The V&A is the striking centrepiece of Dundee’s £1bn waterfront regeneration. But its value to the city will be much more than that of a tourist attraction and a piece of statement architecture

I catch my first glimpse of the building as it shimmers by the water in the glorious morning sun. At a distance, it is an arresting sight – clad from head to toe in endlessly stacked concrete shelves, its vast grey and glass hull is part upturned ocean liner, part spaceship.

Designed by world-leading Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, whose own vision was inspired by the cliffs at Arbroath, the new £80m V&A Dundee is statement architecture at its boldest and most raw; it sits as the centrepiece of a huge £1bn redevelopment programme breathing fresh life into a city eager to reconnect to its historic waterfront.

Much as the Guggenheim revitalised Bilbao, and more locally the Tate has done for Liverpool and the Turner centre for Margate, the new V&A on the banks of the Tay looks set to transform the fortunes of Dundee, culturally, economically and socially, as it embarks on a new chapter of its history, casting aside the image of a faded gem which has been searching for a purpose amid a period of post-industrial decline.

My impressions of Dundee, however, have always been favourable; the council leader, John Alexander, who I meet on my visit, characterises the place as a ‘goldilocks city’ – not too big, or too small, but ‘just right’. It is Scotland’s fourth largest city, in population terms, and is compact, on a grid-like system with room to grow. Thankfully, the redevelopment has rid the city of a terrible guddle of spaghetti junction-like road circuitry and a repurposed rail station, with fresh, modern hotels, will make it an attractive place in which to arrive.

Part of the regeneration programme is a series of interconnecting civic spaces which link the waterfront to the city proper; Slessor Gardens, the largest of the spaces, will become an open, modern themed garden; waterfront place and an ‘urban beach’ alongside the V&A will hopefully draw crowds to open-air events – on a land mass of 10,738 square metres – in reputedly the nation’s sunniest city.

Whilst the venture is not quite there yet, and it is the coldest day imaginable just before the ‘Beast from the East’ grinds the country to a halt, in terms of events it is a ‘model’ that has worked elsewhere and I can see it working here. I’m not so much interested in finding out how the V&A itself – the only other museum to carry the brand in the world outside London – will be leveraged as a tourist asset to bring in an estimated 500,000 visitors to the city in its first year (steadying to around 350,000 annually once the initial excitement is over), but crucially how it will fit in as part of a wider programme of cultural, sporting and business events – a competitive market in which destinations around the world are increasingly active.

Philip Long, Director of the V&A Dundee, photographed in front of the new museum which is set to open on September 15, 2018, on the Waterfront in Dundee. Picture: Mary Turner

I MEET WITH Philip Long, Director of the V&A Dundee, and his team at Enterprise House in the city, just weeks after the opening date of the 15th of September is announced to the world. He tells me that the excitement which has already been steadily building in the background as part of the construction phase has now moved up a notch, and inquiries pertaining to events – and how the building might be available to them – are coming in from around the world.

“The V&A is a very prestigious institution, which is known around the world, and so I think the association with something which exemplifies an excellence and provides great spaces for people to come together and to be inspired, is a great ice-breaker in terms of doing events. We also have fantastic spaces that allow events and activities – whether that’s corporate dinners or very small-scale things, launches or photo or film or fashion are all things that are beginning to come to us now that there is a very clear day for opening,” says Long.

He adds: “There’s a lot of interest, which has really surged since we went live with the opening date – and that’s whether it’s from people who want to get involved in some way, or numerous ways. We have interest groups from the States who want to come and visit; we have people who want to do events in the museum and find out more about how all of that works locally. And we’re experiencing interest in quite formal ways through diplomatic channels in the Far East and North America.”

What has been notable, they tell me, is that the interest is not strictly limited to the cultural side, in its purest sense. There is an appetite for the V&A to be part of sporting and business events, a ‘Team Dundee’ approach, and that the venue – which is backed by a conglomeration of stakeholders, including Dundee City Council, Scottish Enterprise, Dundee University and Abertay University – is keen to tap into wider programmes of activity, for example to be featured in a conference bid or a social programme of a larger event than any one venue in the city can host on its own, or as a canvass for broadcasters.

“We’re the focus of a lot of attention and the developing confidence in the city, but it is part of a much wider development. It’s speaking to people that the city is open for business. And that’s for business tourism, event activity in the city and the region; it’s a really exciting part of the future here,” says Long.

TARA WAINWRIGHT, V&A Dundee Marketing and Communications Manager, adds: “What we provide is something that doesn’t really exist in the city at the moment; at the moment the city is limited in terms of the number of events – whether it’s sporting events, or whether it’s big academic conferences as well, it’s limited because of its capacity, due to the scale of the buildings it has. The conversations we’ve been having most have been about providing an additional venue or part of a broader programme.”

