The V&A building was designed not only to house its collections, but as an exhibit in its own right. This trail will take you through the Museum to look at some of its unique architecture.
The building introduced a new style of architecture, based on older buildings, but using modern production techniques and materials in new ways. It was a successful collage of styles and motifs, almost like an architectural scrapbook.
Its influence was huge, especially in the revival of terracotta and mosaic in Victorian Britain. As you walk around the Museum, the original floors, walls and ceilings are a reminder of a time when the styles of the past were being translated into the machine age.
The trail starts outside the main entrance on Cromwell Road. Use a V&A map to help you find your way along the trail.
View and print the V&A Building Trail (PDF file, 150 KB) and bring it with you to the Museum.
The main entrance, V&A
The main entrance to the V&A is the central focus of the building facing onto Cromwell Road. Its extensive decoration is centred around and above the main doors and archway. The carved stone sculpture is a mixture of subjects, ranging from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to symbolic themes such as Truth, Beauty, Knowledge and Inspiration.
The style is complex and hard to classify. Many of the elements are classical, but the open crown on top of the central block comes from Gothic church towers. To some extent this mix reflects the wide range of the Museum's content at the time.
The Grand Entrance, V&A
Entering the V&A through the Grand Entrance you immediately come into a large, domed space.
Its form and decoration draw on the Classical Revival style of 16th century France, with pillars, arches, a dome and surroundings of polished marble and stone. The aim was to create an impression of grandeur and refinement.
The Grand Entrance was also designed for practical purposes. Circulation space was needed for people to plan their visit, get information or meet others. These activities still take place today.
The original façade of the V&A
The John Madejski Garden
The façade was designed to suggest the Museum's history and purpose. It is in the Classical Revival style of 15th century Italy, as a mark of refinement and learning.
The mosaics and sculpture represent Science, Art, Poetry, History and Philosophy. The triangular pediment celebrates the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The mosaic, the hard red brick and the moulded terracotta used on the building were all promoted at the time as attractive materials that could withstand pollution.
One of the Cast Courts, V&A
Level 1, Rooms 46a and 46b
These great halls, originally called the Architecture Courts, were built to house the V&A's growing collection of large-scale architectural plaster casts.
The courts made use of new ideas, technology and techniques. The coved ceiling was one of the first uses of laminated timber. The glass roof originally used glass squares set into the ironwork frame without putty, to allow the metal to expand. Even before opening the roof leaked when it snowed.
Around each gallery there is a narrow gallery supported by cast-iron brackets, covered in plaster. It originally carried hundreds of gas jets to light the courts.
The National Art Library, V&A
National Art Library
The Library is a series of interconnecting rooms designed to meet the needs of the readers.
It was one of the first buildings in the V&A to have electric light installed as part of the fittings. The iron and glass roof and the large windows facing into the Garden make the most of the constant north light. The cases and bookshelves were purpose built.
The decoration is in the Classical Revival style of 16th century Italy. It is above eye level, to avoid being a distraction, and the upper gallery still has its original plasterwork and ornate railings.
The Silver galleries, V&A
Level 3, Rooms 65-69, 70a, 89
This run of galleries is in the Classical Revival style, based on 16th century Italian interiors. The rooms were originally meant for the display of ceramics. The frieze, running just under the ceiling, gives the names of the great pottery and porcelain centres around the world.
The two pillars at the entrance to the gallery, near the Ceramic Staircase, are cast iron clad with moulded ceramic tiles. The other columns in the gallery were also like this. Originally, the galleries had windows on both sides and a tiled floor.
The Ceramic Staircase, V&A
Levels 1 and 3, Stair I
This highly decorated staircase was intended to be an example of the good design and manufacture that the Museum wished to promote.
It is covered with mosaic, painting and moulded ceramics. Classical in style, this decoration includes ancient Roman gods, masks and symbolic figures such as Art and Science. These were considered appropriate for an institution dedicated to education.
Critics claimed that the moulded figures were badly modelled and the masks were lopsided. However, the fame of the staircase spread and other museums wanted to copy the style.