V&A Dundee, a new design museum for Scotland, will open its doors to the public for the first time tomorrow after a project which was born out of a lunch discussion a decade ago finally comes to fruition.
Inspired by the sea cliffs of north-east Scotland, the multi-layered, pre-cast concrete structure, which juts out onto the River Tay, is set to become the country’s largest exhibition space showcasing the best of Scottish design.
Created by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, journalists from across the world were given a special sneak preview of its interior on Wednesday. On a glorious day bathed in reflected sunlight, which shimmered across the water and then poured into the vast interior, lighting up the space, the soft tones of oak-panneled wood gave off a stark contrast to the hulking grey exterior.
Kuma, who had travelled from Japan with his own retinue of his country’s media, said that he had wanted to create a ‘warmness and randomness’ to the inside of the building, and hoped it would become more than just a museum for visitors and the community.
“The museum in the 21st century should be a living room for the city; it’s not only for art lovers, the people and community should want to use that living room as part of daily life,” he said. “When I visited the site, I thought that the city and nature should be integrated. What we tried to achieve is to create a gate which connects the River Tay and the city,” he added.
It was revealed that Kuma, who won the international design competition in 2010 to create the building, which the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz has described as ‘very close to perfect’, had travelled to Scotland in his youth and had been inspired by the architecture of the great Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose lost ‘oak team room’ has been painstakingly recreated from over a thousand pieces and sits centre stage in the Scottish Design Galleries, after not being seen for 50 years.
Philip Long, V&A Dundee Director, said: “I’m often asked about what I’m most proud of in the museum and I do have to say that it is the restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s oak room; I’m very excited about you seeing that this morning. A project several years in the making, we’ve worked very closely with Glasgow museums and colleagues at Glasgow City Council to bring this wonderful room, lost for generations, now back into public view. And in this year of Mackintosh’s 150th anniversary, I think it is very special and very fitting that we can show you one of his great, lost interiors.” With the destruction of Glasgow School of Art in a devastating fire in June, the room carries an emotional weight to it as well, which Long said he appreciated, saying how sad he was at the devastation of such a great institution.
However, turning to the V&A, he said it was a “great statement” and a symbol of Dundee’s “growing confidence” as the city emerges from post-industrial decline and tries to salve many of its well-documented social problems with a spirited culturally-led regeneration. His thoughts were echoed by Council Leader John Alexander, who said that the building had stoked “fire in the bellies” of Dundonians as part of a £1bn waterfront redevelopment, which has reinvigorated the city with a transformed and connected public space in Slessor Gardens, which will also feature Scotland’s first ‘urban beach’; further afield a multi-million rejuventation of civic space around Caird Hall has also added to the city’s appeal, which has been born out by the 10% rise in overnight stays this year, said Cllr Alexander.
It was at a lunch hosted by Sir Alan Langlands, the vice-chancellor of Dundee University, in spring 2007 when the V&A Dundee idea was born. Guests included Sir Mark Jones, then director of the V&A in London who had been visiting Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and Mike Galloway, director of development for Dundee city council. The rest, as they say, is history and after a determined process, which involved cross-party political support, the project emerged with a multi-agency partnership formed between V&A, Scottish Government, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dundee City Council, UK Government, Creative Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, the University of Dundee and Abertay University. Its fortunes will be steered by a Scottish-registered charity, Dundee Design Ltd, with the V&A itself taking a 20% stake on the board; the agreement will last for 25 years after which the board will, technically, be allowed to rebrand the building or, as expected, to continue the association with the famous museum, which is increasing its international imprint with outlets in Shenzhen in China and one due to open in Stratford, East London.
Tristam Hunt, former Shadow Education Minister, and now Director of the V&A, said that the “alchemy” had worked and that he looked forward to not only helping V&A Dundee with curatorial expertise from London, but also that some of the creative input from Scotland could make its way south.
“What I’m excited about in time is I want to see exhibitions starting here and coming down to London – premiered here and coming to London,” he stressed.
“Dundee is a city, whether through the whaling trade or jute industry, where global commerce flowed through here with very strong international connections. Museums are cosmopolitan institutions and the story of the galleries is the story of Scotland’s influence on global design and the influence of global design on Scotland, and so museums and a museum of design like the V&A is a consciously international endeavour.”
