In 1844 the Scottish city of Dundee eagerly anticipated its first royal visit in almost two centuries. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert’s stay was a resounding success and to mark the occasion, the city erected the “Royal Arch” in 1853. It was an instant icon. A monumental structure, it towered over the nearby docks and could be seen all around the city, and indeed the world as Dundee capitalized on its marketing potential. In 1964, however, the Royal Arch was shamefully demolished so the Tay Road Bridge could be built as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan.
Fast forward 54 years and Victoria and Albert have returned, albeit in the form of a museum, and with it, Dundee once again has an icon worthy of global attraction.
The V&A Museum of Design, colloquially known as the “V&A Dundee” has been designed by Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma. Bizarrely, yet also somewhat endearingly, train station departure and arrival boards display the architect and his nationality. The city is undeniably proud of its revived, post-Victorian internationalism.
“I was inspired by Japanese temple archways,” Kuma told The Architect’s Newspaper. “The archways connect the mountain and nature to the city.” Composed as two inverted pyramids, the V&A Dundee forms an archway of sorts of its own, framing a view on the River Tay and the Tay Road Bridge that spans it.
Kuma was also keen to keep the museum decidedly Scottish. It’s ragged, craggy facade is inspired by Scotland’s cliff-edged coastline and comprises 2,429 pre-cast concrete slabs. These lean over the River Tay, mimicking the prow of a ship. One segment of the museum does, in fact, edge out into the river, while porthole-like windows looking over the Tay create the impression of being on a ship when inside.
On the Tay’s banks, even at the end of summer, the wind is ferocious. The shallow pools that circle the V&A’s base produce miniature waves, enhancing the sensation of being, as Kuma calls it, “in conversation with nature.”
Externally the V&A Dundee is an impressive structure. Walking around the building, it’s staggered facade undulates and unwinds, revealing views onto the building and the River Tay beyond. As a result, the museum has become an instant photo opportunity, with the public (myself included) capturing its curvature to send straight to their Instagram feeds. (The hashtag #V&ADundee already has more than 2,000 posts). This is a digital building for the digital age. “Twenty years ago, we could not have built this building,” said Kuma. “It’s curves and structure are too complex.”
Such a distinctive form has its pros and cons inside. The structure works in tension, with a steel truss spanning roof to link up with the outward leaning facades. As a result, the new museum has the largest column-free exhibition space in Scotland, allowing it to host exhibitions that were previously only available to Scots and Dundonians willing to either fly or take a six-hour train to London.
Gallery spaces are located on the museum’s upper level. The fittingly nautical Ocean Liners exhibition, sailing up from the V&A in London, inaugurates the museum. The Scottish Design Galleries, meanwhile, host permanent exhibitions, showcasing Scotland’s design prowess. Of the 300 objects on display, one has American roots: a model and sketches of Frank Gehry’s Dundee Maggie’s Centre. The most notable exhibit is Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s “Oak Room” which was designed for the Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow. The beautifully crafted ensemble from one of Kuma’s “heroes” has been restored and rightfully put on display, marking its first outing in half a century.
Alongside the two galleries on the upper level are studios and an auditorium. These are joined by an open gallery, free to the public and restaurant, both of which look down into a lobby below via a mezzanine with the latter also offering views along the River Tay.
It’s here, though, that the museum’s shape causes problems. An outdoor terrace for the restaurant feels like an afterthought. Up here it’s even windier than at ground level and the tight space is encased by the concrete cladding system meaning there isn’t even a view worth braving the elements for.
A similar story continues downstairs in the lobby, too. Oak veneered panels emulate the external facade and as a result are too steep to be sat on and truly useful. An auditorium may already be upstairs, but these panels could easily become bleachers, creating an informal auditorium in the process. This would even dovetail with Kuma’s notion of the museum’s lobby supposedly being a “living room for the city.”
“This is not a space just for art lovers,” the architect said, but in reality, the lobby is just a cafe area and museum shop.
The V&A Dundee has come at a price: $105 million, twice the initial budget. It’s also four years late. Dundonian’s, however, don’t seem to mind. “I’m just pleased that that kind of money is being spent of Dundee!” said one local, though on it’s opening day, a small protest by anti-poverty campaigners did take place.
For all the efforts gone into making the museum happen, considerably less has gone into improving the surrounding area. An awful train station-hotel greets those visiting by rail and another, equally drab hotel is currently going up opposite the V&A. This is all part of a $1.3-billion waterfront masterplan which rehashes the work of planners 60 years ago. It’s just as well Kuma’s museum makes all that comes before instantly forgettable. The V&A Dundee is the icon Dundee has craved, turning the city into a genuine Scottish destination.