A blinding sheet of white light bursts through the stone colonnade of the V&A, casting a glow across the grey paving stones of Exhibition Road. Catching the sunlight on its 11,000 handmade porcelain tiles, the museum’s new courtyard seems to burn with a molten luminosity, signalling the climax of its most ambitious building project in a century.
“Our aim was to bring the city into the museum and take the museum out on to the street,” says architect Amanda Levete, standing in the centre of her dazzling white piazza, behind a pair of big black sunglasses. “We saw it as an urban project as much as a cultural project.”
The heart of the London museum’s new £54.5m Exhibition Road Quarter is buried deep underground, in the form of a gaping 1,100 square metre gallery – a blockbuster hangar housing its roster of increasingly blockbusting exhibitions. The biggest impact of the project, however, is on the V&A’s relationship with the street.
The heavy stone plinth of the Aston Webb screen, built in 1909 to hide a jumble of boiler houses, has been deftly sliced open to form a slender colonnade, welcoming people into this forgotten courtyard for the first time. Originally decried by conservationists as an act of “butchery” against the Grade I-listed screen, it is a brilliant, transformative move – one that’s been a long time coming.
Established in 1857, following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the V&A’s rambling Victorian home has always turned its back on Exhibition Road, the principal artery of the “Albertopolis” cultural quarter, which the Natural History Museum and Science Museum both face. A sketch from 1868 by the V&A’s founding director, Henry Cole, shows a plan for a great public viewing tower here, rising to twice the height of the museum and wrapped in a spiral staircase. Unfortunately, it never came to be.
The idea was channelled by Daniel Libeskind 130 years later, in the form of the Spiral, a £100m proposal for a tumbling heap of galleries piled up in the courtyard. It was conceived at the peak of the iconic architecture bubble, just as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim opened and New Labour came to power – and then it popped.
As one critic noted, Libeskind’s wonky pile looked like “the Guggenheim turned on its side and then beaten senseless with a hammer”. Despite winning planning permission, it never found funding and was abandoned in 2004, discarded as a bombastic bauble from another age.
“It was full of small galleries and a lot of stairs,” says Levete. “And it took longer than our whole project from start to finish.” Having been drawn, Icarus-like, to the shining promise of starchitecture, and had its wings thoroughly scorched, the V&A decided to opt for the more modest option of going underground.
Levete’s challenge was “to prove that going below ground could still be exciting”. In her entry to the initial feasibility competition in 2010, she imagined a daring ramped topography that began underground, zig-zagged to street level, then slaloming up another storey, creating a radical walkable landscape of the kind that she has since built at the MAAT museum in Lisbon. The gradients proved too steep and the concept too ambitious for the V&A, but the intent is still evident in the swooshing geometries of the finished design.
An angular cafe pavilion rises up from one side of the square, standing like a luxury yacht on a bright white porcelain sea. Its roof snakes around the corner and up to the second storey of the museum. Across the piazza stands the steel hull of a roof-light, designed to bring the sun’s rays into the gallery below. “It’s about making the invisible visible,” says Levete, “signalling the presence of what lies beneath.” Its mirror polished interior and red-tinted glazing adds another flash of bling.
With the acres of white tile – inscribed with graphic lines in blue, red and yellow – and the faceted geometries, the space feels imported from a warmer clime, like a Marbella beach bar airlifted into South Kensington. It’s hard to shake off the sense that it’s all a bit naff, at odds with the gravity of the museum.
As in some of Levete’s other work (most egregiously at her new shopping centre in Bangkok, the sinuous structures never quite touch the ground as lightly as hoped, the surfaces never fold with the balustrade-free, contractor-defying seamlessness promised on the computer. Things tend to clunk more than glide.
Thankfully, it gets better inside. Entering a light-flooded entrance hall, with a view through to the museum’s central John Madejski Garden, you encounter the sleek, black wood enclosure of a new staircase, which provides a theatrical descent to the gallery, kinking around a cluster of bright red steel columns, creating a vertical people-watching promenade.
The glossy black and red palette recalls the polished lacquer-ware in the museum’s collection, making the descent feel like plunging into a jewellery box. It’s the same paint used on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. “The colour speaks of the enormity of the task the structure is doing,” says Levete, “holding up the whole Grade I-listed museum wing above.”
Excavating a hangar-sized void was no small feat, and the technical challenges were part of the reason the original £27m budget doubled . Piles had to be drilled 50 metres below ground, within a metre of the existing listed buildings – 447 piles with a cumulative length of 8.2km – and 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools of earth had to be removed, while the museum remained in operation throughout.
The faceted origami ceiling of the gallery, which ripples overhead, is the result of the 14 steel trusses that leap for 38 metres across the room, so big that they have managed to fit a floor of loos within their depth – both men’s and women’s, decked out in bubblegum pink.
Rising to over 10 metres, it is an airport-sized space, and the slivers of daylight in one corner are a nice touch, even if they will be blacked out most of the time. The new gallery opens with a weeklong festival of performances. However, due to construction delays, the first exhibition, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, will not open until the end of September. It promises to take advantage of the potential of the great volume, with full-scale recreations of opera stage sets throughout history – aided by the boon of a dedicated preparation floor below.
As you return to the surface, there are snatched glimpses through more roof lights and reflections bouncing off the polished surfaces. You can glimpse the decorative plaster sgraffito facade on the back of the Henry Cole wing, and the redundant lift shaft of Libeskind’s Spiral, poking up a couple of storeys before it was abandoned.
It is in these moments that Levete’s work delights, when the multiple levels of ramps, stairs and windows coincide to reveal the accumulated layers of remodelling over the centuries. With its excavations and additions, her project adds another rich chapter – even if it already feels like it dates from a particular moment in time.
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