As an event venue, the vast 8,445-square metre interior lends itself well to the hosting of receptions, parties and dinners; as a hireable space, the building will not be available for commercial until December 1st, giving the events management team time for the venue to bed in and work out its natural appeal to a market that has already driven a large number of inquiries. Downstairs, the main hall, which has a café and shop, looks well-suited for speeches and presentations; upstairs, a mezzanine-like balcony that overlooks the central foyer is larger on the side that sits adjacent to the Scottish Design Galleries exhibition space, the Michelin Design Gallery and the Thomson Learning Centre. Its bright, airy and spacious feel, coupled with a short walk to the Tatha Bar and Kitchen on the same floor, run by event caterers Heritage Portfolio, is ideal for cocktail parties and drinks receptions, and potentially sit-down dinners. What is most exciting, though, is the vistas created by the clever use of interior space; from the mezzanine the eye is drawn by a clever triangular window at ground floor level, underneath the limestone staircase, where you can catch a glimpse of the river gently lapping at the shore, reminding you of the physically close connection to the water. Both wings of the building have exits onto balconies which can also be used as outdoor spaces in their own right and overspill areas for busy functions, especially when the weather is fine.
What is clear from all the backers who attended the press launch event is that V&A Dundee will have its own distinct appeal and will not be regarded as a ‘branch office’ subservient to the over-arching V&A brand. Curatorial expertise from across Scotland has been invested in the Scottish Design Galleries; over 12,000 objects were found in the V&A collection to have Scottish connections, 300 of which have gone on show to the public for the first time. Long was particularly excited by a wooden chest by Scottish cabinet-maker Thomas Affleck, whose pieces are so rare that there are no examples of his work that exist today in Scotland; a ‘chest-on-chest’, thought to be by Affleck, has been loaned to V&A Dundee by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Ocean Liners: Speed & Style exhibition, in the main paid-for exhibition space, is a fitting start to the rotating circuit of ‘blockbuster’ shows, which is hoped will help attract 500,000 visitors in the first year, settling to 350,000 annually after that; Dundee is hoping to capitalise on the building for the leisure market but also to generate business and cultural events. From a discussion with council chief executive, David Martin, there is clear intent behind a bid to stage a UNESCO-backed design and creativity festival, of around three weeks in duration, to be staged in the city in 2022, as a de facto replacement of the aborted plan to become European City of Culture (a casualty of the Brexit process); Martin said a delegation from Dundee travelled to Poland earlier this year to meet with the 28 fellow ‘creative cities’, and that UNESCO will be visting again in October.
“From our point of view, it’s a logical development beyond V&A,” said Martin, who said the festival would likely take place before the month before the Edinburgh Festivals season kicks off that year.
Capacity remains an issue for the city, and although the appearance of hotels opposite the V&A, and a remodelled train station just across the way makes the city accessible and appealing, the lack of a major convention venue – for conferences, trade shows and the like – means the city has limited appeal to a business events audience. However, a scoping exercise has been undertaken by Scottish Enterprise and plans for a new convention centre with around 2,000-capacity, are well supported across the city, especially by Dundee & Angus Convention Bureau (DACB).
Cllr Alexander, who is a member of the planning committee, said he was unable to comment on any particular plans, but that he was aware of the clamour for a new venue to complement the waterfront redevelopment.
“I think there is merit in looking at the opportunities that arise, not only on the back of this development but also I am aware Dundee & Angus Convention Bureau, in particular, is quantifying and getting qualitative information from organisations that are currently coming to the city about what their demands might be in the future and how that would fit into the wider strategy for developing our own in-house conference facility, obviously of a scale that was right for a cifty as ambitious as Dundee,” he said.
Cllr Alexander also faced down criticism that the new venue would become a drain on public resources, with a capital cost that had already almost doubled from the original budget forecast of £45m, and which will have annual running costs of £1.7m that will need to be met by the public purse.
He said: “The Public purse will receive a material benefit, with people getting into employment and not drawing on the social state; they will be paying taxation and the businesses that will be created as a direct result of the intervention we have made on the waterfront will be paying business rates and business taxes and VAT, so actually I think it’s good value for money.”
V&A Dundee opens to the public tomorrow, with the 3D Festival – headlined by Scottish rock legends Primal Scream, kicking off tonight.
For tickets and information visit https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee.