Season 1, episode 4
Moira Gemmill, Director of Projects, Design and Estates at the V&A, and architect, Amanda Levete, who has been commissioned to design the new Exhibition Road building, discuss the challenges of the project and the many opportunities it opens up. This ambitious project will create a purpose built space for temporary exhibitions, a courtyard for the public and will expose historic facades previously hidden from view.
Duration - 25:17
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A podcast. Bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we will be talking about the museum’s new gallery on Exhibition Road. If you come to the V&A’s main sight in South Kensington you’ll see the beginning of a construction site along the West side of the museum. We’re getting ready for a big dig. Our goal is to create a purpose built underground gallery for temporary exhibitions. There will also be a street level courtyard surrounded by parts of the V&A’s historic façade, which are presently unseen by the public. This project, which will transform visitor’s experience of the V&A, is currently projected to open in 2017. Here to discuss the Exhibition Road gallery is, the architect, Amanda Levete, of the firm AL_A here in London, and we’re also joined by Moira Gemmill, Director of Projects, Design, and Estate at the V&A.
So Amanda, perhaps you could begin the conversation by telling us what attracted you to this project in the first place? Why were you interested?
(AL:) Why wouldn’t I be interested? I mean, this is probably the most major cultural commission in London of the last ten years, and for one of the best museums in the world, that deals with art and architecture. So I can’t really imagine a better commission, and for my practice it was particularly exciting to win the competition because we are in the process of doing a cultural project in Lisbon, we’ve never done a cultural, or indeed a public, project in our hometown of London. We’re probably more known for things like the media centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and Selfridges in Birmingham, so to do a museum project was a great step.
(GA:) Also to do a project where you would have a big visiting public coming in to see the building, and having a fully rounded experience there.(AL:) Yes, I mean the real joy of working on a public project, is that engagement, a really deep engagement with the public, and that it is accessible to everybody, and that you can make a real difference to people’s experience and understanding.
(GA:) So Moira, how did we get to the stage of having Amanda, and her firm, involved in the project? How does the Museum go about commissioning an architectural firm for a project of this scale?
(MG:) As with all of our projects, we run international competitions for those that are of this sort of scale, and that’s what we did in this instance. There was an interesting exercise that we undertook just before we ran the major competition, which was to invite a series of architects, and give them a brief, and ask them to create scale models, for this very site, and this particular project, and a series of accompanying visuals to support their concepts, as an exhibition for the V&A. It was a really interesting exercise because it helped us to understand the possibilities on that site, and it also helped us engage with a lot of people who were finding it difficult to get excited about an underground building. So it was a fantastically useful thing to do, and it showed an incredible breadth of designs and concepts, that could be created on that site. That particular exercise also helped us to further define the brief, and then we went out to competition, and of course Amanda Levete architects won.
(GA:) So, why was it that decision was made? What was it that allowed Amanda to beat out the competition? Which I assume must have been fierce competition.
(MG:) Oh it was absolutely fierce, it attracted huge international interest, and we short-listed a series of practices from all over the world, Japan, and the States, and across Europe, and others in London. There were several reasons why AL_A’s scheme became number one choice, unanimously for the panel, I think it was the way that they had taken the brief so seriously. We wanted to achieve several things, one was to create a much better permeability with Exhibition Road, given the recent Dixon Jones scheme that has been applied to the surface of Exhibition Road, and makes that side of our building much more populated.
(GA:) So you have this semi-pedestrianized thoroughfare going right past the West side of the museum, a lot of it is about opening up to that space.
(MG:) Exactly right, and the existing entrances that we have on Exhibition Road are very poor quality. It was also, a continuation if you like, an idea that had been started by Aston Webb. This is the last remaining footprint on our site that we can build, and his initial idea was to create a garden there, and that idea fell apart when they ran out of money back in 1909, and they had to put the boilers on that site, and they had to create this enormous screen, which is a barrier between the V&A and Exhibition Road. So those incredible historic facades that sit behind the screen, were designed to be seen, but have never been seen by the public. We needed to create a new single unified space for our major exhibitions, and anybody who comes to the V&A exhibitions, which are brilliant, but they know and they feel that the spaces they are in are less than satisfactory. Our major exhibitions are split over two or three rooms with corridors running in between, it’s confusing for our visitors, logistically it’s difficult for us to manage. So we wanted to create one single uninterrupted space, purpose built for our headline exhibitions.
