Trying too hard

Header Image

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Kengo Kuma’s gallery sails into Dundee with much fanfare, but why all the strenuous shapeism?

  • Yes, these were once working docks, hence the water and rather obvious ship-like forms.
    Yes, these were once working docks, hence the water and rather obvious ship-like forms. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • What is it trying to be, this curious building of both land and sea?
    What is it trying to be, this curious building of both land and sea? Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • The arch formed where the two buildings join gives an intriguing view of the Tay unfortunately blocked from the city side by new commercial development.
    The arch formed where the two buildings join gives an intriguing view of the Tay unfortunately blocked from the city side by new commercial development. Credit: Hufton + Crow
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Welcome to the great big mixed cultural metaphor on Tayside. Is Kengo Kuma’s V&A Dundee a cliff, a ghostly pair of ships, an arch, even (given the way the facade peels away in places) a curtain?  It is all of these things which might seem good: multivalent imagery, after all. But it is also curiously scale-less and from certain never-photographed angles looks like nothing so much as a cold store or titanic multi-storey car park. And while it dips its toes into the silvery Tay and sits amid landscaped pools, it is also in an expanding sea of second-and-third-rate commercial buildings sliced through by relief roads. Dundee proper is close, but does not feel nearly close enough. 

That’s the exterior, with its randomised aggregate-rich rough concrete slats slung from the black (or rather, dark grey) in-situ concrete carapace of the building, about which more in a moment. Inside there are lots more randomised slats, this time in timber, lining an impressive atrium with a nice floor in fossil-rich Irish limestone and a distinctly unimpressive suspended ceiling.  But you don’t really look at that because a humdinger of a cantilevered staircase snakes up one side of this huge room, complete with benches to pause at on the way. And a freestanding lift tower, clad in stainless steel mesh, rises like a totem through the space, surprisingly successfully. 

This interior works on the good old compression-and-release principle: you enter at a corner where the curtain of slats is pulled aside, pass through a relatively dark lobby, and then emerge into the epic space of the atrium, housing at its base the usual humdrum activities of café and shop. There’s a restaurant up at gallery level where the cliff-face of the facade erodes uneasily to reveal an unremarkable glass box, the better to enjoy the view west to the Tay railway bridge and down to Captain Scott’s ship Discovery, berthed alongside. There are a couple of cramped high-level open terraces but a rooftop viewing deck was strangely never in the plans. 

The atrium is reminiscent of the equivalent space in London’s similarly-sized, similarly expensive Design Museum as inserted by John Pawson beneath the retained roof of the old Commonwealth Institute. Ceiling aside, it’s much better than that because of the fizzing energy generated by the extreme structural geometry of Kuma’s building, apparent in the sharply outward-sloping walls. The atrium serves much the same purpose as a big events space, with the actual galleries tucked away apparently behind the scenes. Kuma has borrowed a trick from Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s 2006 Boston Institute of Contemporary Art with its large window angled downwards towards the water: here (geometry again) the downwards-angled window is triangular. Otherwise he pierces the sloping walls with little rectangular windows framing views out between the slats. 

 

Struggling to get hip in the 1980s, the V&A ran a cringeworthy-but-effective Saatchi advertising campaign ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’.  Now that seems like a prophecy. Here the attached museum is on the upper floor in the second building: at this point the two built forms merge so it is all very spacious, with room for an informal gallery and library in the timber-floored circulation area. There are two floors of the museum’s workshops and offices down below.  These museum areas are black-box spaces, for conservation and curatorial reasons. The two galleries here – the Scottish Design Gallery by architect ZMMA and the spaces for temporary exhibitions opening with the V&A’s excellent ‘Ocean Liners’ show – work perfectly well. Once you’re in them (with the exception of an original Mackintosh Miss Cranston tea room interior, the Ingram Street ‘Oak Room’ which takes us to 1908 Glasgow) you could be anywhere. The galleries could be in an adapted distribution warehouse. But that, of course, would not have cost £80 million and would not have had such a spectacular café space. 

The reason it cost £80 million, up from an original highly-optimistic £27 million, is down to Jørn Utzon and Frank Gehry. The shapeist cultural building, as ushered in by Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and Gehry’s later Bilbao Guggenheim, is still thought to be so much of a currency, worth so much in global visibility and tourist dollars, to be well worth the supercharged capital outlay. So although the V&A Dundee was value-engineered (originally, for instance, it was going to project much further into the Tay, splay outwards more outrageously and have a double-skin structure) it was still very challenging indeed to build. And as Utzon did in Sydney, here Kuma also depended on the talents of engineer Arup to make the whole thing work.

