – A ship-like restaurant on the banks of the River Schedlt with ridiculous views, Zuiderterras Cafe is where locals go to pretend they’re tourists. The food is straightforward, but the swoon induced by a killer sunset adds a memorable sheen to the proceedings. Ernest van Dijckkaai 37
Office Baroque Gallery
Office Baroque Gallery has been showing the work of international artists (including Cool Hunting favorites Mathew Cerletty and Matthew Brannon) for three years. Their space promises intelligent exhibitions for discovering rising talent. Lange Kievitstraat 48