(GA:) Amanda, that raises a couple of points that I wanted to ask you about. Maybe the first thing, that Moira noted, that this is indeed an underground building, so can you walk us through some of the aesthetic features of this project? What have you done to, I suppose, exploit the brief that Moira was talking about? What are the creative and artistic decisions that you took?
(AL:) The brief embodies a real paradox, in that the main body of the brief is belowground, and therefore invisible. We took this very abstract notion of making visible the invisible as an idea, as a notion, that actually has driven every aspect of our thinking, and design, and indeed detail. It’s interesting, you can’t always do this, but for a project to be driven by something that is so abstract, because it becomes a very intellectual line of enquiry, it’s not just formalist. So how do we make a palpable expression of this space deep underground? One of the ways in which we wanted to do this was to somehow express in this courtyard, which is more than just a courtyard, it’s a new public space, it’s a very important mediating space between the street and the museum, and very unusual in that respect, that we have the luxury of the space in which to do that, that on the surface of the courtyard we would find a way of expressing what was below. The big structural challenge of this project is that we have to span thirty eight metres, and in order to do that we came up with a structure that is a folded metal plate, because when you fold something it adds stiffness, when you fold a piece of paper it becomes very stiff, it’s a very efficient way of creating a large span. We took this somewhat complex geometry, because we also had to deal with a big level difference between Exhibition Road and the level of the Museum. We took this, kind of shifting geometry, and then extracted it onto a flat surface, digitised it, and mixed it up a little bit to create a pattern for the tiling, which is the surface of the courtyard. The courtyard will, in fact, be the first porcelain courtyard in the world with this very complex abstract pattern that reveals, once you understand a little bit more about the project, it reveals the notion of the structure that is supporting the courtyard. Then in the courtyard itself we carved out an oculus, which looks down into the gallery space, so allows a moment of dramatic sunlight, or daylight, or can be closed off, into the gallery itself. We conceptualised it as though it were an empty museum vitrine, so you look into this vitrine, which is in fact revealing the structure, which is this folded plate, but there is nothing in the vitrine, you just see it lined as though it’s crushed velvet, but it’s actually anodised aluminium. So you’re playing this game, and it’s very much following in the tradition of the V&A, it’s a very didactic building, its purpose and its ethos is to be didactic, and so we used the architecture to explain and reveal what we are doing.
(GA:) Yes, I wanted to ask you about that, specifically having to deal with the identity of the museum, and I suppose what I was wondering about, was the relationship between the new and the old in the project? Because you’ve mentioned this very progressive digital logic that you pursued in developing the design, but then also materials like porcelain, which I suppose our visitors would associate with the deep past and with the collection. So do you feel that you are adding something new to the museum that also speaks to its historic fabric? To its age?
(AL:) Yes, I hope that we are speaking both to the past, but also to the future. The remit of the V&A is to teach about the relationship between art and craft and manufacturing and making. What we’ve done with the courtyard, in deliberately choosing a very ancient material, porcelain is one of the most ancient materials, and it is a very important part of the V&A’s ceramic collection, it’s one of the best in the world. But in re-imagining the relationship of porcelain to a flat surface, because to take it into something where we have to marry volume production with a real artisanal approach it’s very much this merging of technology, craftsmanship, and artistry, and that’s very much what the collection of the V&A is. It’s also an issue of provenance, it is very important, where these pieces come from, and we are doing a huge piece of research, and we’re working with people in Stoke, in Spain and in Holland, all of whom bring very ancient and historic ways of making tiles, but we’re re-imagining the process in order to create something very particular for the V&A.
(GA:) So on the manufacturing side there is also that balance between tradition and novelty.
(AL:) Yes, very much so, it ties deeply into the remit of the V&A as a public place.
(MG:) Yes, there’s a great tradition in the V&A also of expressing the structure, the historic structure, and I think that’s one thing that AL_A have really picked up on within this project. So there are beautiful examples of cast and wrought iron roof structures throughout the building. Amanda has already talked about the very innovative folded plate that creates this column free space, which is so necessary for our exhibitions, and it supports the courtyard above and it creates this amazing looking ceiling, a very, very modern ceiling for the galleries with fantastic height below, I think it’s at its minimum point at six metres, rising to ten metres in certain areas, but just giving a fantastically interesting ceiling to the space. Again in keeping with other V&A interiors.