She says: “So, for example, academic conferences that might come to Edinburgh or Glasgow can now come to Dundee. The higher end hotels will similarly be touched by 25this as they recognise that people will want to come to Dundee to see this big new international visitor attraction. So whereas before they might not have come outside of St Andrews or Perthshire, they are coming to us and saying we want to come and have a big dinner and could you at least for one night be able to offer that. We’re being open as to what those things may be.”

The £80m V&A Dundee will include the Scottish Design Galleries and a rolling exhibition programme. Picture: Ross Fraser McLean

Long talks of “managing expectations” not only for the public but also for his own team, as to what the building can conceivably host, but that being part of an open civic space, which connects the city from Caird Hall to the waterfront, opens up the venue to an array of possibilities, and that the museum must balance that against its core responsibility of being a museum that chronicles the history of design in Scotland, from 15th century illuminated manuscripts through to examples of design from the Industrial Revolution and the reconstructed Charles Rennie Mackintosh Oak Room, which hasn’t been seen for almost 50 years.

“There are very special moments in the museum that will be quite an extraordinary thing to visit and understand more about and I think one of the special experiences that we can offer to people who might be interested in doing events with us is that sort of privileged, special access to talks and events which can relate all that,” says Long.

“Then alongside that there’s a big changing exhibition programme with wonderful spaces to do that, which will bring exhibitions from around the world. Again, for events it means it’s not just a venue which has the practical facilities to do things but it has extraordinary things to see. It’s about inspiring creativity and facilitating discussion; we’re here in the business of wanting to bring people together through events and where better to do it than in a place like that,” he adds.

In terms of privileged access, there have already been a number of corporates knocking on the door, wanting to know whether the venue can be hired for exclusive behind-the-scenes tours or for private dinners, all of whom have been keen to associate their brand alongside the prestige of the V&A.

Wainwright says: “I think the interesting thing is that it’s the kind of exclusivity that people are asking for. I thought we’d be inundated with groups and coaches but actually it’s that exclusivity, really high-end people recognising the V&A as a brand and how that might work with them as a brand, that’s really interesting the high-level, smaller, more niche [events].”

FUNCTIONALLY, the museum is still in the midst of its interior fit out, and there will be precious few glimpses of its internal working parts right up until the opening date itself; however, I am told that there will be essentially four space ‘elements’ to what the V&A can offer events organisers. The largest space will be the main hall – which has upper and lower sections, and which can be combined for events purposes.

The upper section will be able to host dinners and drinks receptions and the lower used for drinks receptions, dinners, fashion shows and other events. The largest hireable closed space will be the main auditorium which will have theatre-style seating and is available for dinners and functions. Two learning suites will also be closed, smaller capacity spaces for workshops or break-out sessions; one of the learning suites connects directly to the auditorium. The venue is working with Heritage Portfolio on its catering offer throughout.

2018 is the Year of Young People in Scotland, which the V&A has fully embraced for its opening ceremony. There will be a daytime programme and an evening programme to launch the venue officially to the world, all of which are being co-designed by 12 young people, aged 16 to 24, from across the city and region. The group started by meeting once a month about a year ago, but with six months till opening that activity has been upped to every Thursday evening; they have their own budget and have essentially been let loose, albeit working in tandem with a team of experienced events professionals, in creating a signature opening event ‘of scale’.

V&A Dundee has its own learning team and ‘families and young people producer’, all of whom have worked closely with the group who are, according to Wainwright, not the ‘usual suspects’. The group has been selected from youth bodies in the city like Hot Chocolate, but also from schools, universities and the colleges with some in work, and some not. I ask whether there will be all the usual thrills and spills of a big opening event, including fireworks or son et lumiere, but the elements are understandably being kept under wraps.

Wainwright says: “All the young people are contributing really, really strongly. Some of them are very vocal and like the group discussion; others might be quiet in that situation but will furiously write things down and email you afterwards. It’s really interesting watching them grow and develop and we want them to come out the other side feeling really confident whichever element of the event that they’ve chosen to follow. There is a skills development path in design within all that, so it’s not just an informal thing, they will get something out of it and YoungScot are helping us with that as well in terms of promoting opportunities.”

IT SHOULD not be forgotten that the V&A Dundee has a forward programme of its own events, including the opening exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, for which tickets go on sale this month and will cost from £12; the exhibition has been curated by the V&A in London – working closely with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which houses one of the finest collections of maritime history in the world.

Says Long: “The exhibition will celebrate Scotland’s contribution to Ocean Liners; when you see the show you will see clearly that the major player in the design and build of ocean liners that were constructed in Britain in the 20th century was Glasgow. It was hugely important. But Dundee’s design history is also reflected in the Scottish Design Galleries in the museum so there’s a great Scottish design tradition throughout.”

He adds: “The thing about having a changing exhibition programme means it should counter the challenge that places often have which is they’re attractive when they’re new but then the interest can diminish when the next thing comes along; V&A Dundee will always have extraordinary new things to see which you won’t be able to see elsewhere, and so there will be great reasons to come back and it will provide means to excite people.”