Let’s come straight out with it: the V&A’s Exhibition Road Quarter is an impressive and well-crafted project – six years in the making and realised with uncommon élan and panache. The client’s passion has been interpreted by architect AL_A and engineer Arup as a calm yet fascinating melding of urbanism, architecture and engineering, pattern-making and storytelling.
The project creates a new western entrance to the museum marked by the Sackler Courtyard, a surface composition of tonal whites and blue-greys with the merest hints of red and yellows, all of which plays beautifully against the red brick and terracotta walls of the adjacent buildings.
Looking from Exhibition Road at the restored Aston Webb stone screen, one is struck by the veil-like quality of its newly-added perforated aluminium gates. The pattern, achieved by 20mm-diameter holes drilled at various angles through the 40mm-thick plates, corresponds to war-time shrapnel damage in the low wall the gates have replaced. Whereas the central door is well framed, with the royal coat of arms subtly drilled into its centre, the frames of the smaller screens lack gravitas when shut but, with a deft design touch, almost disappear when opened, revealing their red-edged reference to the brick.
Inside, the courtyard is a plateau of parallelograms – bluish-grey Dutch hand-made tiles of porcelain with a bisque finish, striped with glazed grooves and relief profiles to warn of inclines. A projecting lantern or ‘oculus’ articulates the space and offers a tantalising glimpse of a vast room below. Its protective wall is finished internally in mirrored stainless steel – reflecting light downwards and distorting reflections – in contrast to the exquisite soft-peened rolled form of the outer surface.
The manner in which the new courtyard touches the existing buildings is delicately handled, with linear laser-cut aluminium panels creating a darker, patterned edge to the old pale stone, and a lighter edge to the red brick. Less successful is the hip-level horizontal green glass surface with wide black fritting along the edge, which doesn’t quite conceal some of the silicone.
Overall, the courtyard composition of ceramic floor tiling, laser-cut aluminium grillage and fine sawtooth-profiled, part-glazed, part light-coloured bisque roof tiles elegantly captures Prince Albert’s original vision to showcase creativity through architecture, design and craftsmanship.
I suspect that many of these products of British architectural and engineering design have been physically manufactured, like the tiles, by industries beyond these shores – a poignant reminder at this Brexist moment.
This is not the V&A’s first attempt to extend into the courtyard –in the 1996 competiton all six invited architects more or less filled the space – and the delight of this winning composition is the architect’s embrace of fluid movement and emptiness. In Amanda Levete’s words, “The big move was to see the contemporary museum as an evolution from individual buildings and the hubris associated with them to an urban evolution – the messaging of space”. This reflects the approach the practice adopted at MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology which opened last year in Lisbon.
At the V&A, the delightful and welcoming urban threshold, with the obligatory cafe, is a generous civic commitment to the other institutions in Exhibition Road, and creates a new public space in London.
One could be picky about some of the finer aspects of the constructed work: the lack of finesse in the roof and courtyard tile jointing, some awkward junctions caused in part by the architect’s desire for spatial delight and connexity to the outside to help orientation, including the revealed sgraffito wall by former RCA art students on the rear of the Henry Cole building. But this would be to miss appreciating the overall. Handmade tiles will vary – and it is this ‘trace de la main’ (a phrase coined by my erstwhile partner Peter Rice) which reveals a haptic and very human aspect in the architecture.
The evident design ingenuity and imagination in combining history and modernity – the essence of the V&A – is another quality that will engage passers-by and visitors.
That AL_A has sidestepped the idea of an extension to the V&A is apparent as one enters through the new Blavatnik Hall, formed within the existing building, where the reuse of grey and white mosaic flooring in a contemporary pattern is symptomatic of the design subtleties throughout. A glimpse of the museum’s central Pirelli Garden and of a discreetly placed shop, presages the descent via an almost-black stained and lacquered balustraded stair to a pool of zenithal light which marks the threshold to the new 1,100-square-metre Sainsbury Gallery.
This cavernous 38-metre-wide, 10-metre- high space, set beneath the courtyard and intended for major temporary exhibitions, is enclosed by a folded ceiling concealing an integrated design of structure and services. The whole is supported on 50-metre-deep piles, with fibre-optic movement monitors. This, one suspects, is invisible cutting-edge engineering design. The subterranean space is relieved through slices of natural light in one corner – a very nice touch. The acoustics were excessively reverberant during my visit, but this may be corrected when exhibitions are in place.
There is another 1500 square metres of space for conservation and art handling below, along with a new goods delivery area. This improved logistics infrastructure is an essential element of the V&A’s expansion programme that reaches from Dundee to China. The Exhibition Road Quarter offers the V&A a real opportunity to embrace the digital age in new forms – online and live, through both performance and display.
Gottfried Semper wrote in ‘Science, Industry and Art’, his critique of the 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, that “collections and public monuments are the true teachers of a free people”. The Great Exhibition of course provided the core of the V&A’s original collection, and we are reminded that its Royal Commission still funds around £2m in grants each year for research and fellowships in science, design and the built environment. The V&A’s investment in this project is a continuation of Prince Albert and Semper’s underlying social philosophy. It is a museum of the world which has been beautifully opened up to its neighbourhood through that all-too-rare combination of a great client and an inspired design team.