A history of the V&A on Exhibition Road

In May 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the newly named Victoria & Albert Museum, and proclaimed, "I trust it will remain for ages a monument of discerning liberty and a source of refinement and progress". The V&A's new Exhibition Road Quarter, completed in 2017, is the epitome of the Queen's appeal. Providing a new entrance, courtyard and purpose-built gallery for temporary exhibitions, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter showcases the best of contemporary design, and celebrates the beauty of the Museum's existing buildings.

The current buildings along Exhibition Road had originally been the dream of the Museum's first Director, Henry Cole. In 1868, Cole sketched his ideas for an extension to the Science School building (now the Henry Cole Wing) that would include an arcade punctuated by an octagonal tower with an external spiral staircase and a viewing platform. The proposed tower, as well as being a distinctive and imaginative landmark, would be used as a chimney for the boilers in 'Boilerhouse Yard' – once a small, slightly over-grown garden nestled between Exhibition Road and the Residences block. Coal boilers were an unattractive industrial necessity at the time, needed to heat the Museum's many buildings and galleries.

Design for a tower and museum extension on Exhibition Road after Henry Cole, 1868. Museum no. E.2034-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Treasury did not approve of the expenditure, so Cole's vision for Exhibition Road remained unbuilt. However, nearly 30 years later, designs by the architect Aston Webb were accepted for a vast new range of buildings, with a 230 metre façade along Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road, that completed the Museum and connected the piecemeal Victorian development into a much more cohesive scheme. Webb explained (over-optimistically, as it turned out) that the key benefit of his plan was that it would enable visitors to orientate themselves inside the building and get a quick feel for the displays.

Sir Aston Webb, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, about 1890. Museum no. 7753-1938 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The laying of the foundation stone of the V&A at the junction of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road, designed by Sir Aston Webb, 1899. Museum no. E.1754-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1909 Aston Webb's screen was built, connecting the Exhibition Road façade of his new building with the existing Science School. This was a clever architectural intervention and an elegant solution to hide the boilerhouse yard, with a solid stone wall below and a graceful colonnade above, which allowed passersby to glimpse the buildings beyond.

The V&A with scaffolding during the construction of Sir Aston Webb's new building, Louis Weirter, 1906, England. Museum no. D.655-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the 20th century progressed, the need for the once indispensable boilers disappeared. The screen, however, remained in place even after their removal and continued to restrict the public's view of the western side of the Museum. During the war years, this section suffered considerable damage. A report on the devastation stated:

Two powerful bombs hit in the vicinity on Exhibition Road. It has practically wrecked the west side of the Museum. The surface of the masonry was badly knocked about and the Exhibition Road doors were blown in. Practically all windows, frames and iron grilles were destroyed and we have lost most of the glass roofing on that side of the Museum.

Evidence of the shrapnel blast can still be seen on the Aston Webb screen and adjoining doorway. In 1987 letter-cutter and designer David Kindersley added an inscription around the bomb damage on one of the stones, to remind visitors of 'the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict'.

Photograph of the Aston Webb façade, Exhibition Road, showing bomb damage, 1996. Museum no. CT41656. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, more than a century after the completion of Aston Webb's prestigious project to complete and unify the Museum, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter project has taken up the mantle to physically transform the V&A, and to continue the Museum's mission to inspire all who enter its doors with innovative architectural surroundings.

Following an extensive international competition, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) was selected from over 110 architectural teams from all over the world to create a new courtyard, entrance and exhibition gallery for the Museum. Visitor numbers have more than trebled in the last decade, and the new facilities offer huge benefits to the area. The late Moira Gemmill, Director of Projects, Design and Estates at the V&A, said the AL_A were chosen, unanimously, because their design felt like a continuation "of an idea that had been started by Aston Webb". His initial idea of a garden – a meeting space – that was scrapped because of the boiler placement, has been revived in the magnificent Exhibition Road Courtyard, which provides much needed public space in which to gather and relax.

The Sackler Courtyard and Cafe, V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. © Hufton+Crow

The Exhibition Road Courtyard is the first porcelain-tiled public courtyard in the United Kingdom. More than 10,000 porcelain tiles, with a variety of ridges and glazes, were created with the help of the Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum ceramics factory in the Netherlands. Amanda Levete said:

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 … [is to provide a] merging of technology, craftsmanship, and artistry, and that's very much what the collection of the V&A does.

This choice of material responds to the V&A's many striking examples of decorative ceramics and acts as a declaration of the space that lies beneath it. The Exhibition Road Courtyard includes a café and an oculus – conceptualised as if it were a glass museum vitrine – which allows daylight down into The Sainsbury Gallery.

Left to right: The Sainsbury Gallery, The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. ©Hufton+Crow. Descending staircase, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. ©Hufton+Crow

From The Exhibition Road Courtyard visitors will access The Sainsbury Gallery and the wider Museum through the Blavatnik Hall, a major new entrance where the V&A expects to welcome around half of its 3.4 million annual visitors. The Sainsbury Gallery, a 1,100-square-metre column-free underground space, is one of the largest temporary exhibition spaces in the UK and allows the V&A to significantly improve the way it designs and presents its world class exhibition programme. Its complex geometry, although technically elaborate, has been likened to crushed velvet. The challenge of a subterranean gallery and its column-free architecture was embraced by AL_A:

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.

Amanda Levete, AL_A
The Blavatnik Hall, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. © Hufton+Crow

An important component of the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter is the public's interaction with the previously hidden façades of Aston Webb's original buildings, and the earlier Henry Cole Wing, including its sgraffito decoration that has not been visible to the public since its completion in 1873. Sgraffito, from the same Italian word that gave us graffiti, is a form of decoration used during the Renaissance; it was made by 'scratching' a design into multi-coloured layers of plaster to reveal the colours beneath.

Photograph showing sgraffito (engraved plaster decoration) on the east side of the Science Schools (now Henry Cole Wing), designed by F.W. Moody and executed by students of the Art Schools, about 1870. Museum no. CIS 77778. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This façade of the Henry Cole Wing was designed by a member of staff at the Museum, Francis Moody, and his students. It was one of a number of experiments that were carried out in the Museum's buildings to discover better, or cheaper, techniques of decoration that might be suitable for a modern, polluted urban environment. After careful conservation and repair in 2012, this intriguing architectural curiosity has finally been revealed.

The new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter promises to be a beautifully detailed and re-imagined civic space that, while alluding to the Victorian past, is a marvel of 21st-century design. Like the rest of the V&A, it is infused with character and will be a stand-out element of the Museum for years to come.

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V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. ©Hufton+Crow

The 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.

Audio descriptions of historic locations in the Museum are available for blind and partially sighted visitors to listen to online at home or during a visit to the V&A.