Nonetheless it feels uncomfortable, walking beneath those tonnes of concrete hanging above your head

This is an in-situ concrete hull set on piles going down some 15m to the glacial bedrock, which required a huge cofferdam to keep the water out. The walls lean this way and that,  folding in and out, and at the corners where the outward-leaning walls join, they develop into mighty cantilevers, one stretching 19.5m beyond the building’s footprint. Arup found a way of making the walls much thinner than originally envisaged, with very precise steel reinforcement, tolerance of 3mm as you’d hope in a corrosive marine environment. The 300mm walls are backed with a waterproof membrane and 150mm of sprayed insulation which is then rendered and largely concealed behind the interior cladding.  

It’s a hybrid monocoque construction, the whole thing held together by the steel trusses of the roof and the floor slabs. The formwork for the concrete could not be struck until the roof structure was attached and when it was, the inevitable very slight sag had to be very carefully monitored. Without the roof all the segments would fall apart like a chocolate orange.  It was all made from an integrated 3D model shared by architects, engineers and contractors. The setting-out was effectively done in space using GPS. Costly though it was to build, it should be economical on energy, using 30 geothermal 200m deep boreholes and air-source heat pumps on the roof for heating and cooling. 

And then there are those exterior slats. These are beefy precast components, rough-finished with a sparkly mineral aggregate. Most hang via stout stainless-steel fixings from the slope in walls, some are arranged vertically on stanchions. The fixings are high strength Duplex stainless steel that resists stress corrosion (it’s noticeable that some of the bollards around the building are already showing signs of the effects of the sea air). Nonetheless it feels uncomfortable, walking beneath those tonnes of concrete that are  hanging above your head.  And as you get in close, you can’t help noticing the waterstreaks on the underlying concrete hull.

 

  • Compression before the release: low-ceilinged entrance lobby and information point.
    Compression before the release: low-ceilinged entrance lobby and information point. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Scottish Design Gallery by ZMMA – nicely done but museum black box spaces could be anywhere.
    Scottish Design Gallery by ZMMA – nicely done but museum black box spaces could be anywhere. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • The slats of the exterior cladding recur internally in timber.
    The slats of the exterior cladding recur internally in timber. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Mackintosh’s ‘Oak Room’ is a complete surviving 1908 Miss Cranston tea room interior, minus furniture.
    Mackintosh’s ‘Oak Room’ is a complete surviving 1908 Miss Cranston tea room interior, minus furniture. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • A third informal gallery occupies the top floor circulation space.
    A third informal gallery occupies the top floor circulation space. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • The big internal view is all about the atrium, anchored by the freestanding lift shaft and cantilevered stair. The ground floor window is angled down at the water.
    The big internal view is all about the atrium, anchored by the freestanding lift shaft and cantilevered stair. The ground floor window is angled down at the water. Credit: Hufton + Crow
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The arch between the two conjoined buildings leading to the waterfront is good, even noble. But if its aim was to recall the Royal Arch which until the mid 1960s stood at the entrance to the docks that used to be here, then the surrounding commercial development stifles that. There’s a particularly unfortunate glass-box hotel going up directly opposite the museum, blocking any possible view through the arch from the town. Though to be fair, the city’s 1920s Caird Hall did just the same for the original Royal Arch.  

The intention is that the V&A Dundee will become the ‘living room for the city’. Another advertising slogan. In fact for 20 years the city has had its own cultural living room at the nearby Dundee Contemporary Arts, a successful low-cost warehouse adaptation by Richard Murphy. It still feels very good today, is buzzing with people and enjoys a direct connection with the city. It’s an example of how you don’t have to undertake costly look-at-me structural gymnastics to make a place people might want to come to. Taken together, Dundee now has quite the cultural visitor offer. Though it will take a lot to convince me that the Dundee central waterfront development pressing in on the V&A isn’t a considerable urbanistic missed opportunity. 

In numbers
Construction cost: £80m
Approx site area: 11,600m2
Total floor area: 8,445m2
Separate wall sections: 21
Individual precast cladding slats: 2,500
Main galleries: 2

 

Credits

Client Dundee City Council
Lead architect Kengo Kuma & Associates (project architect Maurizio Mucciola)
Delivery architect PiM.studio Architects
Executive architect James F Stephen Architects
Structural/maritime, civil, facade, mechanical, electrical, fire, lighting and acoustic engineer Arup
Project manager Turner & Townsend
Main contractor BAM Construct UK
Landscape architect Optimised Environments (OPEN)
Quantity surveyor CBA
Wayfinding and signage Cartlidge Levene
Water feature specialist Fountains Direct