V&A Dundee review – a flawed treasure house on the Tay

You cannot fault the ambition that underpins the V&A’s striking new northern outpost, but behind the powerful exterior not all is sweetness and light

In the Oak Room, a 1907 interior by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a gallery balustrade is decorated with thin strips of timber that overlay and intersect like weaving. They effect transitions from firmer pillars below and plainer panels around them into delicate multiple uprights that reach to the ceiling. The gridded pattern of the wood is echoed in metal lampshades whose coloured glass enriches the shadows of alcoves beneath the gallery. The whole is a beautiful ensemble of light, structure and ornament, a feat of unified diversity made possible by the expressive range of the main material, oak.

The room was part of the Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow, rescued from the demolition of its host building in 1971 and kept in storage and in pieces until now. Its reconstruction is one of the triumphs of the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee, where exhibits from the V&A’s collections are combined with loans from elsewhere. A temporary exhibition space, built to the same large dimensions as Amanda Levete Architects’ recent Sainsbury Gallery at the V&A mothership in London, enables blockbuster shows to travel between one and the other. The museum opens with the V&A’s splendid Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition.

The Oak Room stands in the Scottish Design Galleries, a sampling of the prodigious contribution made by a nation of 5 million or so people to the design of the manmade world. There is the heavy engineering that you might expect, bridges and ships, but also the abstract, ahead-of-its-time glassware of the late-Victorian designer Christopher Dresser, the anarchic glory of the Dundee-based Beano, computer games created in the same city, the luxurious classicism of the 18th-century architect Robert Adam and the freestyle brutalism of the 20th-century’s Basil Spence.

V&A Dundee
Photograph: Hufton Crow

The container of these treasures is an £80m building on the edge of the majestic River Tay – a conjoined pair of inverted pyramids in rugged concrete inspired, says its Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma, by Scottish cliffs. It’s a memorable, impressive object, already popular for fashion shoots and car promotions, which will do its job of announcing Dundee’s ambition to the world. It has powerful moments, especially when you pass towards the landscape through an arch formed between the two main blocks. Its cragginess suits its tough northern location.

All of which – both the promise of the form and the quality of the exhibits – make it headbangingly frustrating that a series of somewhat inexplicable architectural decisions keeps intruding on the journey from one to the other. Good design, as the contents of the galleries show, is purposeful, or joyous, or practical, or liberating, or any combination of the above. Too much of the new building just gets in the way. It is laborious, to no clear benefit.

Let’s start with the view. Dundee’s setting, on a slope towards the broad river, is wonderful urban topography, and it’s a bonus of the V&A project that it has enabled the improvement of what was a messed-up bit of waterfront. With some difficulty and expense, Kuma’s building is partly built on the water, also in the name of connection with nature. Yet once you get inside what is a blocky presence on the quay, you at first see the river only through shards and postcards of glass.

That could be OK. The response to spectacular scenery need not always be panoramic transparent walls. As there can be beauty in framing, in selecting and unfolding, you await, as you progress through the building, the big reveal. The trouble is that it never comes, not even on a first-floor cafe terrace, being always compromised and blinkered by bits of architecture, odd triangles and screens, of unclear purpose. You can never sit back, look at the horizon and let out a contented sigh. Nor can you discern a guiding intelligence to the cutting and rationing of the view.

V& A Dundee
Photograph: Hufton + Crow

Then there’s a nice-sounding idea, a generously scaled entrance hall, which, says Kuma, can also be a public space for the people of Dundee, a place to linger whether or not they have come to see any exhibits, sheltered from the not always pleasant weather. So there’s a double-height volume, a broad stair and lift tower within it, which opens up to a broad first-floor deck on which relatively impromptu exhibitions can be held.

It looks the part, but its oddly distributed space is not actually congenial to the uses advertised. What with a reception desk, the displays of a shop and few tables and chairs, there’s not much room left on the ground floor for Dundonian flâneurs to enjoy the urban experience. The upper level is, conversely, prairie-like, sparsely populated by a few hard benches. The stair between the two floors is broad but straight and not especially conducive to lingering.

The museum’s inverted pyramid shape gives sloping planes that, if terraced into artificial hills on which visitors could sit and pass the time, might nicely fulfil Kuma’s stated aims. They are, instead, inaccessible because they are, I’m told, too steep. They are steep because that’s what the geometry of the external form requires, which raises the question: what’s more important – the lived experience of the spaces or abstract geometry?

V&A Dundee interior
‘Not much room left for Dundonian flâneurs to enjoy the urban experience’: inside V&A Dundee. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

What’s going on here is a common trait of architecture, the mistaking of a sign of an action for its reality. A big volume looks as if it will be a happy gathering place for a lot of people but turns out to be more a space for the architect’s mind to inhabit. Kuma says his building is “organic”, by which he means that its rough-hewn shape looks like a work of nature, but a larger meaning of the word is that a design grows harmoniously out of its situation and use. This it does not.

The same goes for the materials and details. The initial ideas are good – concrete striations in response to the exposed location give way to timber striations inside, to make a warmer, gentler atmosphere, after which the plaster of galleries necessarily takes over. In terms of quality of construction, the builders have done a good job. But there’s a lack of thought about how these good ideas go together that, combined with the angular geometry, leads to agonising shipwrecks at the encounters of concrete, wood, plaster, steel and/or glass. There is none of the Oak Room’s ability to connect and unify the like and the unalike.

Don’t look too closely at those concrete strips on the exterior either, or you will see clunky brackets holding them in place. It’s best not to worry too much about the fact that the building’s construction is solid concrete, to which a cosmetic outer layer of yet more concrete has been heavily applied. There must, surely, have been a less ponderous way of achieving the desired effect.

The V&A alongside the RRS Discovery in Dundee.
The V&A alongside the RRS Discovery in Dundee. Photograph: Hufton Crow

This project should be about relationships. There’s the landscape, the city, the contents, the people and, standing alongside, a beautiful ship, the Discovery, which Scott and Shackleton used on their Antarctic expeditions. The new building, while having a presence of its own, should enable and enhance these relationships. Too often, in striving too hard to announce its artistic attentions, it merely adds noise.

None of which should detract from the achievements of the city and University of Dundee, both of which were instrumental in bringing the V&A to the banks of the Tay. The contents justify themselves. They’ve also got themselves a landmark that, despite its perversities, will wear in. But between your first impression of the rocky building and close encounters with the exhibits, I suggest you distract yourself, perhaps by playing a Dundonian game on your phone.


Rowan Moore

The GuardianTramp

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