This month sees the completion of the biggest construction project at the V&A since 1909. Julius Bryant hails the opening of the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter – a new gateway for more than three million visitors and a new hub for cultural collaboration in the twenty-first century
Photos Simone Bossi
A new public space is opening in South Kensington, designed by Amanda Levete. This great project to provide a new museum entrance on Exhibition Road also affords visitors new perspectives on the historic campus of buildings that together comprise the V&A.
Originally part of the formal show gardens of Brompton Park House, the home of Queen Anne’s landscape gardener and plantsman at Kensington Palace, this side of the museum later served as the entrance to the private staff residences built to form the west side of the quadrangle in 1861–1863. The architect Aston Webb added a screen of columns around 1905 to conceal from public view the museum’s new boilers for steam heating, and for most of the twentieth century “Boiler House Yard” was forgotten. Visitors will recall the glass corridor added when the Henry Cole Wing opened as part of the V&A in 1983. Beyond, underground, Terence Conran’s Boilerhouse Project was born in 1983, where Stephen Bayley curated a series of challenging exhibitions that led to the founding of the Design Museum. On the ground level, behind the glass corridor, a cluster of temporary buildings housed the Learning Department, which moved into the ground floor of the Henry Cole Wing as the Sackler Centre in 2008.
In the new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, visitors can admire Aston Webb’s Edwardian baroque remodelling of the western face of the staff residences (which Webb converted into galleries and offices). One Victorian entrance doorway survives. Opposite, for the first time the public can see the back of the Henry Cole Wing, which is elaborately decorated in sgraffito. This experimental form of graphic architectural ornament was made by scraping through light plaster laid over dark. The Renaissance-style patterns were designed by Frank W Moody and executed by his students at the National Art Training Schools (now the Royal College of Art) in 1871–1872. Their studios survive, linked to the former Science Schools (now the Henry Cole Wing) by a raised footbridge. All is explained in a new display devoted to the history of the museum’s buildings and their decoration, Designing the V&A: The Museum as a Work of Art (1857–1909), which has just opened in the Architecture Gallery (128A) and runs until January 2018. It is accompanied by a new book, published in celebration of the biggest construction project at the V&A since 1909.
The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter also provides a new rendezvous and social hub for the centre of learning and recreation that Victorian critics nicknamed Albertopolis after its founder, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. While the main entrance looks south towards Knightsbridge, the new quarter also helps to reorientate the museum towards its neighbouring institutions to the west. In this way, a very practical solution to the need to welcome more than three million visitors also presents a fresh face, one open to the opportunities for collaboration across Albertopolis in the twenty-first century.
Julius Bryant is keeper of Word and Image at the V&A
This is an edited extract from the V&A Magazine, free with membership and available from the shop
The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter has been generously supported by The Monument Trust, The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, The Headley Trust, The Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors including Peter Williams and Heather Acton and the Friends of the V&A REVEAL, a festival celebrating the opening of the new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, V&A, London, SW7 (020 7942 2000, vam.ac.uk), 30 June – 7 July
The beauty is in the detail: all images in this ten-page
photo essay of the new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter are
by the architecturally trained photographer Simone Bossi
© Simone Bossi