(AL:) That’s a very important point, and perhaps something that set us apart from our competitors, is that most museum spaces have a flat ceiling, but that is not the tradition of the V&A. The V&A have a fantastic expression of neo-gothic and neo-classic ceilings, and it’s very particular to the museum, and we have somehow wanted to take that, but to take it forward and advance it and make it so it’s applicable to the twenty first century. It was about creating a space that has a really particular character, because every space in the V&A is infused with character, nothing is neutral.
(GA:) It alludes to that Victorian past without replicating it in any way.
(MG:) We’ve also talked about light, and I think that was a critical part of the decision to choose AL_A, because of the very skilful way that daylight is brought into the building. Not just into the gallery itself, and I know there will be lots of dissenters who say ‘we don’t need daylight in a gallery for museum exhibitions’, but actually we do, it’s just a lovely thing. More than that, there is a light filled journey down to the gallery, because we know that people don’t like going underground. We need to make the journey as straight forward and exciting and as light-filled as we possibly can. I think Amanda’s scheme really works hard to achieve that, and shows fantastic views out to other parts of the building. Again the sgraffito panels on the side of the Henry Cole wing, which have never been seen by the public, will be able to be seen from the staircase that takes you down and back up into the exhibition gallery.
(AL:) When you go underground one of the things that disorientates people most is that you loose sense of where you are, in relation to where you’ve come from. Part of the weaving of old and new was about creating this route down to the gallery below, because we are going almost fifteen metres below ground, and always having places that you can look up and see a view of another part of the gallery, so you have a sense of where you are. As Moira says, as you enter the staircase down, the space is filled with natural light, but as you go down the stairs the light disappears, but we manipulate the light so that when you reach the bottom of the staircase there’s this magic moment when natural light is flooding in, you know you are below ground, and you can’t quite understand where it comes from, but it’s exhilarating, and it makes you feel secure. That journey and celebrating the act of descent and assent was an incredibly important part of our philosophy.
(GA:) It sounds almost like a religious experience.
(AL:) (Laughs) I hope so.
(GA:) What else can visitors expect in the building? We’ve talked about the gallery and the staircase, but of course there’s other features of the building as well.
(AL:) Well, I think the most important thing is to talk a little bit about the courtyard and the purpose of the courtyard, and from my perspective it was a very inspiring part of the brief from the V&A. The idea of creating a new space for the public, because I think one of the very important things for museums in the twenty first century is that they go beyond the boundaries of their physical building, whether that’s through digital platforms, or whether in this case, it’s through making a space that is a kind of transitional space, it’s a way of extending the threshold, extending that moment of decision between entering the museum and not. The courtyard will have incredible opportunities for art installations, for concerts, for showing films, and really more than anything for appropriation by the public. In this space there’s a café, you can stop and have a coffee, you don’t have to go to the museum, you don’t have to go to the new gallery space in order to understand it because you can see these parts of it before you enter. So in that sense it’s a very democratic space that we’re creating, and the idea of permeability from the street, from Exhibition Road, was incredibly important to us because it’s allowing the public to drift in it’s almost making the public feel like they have ownership of the space. That it’s not an intimidating space, it’s something that you will just drift into. I think it will have a very particular character in Exhibition Road, which is a wonderful boulevard, with all the museums and going up to Kensington Gardens, but there are no places of respite, no places to stop and reflect, and this will be such a place.
(GA:) So a place to just be. Moira, Amanda is talking about how this building is going to interact with its surroundings, can you say a little bit more about what the project will do to transform not only the museum but also South Kensington, this part of London that’s around us?
(MG:) Well I think Amanda has already touched on that, it will create a much more open relationship with Exhibition Road. Exhibition Road is a very busy place, something like eleven million people visit Exhibition Road, either for the museums or the universities there. We at the moment have just over three million visitors, so there’s another eight million out there that we should be attracting, not that we could cope with them all obviously. The whole point of Future Plan is to continue to make the V&A more physically and intellectually accessible to as many people as we can. That particular part of the scheme, the modifications that we are making to the Aston Webb screen, will really help with visibility and access. What we didn’t want to do was to create a new gallery space for headline exhibitions in such a way that visitors would come to the museum, see the exhibitions, and then leave. I think the way that the design has developed has really helped us to create a new entrance into the museum that very clearly shows visitors options for other parts of the museum to visit, not just straight down to the exhibition galleries.
