V&A Photography Centre, Kensington, London

Words:
Pamela Buxton

The V&A revives a 150 year old museum landmark with David Kohn Architects’ Photography Centre, bringing an old ‘new technology’ up to date

DKA’s ‘dark tent’ is a modern interpretation of Schinkel’s tent room at Potsdam and early dark rooms.
DKA’s ‘dark tent’ is a modern interpretation of Schinkel’s tent room at Potsdam and early dark rooms. Credit: Will Pryce

In 1852, the V&A’s predecessor the South Kensington Museum became the first museum to collect photography. More than a century and a half later, the V&A’s new Photography Centre, designed by David Kohn Architects, does full justice to the fascinating collections it has amassed in the intervening years.

Located in the grade I listed first phase of the V&A building, the new space incorporates the original rectangular photography gallery plus an interlinked adjacent parallel gallery. The project doubles the size of available exhibition space and enables the creation of temporary and digital displays including a ‘Dark Tent’ area for projections and events.

While visitors will linger over the attractive displays, the most crucial part of the project is largely unseen – reconditioning the spaces to the highest climate control performance given the extremely sensitive and fragile nature of the historic collections. This involved stripping back and relining the walls and ceiling with insulation to reduce air leakage, and introducing a bespoke ventilation system above the gallery on the museum roof. Where possible, new vents were inserted into existing wall penetrations. Gulleys in the retained wood floor were used for the new electrical supply.

‘The less you can see of what we’ve done, the better we’ve done the job,’ said DKA project architect Jessica Lyons.

Visitors familiar with the gallery before however, will certainly appreciate the increased sense of space, created by removing the partitions that previously punctuated its length to open up a longer vista. With those gone, DKA was able to add what Lyons describes as ‘an ‘undulating landscape’ formed by a family of new mobile display cabinets stretching down the centre of each gallery.

Created from durable powder-coated steel, these were conceived by DKA as miniature houses in their own right that could be reconfigured to suit changing displays. Each incorporates in-case lighting mounted on magnetic strips for easy rearrangement. Wall units were inserted into two former circulation gaps down the dividing gallery wall, their arched form echoing the shape of the lunettes above.

The run of units is also punctuated by highly tactile, chunky oak seating by furniture maker Tom Graham, who also created seating for the digital area.

  • Temporary display gallery with its yellow walls.
    Temporary display gallery with its yellow walls. Credit: Will Pryce
  • The gallery entrance, more defined and evident, has something of Bagpuss’ shop about it.
    The gallery entrance, more defined and evident, has something of Bagpuss’ shop about it. Credit: Will Pryce
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‘We wanted to use a hard-wearing but quite luxurious material,’ says Lyons, adding that the gallery was expected to last 50 years at least.

DKA collaborated with V&A curators on the layout and background of the display, with temporary displays defined by a yellow background to contrast with the midnight blue of the more permanent displays. This was chosen, says Lyons, to make the photographs feel like ‘jewel-like elements in the space’.

Located beyond the reworked two historic galleries, the ‘Dark Tent’ reads as a clearly contemporary intervention that continues DKA’s interest in buildings within buildings. Inspired by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s ‘tent room’ at Charlottenhof Palace at Potsdam, this element cleverly also provides a link between the first architecture of photography in that it is reminiscent of the travelling darkroom field tents of photography pioneers. This is created in shimmering powder-coated steel over a bent plywood base with concertina doors emulating the folds of a tent. Internally, the space is lined in stained plywood.

The new centre’s unshowy but quietly pleasing design allows what’s on the walls to shine, from Julia Margaret Cameron and William Henry Fox Talbot through to Man Ray, Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr and many more. The camera as object is also celebrated, from the fantastic entrance display of 140 cameras spanning the history of photography to the massed ranks of the iconic Brownie cameras inside.

This new space is just the first phase – the second, planned for completion in 2022, will double the space again.

Credits

Architect David Kohn Architects
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
AV consultant Hawthorn
Quantity surveyor Currie & Brown
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald
CDM co-ordinator Currie & Brown
Main contractor  ME Construction
Dark Tent specialist sub-contractor 2D 3D
Exhibition cases Florea
Furniture Tom Graham Workshop

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