One Year On – Reflections on V&A Dundee

V&A DundeeLast week I was asked my opinion on the V&A Dundee by The Times and the points I made have been misrepresented and subsequently misquoted. I would like to set the record straight with my personal views.

As an architect who has worked with cultural organisations for 20 years, I have never called a cultural institution either ‘silly’ or ‘boring’. I am passionate about the arts and culture being available to all – and yes, I do therefore have some misgivings about the V&A in this respect.

I admire Dundee’s ambition and their use of cultural as a regeneration catalyst – a long tested method, perhaps the best example of which is the Guggenheim in Bilbao and more recently Hull as UK’s City of Culture. The waterfront of Dundee is now unrecognisable from its former self.

I do however have reservations that many day trippers to the V&A simply arrive by train, dart across the road, and then back again. It is very easy to miss the other cultural offerings in Dundee such as the McManus Galleries, Dundee Contemporary Arts and Verdant Works. I do not know if there has been a discernible upward shift in visitor numbers to these institutions, but I sincerely hope so. The V&A could do more in my opinion to explicitly exploit creative partnerships and communicate the rich creative scene going on in the city.

Internally there is a disproportionate space allocation to the arrival and atrium space, resulting in cramped gallery conditions for the permanent collection. There is wealth of content on display, but the galleries feel tight and, as this is the part with free entry, on the times I have visited the galleries are very congested.

V&A Dundee - permanent galleries

I discussed with the reporter from The Times the challenge that many organisations have in terms of not only financial sustainability but also breaking down the psychological barriers that exist for many people to visit our galleries, museums and theatres. Placing the shop and café at the entrance – to negotiate that threshold – is again a tried and tested approach – and it would be great if organisations could place at least some of their collection ‘front and centre’ at that point of entry.

The V&A does devote some space to free exhibits on the generous first floor foyer and the access to the ‘reading corner’ where design publications are found with some appropriately chosen seating is a nice touch, encouraging someone to sit and flick through a book or magazine whilst waiting for companions using the facilities. As I know from my architectural work – these ‘chance encounters’ are important in capturing people’s wider interest and encouraging them to engage further.

V&A Dundee atrium

The building has some great subtle details, such as the pitch of the main stair which makes for a very comfortable climb from entrance level to the first floor. I also thought that the flow of the temporary gallery spaces works well, having seen the Videogames: Design / Play / Disrupt a couple of months ago. And what a great exhibition! Informative and stimulating about a subject on which I previously had no real knowledge or interest, but I found incredibly engaging.

Repeat visitors will generally only return however if they are interested in the ‘block buster’ exhibitions no matter how great the building is. Though an iconic piece of architecture and one that does entice exploration, I do question if the V&A can sustain the interest beyond that first visit. That will be down to the quality of the exhibitions which, given the V&A’s reputation, will be first class – and how accessible they are not only in terms of content but also price, which links back to my main point about democratic access. The V&A’s learning programme is vital in this respect, and the use of the foyer space and education spaces to engage is essential. I am heartened to see a wide variety of events being advertised, many of which are free, and I hope there is take up for the membership scheme which to me appears good value but does rely on a certain level of disposable income.

I imagine for locals that the first-floor restaurant is a key component too, with many returning regularly to enjoy lunch and the great views out over the Tay – if you can afford it.

To conclude – the V&A Dundee is undoubtedly an iconic piece of architecture – a giant sculpture skilfully poised on the waterfront, and a powerful symbol of Dundee’s ambition, drive and energy. I would have loved to see more space devoted to the rich history of Scotland’s design culture and for all of the building to be free to enter and enjoy, whilst fully appreciating the economic imperative to have paid exhibitions.

You will see that, despite being an architect, I have commented little on the architecture as I believe the true test of a cultural building is if it can be sustainable over time – and this includes allowing it to change to meet changing demands and demographics to remain relevant and representative. Our Victorian museums have proved themselves remarkably adaptable and therefore resilient in that respect. I am not so sure that may of our contemporary buildings will prove so.

As a firm believer in access to the culture being to everyone’s benefit, I sincerely hope that the V&A is a success and brings benefit to Dundee as a whole, but after just one short year it is difficult for anyone to truly assess whether this is the case.

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