(GA:) So we’ve been talking a lot about the positive impact this project is going to have on the museum and how great it will be, and of course we can’t wait to see it, but of course it’s very difficult, it’s going to be a long road getting there. Moira, perhaps I could start with you and ask, what are the challenges of undertaking a project of this scale on a site that is as precious and important as The Victoria and Albert Museum?
(MG:) Well there are many challenges all the way through. I think for designers and architects who haven’t worked in museums before it can be quite a revelation to find out about all the different considerations that need to be taken into account. We have got to design for many different stakeholders, our operational staff, who need to use the space, for our visitors, so that they enjoy it and feel comfortable in it, for English Heritage, because we are grade I listed, and for our local residents. So there are a lot of stakeholders involved, who’s opinions need to be taken on board throughout the process. During the construction, particularly with this project, dust and noise and vibration are big concerns for us. We need to be able to offer our visitors who are still coming to the museum a really fantastic experience while this massive building project is going on. We need to offer staff quiet places to work, we need to be mindful of adjacent galleries that have fragile collections. The other challenge in this is the length of the project, quite often our projects run over several years, and that in itself creates difficulties. You need to keep a core team together, you can loose key personnel over a period of several years, but you’ve got to keep the key team together, and that is challenging. And money of course, we have to raise the money for the project, and then we have to keep everything on budget, and make sure we don’t compromise the end quality. All of those things really stack up in terms of challenges, but that’s what makes it interesting. (GA:) Amanda, how about from your perspective? Obviously it’s early days for you yet in the project in some sense, but how have you found the experience of working in a museum so far?
(AL:) Well the big difference with working in a museum and with a cultural client is that everybody that we deal with has a really deep understanding and passion and respect for design and creativity, while we can all have our differences that underpins everything. Its made the design process one that is really stimulating in a very genuine way, because the kind of challenges we get back are the kind of ones that we are delighted to deal with and to dissect and discuss. So I think that’s the most significant difference about working on a cultural project versus a lets say a commercial project is this kind of depth of engagement.
(GA:) So it’s actually the people that you are dealing with on the other side.
(AL:) Yes, it’s always about people, and it’s always about relationships. In terms of the challenges, well Moira has explained, it’s a huge structural challenge, we’re underpinning parts of the V&A and it’s collection, while we dig fifteen metres below ground. But it will be a fantastically exciting building construction site and one that we hope to reveal to the public and document in a really deep, considered and archival way, because this challenge, this moment is too precious to let just disappear into the ether.
(MG:) Absolutely, this will be the only project of its type, probably ever at the V&A. So it’s hugely exciting.
(GA:) So, maybe I could finish by asking you each one last question, beginning with you Moira. We’ve been talking about looking ahead to 2017, but if we were to look ahead even further, fifty or one hundred years into the future, what do you imagine this building will be like, what do you think history will be saying about us, looking back at this moment when we built it?
(MG:) Well I hope, and I hope this for all of our projects, but I think what we must expect and what we must make sure happens with all of the architectural interventions that we make at the V&A, wherever they are, is that the design is the very best of its moment. It’s beautifully proportioned, it’s beautifully detailed, the structure and the material are very carefully considered, and it’s of the moment, but it’s very much a part of the continuing evolution of the V&A.
(AL:) For me it marks a real moment, and a kind of shift in values, which was embedded in the brief. We’ve moved away from this idea of museum as icon, and what we are creating at the V&A is a place as icon, if you like. It’s just a place, and the structure is below and invisible. It’s giving a different kind of respect and understanding of how important public engagement is, it’s not just about being wowed at a structure, it’s about bringing the public in and setting up a narrative that allows them to become deeply embedded into the whole idea, the whole notion. So that everything becomes explicit without actually having to say anything.
(GA:) Fantastic. Well, thank you both very, very much for that discussion and this journey through place making that our visitors can look forward to on Exhibition Road. I know they will all be there for opening day, I certainly will. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this discussion, please join us again next time for the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of The Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
Listen to the V&A Podcast on iTunes U.
Supported by HERA
The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com