‘It had to be a strong building,’ Tim Van Laere shouts over the wind. ‘And it needed to be a function of art.’ We’re on the roof terrace of what will soon be the Belgium art dealer’s new gallery, looking out over the river Scheldt. Our hard-hats are on, our coats buttoned up against the rain. It’s a cold, grey day in Antwerp. But Tim Van Laere couldn’t be in a better mood.
He opened the existing Tim Van Laere Gallery, in the popular Zuid district of Antwerp, when he was just 27 years old. Twenty years of hard work down the line, and he boasts a roster of some of the most exciting contemporary artists in Belgium, and indeed Europe – names like Kati Heck, Jonathan Meese, Franz West and Rinus Van De Velde.
But, until now, Van Laere has had to work out of a single-room gallery space on the ground floor of a townhouse in Verlatstraat, a residential street in Zuid. Over the years, he has been offered the chance to move to larger spaces in the surrounding area, but he has turned them down. He harboured an ambition to design, from the ground up, a free-standing gallery, one that communicated the principles of ‘accessibility and independence’ that he has based his business on.
Today, that ideal is coming to fruition. And in a hive of activity too. We speak over the whine of bandsaws, the hum of heavy machinery, the churn of a concert mixer and the calls of the workers as they busy themselves downstairs. ‘It’s a straightforward building, made in a very direct, brutal way,’ architect David Van Severen says, as we weave our way through the gallery. ‘We wanted to build something you could walk in for the first time and feel like you already know it. But we also wanted it to be maybe a little “in your face”.’
Van Severen and his partner, Kersten Geers, founded Brussels-based architects firm O Kersten Geers David Van Severen in 2002. Tim Van Laere heard of OFFICE after they were invited, in 2008, to design the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennial. It’s a firm, Van Severen says, ‘that tries to reduce architecture to its very essence’. ‘I loved that attitude,’ Van Laere says. ‘As soon as I met David, I was signed up.’
The site they chose together is at the centre of what will soon be known as Nieuw Zuid, a new sustainable and low-impact urban development on the south-western edge of Antwerp. It is poised to become Antwerp’s newest cultural quarter, comparable in some ways to London’s Olympic Village. And they will be at the heart of it.
Van Laere is a rangy guy with a relaxed, and familiar demeanour. His hair brushes his shoulders and he laughs through a shaggy beard. He’s wearing jeans and boots and a coat that might be owned by Liam Gallagher. At a glance, he’s maybe not the most typical of art dealers. But don’t underestimate him. After leaving school, Van Laere almost made it as a professional tennis player, and he’s carried the demands of that sport – and the attitude needed to succeed in it – into his life in the art world. When I visit the studio of Rinus Van De Velde the next day, he shows me a drawing of Tim in his tennis whites, stood by a pile of broken rackets. ‘He’s a very competitive and very intense and very good player,’ Rinus says. ‘And he brings the attitude on the tennis court into his gallery, and into the way he represents his artists. He wants to push and succeed, and he wants you to push and succeed with him, and he’s totally focused on doing so.’
The group show currently exhibited in Van Laere’s old gallery will be the last in that space. Fittingly, he’s titled it ‘The Last Waltz’. It’s a fiercely contemporary showcase of 19 artists. ‘I truly never chose an artist thinking to myself, this could be art I can sell,’ he says. ‘I believe, if an artist is good, you can sell them. The gallery grew very organically with that mindset.’ That attitude has extended to the new space as well. ‘I think the engineers are fed up with me, because I don’t want to compromise on anything,’ Van Laere shrugs with a smile. ‘But it will be worth it.’
The final iteration of the gallery space will be 10,700 sq ft. It’s a free-standing building, surrounded by a soon-to-bloom garden on one side and the banks of the Scheldt on the other. It’s a concatenation of five separate blocks: a storage space and roof terrace, a ‘house’ with office and meeting space, as well as a small gallery for emerging artists, and then two airy, high-ceilinged gallery rooms – one of which is nicknamed ‘the chapel’ because of the angled arch of its roof area – and an outdoor sculpture garden where bronze statues of almost three meters will stand.
The slants that form the separate roof spaces of each room have been orientated to face northwards, meaning the gallery will have the optimum amount of natural light as the sun moves from east to west. Glass panes interlink the slanted wooden beams, angled so the artworks are never exposed to direct sunlight.
Each of the five blocks are made from concrete cast in a lighter pastel hue – ‘it’s a warm colour, something you don’t associate with concrete,’ Van Severen says. While the concrete was cast, it was encased in wood panelling, the planks leaving an imprint on the end result. The expressive pink that Van Laere uses for his branding – a colour originally found in a Franz West painting – will be emblazoned on steel shutters over the concrete walls.
The key, Van Laere repeats, is the new space acts as a function of art. ‘The space changes the relationship I can have with the artists, and it changes how they exhibit their work. It might even change how they work,’ he says. ‘It will challenge them.’ Van Severen adds: ‘It’s like a sculpture in its own right. Without it trying to be art, art is the central, focal point.’ Van Laere agrees. He looks around, hands in his pockets and a smile on his face. ‘This fits the story,’ he says. ‘And it’s going to be beautiful.’
For more information visit the KGDVS website
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