ZMMA’s light touch fit out of the V&A Europe galleries balances the ornate exhibits perfectly
Scrolls and twirls, grand gestures and gilding; the 17th and 18th centuries have to be at the centre of a museum of decorative arts. So the V&A’s Europe galleries are an important part of its Future Plan, 1882m2 set between the main entrance and where AL_A’s Exhibition Road project is starting to take shape. Here are displayed over 1000 objects from between 1600 and 1815 when baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles took over imaginations, fashionable taste and grand country houses.
Right from the heart of that period comes Capability Brown. It is his vistas and incidents you think of when taking in the new galleries. For architect ZMMA the two long suites of rooms became a landscape in which, as exhibition designers as well as architects, they could plant the most beautiful and intriguing of things, a porcelain bird or the character and costumes of the French revolution. There are tantalising views through from gallery to gallery; one glittering case leads to the next, each with the promise of another object. Mitred bronze corners are bestowed on each of the cases but a special few objects have cabinets which disappear into the floor. It is as if swirls of magic take over, when the galleries are closed, the cases levitate around their objects until the door can slide open.
It seems quite remarkable that the same small team of architects that designed these display cases also carved out spaces from an old plant room alongside, working out the logistics of excavating 360 tonnes of rubble through a window that was the only site access. They also uncovered the best of the Aston Webb building, stripping away false ceilings, plasterboard and blinds that had hidden the original finishes since the 1970s. Blacked-out windows have been substituted for gentle layers of screening and shutters and fins to give a sense of a daylight beyond, even on this lower ground floor. Suspended rings of LEDs light each different space, hinting at the loftiness of the space but low enough to suggest intimacy. Like the objects they are not lined up along the axes of the rooms but take you off naturally into spaces and corners. The light touch approach to museum conditions that the V&A has pioneered continues here, humidity is controlled simply by radiators and cases buffer the most delicate objects from changes in the air. Project architect Lucy Clark and ZMMA design director Adam Zombory-Moldovan took delight in reusing the original 1906 network of tunnels and risers for air distribution with elegant specially-designed grilles. These are elements that don’t demand to be noticed, but, if you should, they set off a ripple of restrained pleasure – as do the practice’s low-back, single armed leather and steel benches, their generosity measured just right.
The most engaging spaces are the roomsets that give you a sense of insight into another time. These are something the V&A does well and each one here is quite different. Around them the new architecture starts to take on some of their characteristics, so without change in tone, the wall texture becomes a finely grooved oak boarding, cranked out to enclose a Parisien cabinet room from the time of Louis XVI. Less convincingly, walls start to ripple and curve on the soffit in rococo sympathy with the circular mirrored room from 18th century Italy. Elsewhere a group of guns is assembled in martial style directing your gaze to the painting of an eviscerated corpse. A silver dinner service given by the Portugese to the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo is grandly configured as a monument.
A room of collecting chests is a subtle simulacra of the museum. The possibilities offered by each of those tiny drawers and cupboards excite that buried desire for collecting and ordering. This is where ZMMA has lavished the richest of materials, imagining the room itself as a leather-lined cabinet of curiosities, yet this richness seems to fade against the detail of the cabinets. The almost echoey salon with its timber frame designed by Los Carpinteros sets up a contrast on the knuckle of the gallery plan. Absent are the fineries and fripperies, just the busts of enlightment figures who will listen in to both debates on Europe and more mundane reflections on the galleries as visitors pause and take breath between the Rise of France 1660-1720 and City and Commerce 1720-80. ‘A cleansing of the palette,’ suggests Zombory-Moldovan. There is only so much decoration one can take.
Total construction, display case and fit-out cost: £8.5 million
Total floor area: 1882 m2
Cost per m2: £4516
Architect and exhibition designer: ZMMA
Client: V&A Museum
Services Engineer: Arup
Structural Engineer: Eckersley O’Callaghan
Lighting Designer: Sutton Vane Associates
Graphic Designer: Why Not Associates
Cost Consultant: Aecom
Display Cases: Glasbau Hahn
Main Contractor: Coniston Ltd
Exhibition Contractor: Scena