V&A Dundee

Great Design

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Recently I was in Dundee visiting my sister and couldn’t resist checking out the V&A Museum. It only opened in September this year and is Scotland’s first design museum. It is considered to be an international centre of design for Scotland so I was excited to visit. Obviously there are exhibitions inside that I could talk for days about but this blog post is actually about the building itself.

There was an international competition for who would be responsible for designing this building to reconnect the city of Dundee with its waterfront. The winner was renowned award-winning Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates. Kuma is also the architect who is responsible for designing the New National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese design influence is very evident in the shapes and materials used in the building and I can’t help being reminded of my visit to the Japanese House during the London Design Festival.

I was lucky enough to be visiting the V&A on a beautiful crisp day. As my sister likes to tell me frequently, Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland and I have to say it was proving itself on this day. The clear blue skies created the perfect background for the contrasting geometric lines of the building. It was that perfect lighting for taking photos and I was in complete awe of the enormity of it all.

The form of the V&A is certainly unique, Kuma says it was inspired by the cliffs on Scotland’s north eastern coastline. The museum is built over the River Tay like the bow of a ship which acts as a reminder of the shipbuilding days in Dundee. I would say the most distinctive feature is the cladding. There are 2,466 panels that have been created using pre-cast reconstituted stone running horizontally around the building. What I was surprised to discover is that there are NO straight external walls. I thought the whole building was very angular and only after I discovered this was I able to appreciate the more organic form.

When entering the building, you walk through a modest entryway which opens up into an impressive space. The external cladding is mirrored internally here, this time made of wood rather than stone. This creates a warmer, more welcoming atmosphere suited for the interior. The ground floor consists of a cafe and shop with a staircase leading up to the exhibitions. What I found bizarre was the lack of windows, considering the museum was built on the banks of the River Tay with the potential for stunning views. However as I made my way up the stairs I discovered tiny hidden windows disguised among the cladding. These created perfect little snapshots of the view, almost like a picture frame. In a weird way the lack of windows actually made me appreciate the view more, the tiny windows taunting me with glimpses of the water. Walking up the staircase I was also able to get close to the panelling that lined the walls. I was distinctly reminded of shutter blinds when I looked up at the panels overlapping each other. I couldn’t resist the temptation to try and move them as they looked like they were on a hinge. However they didn’t budge and I was left looking like an idiot…

After wandering around the exhibitions I spent some time walking around the exterior of the building. Just to the left of the entrance there is a tunnel-like opening in the centre of the building. Walking through this space is a unique experience, the cladding surrounds you, reflecting in the water on either side of you to create an illusion. The triangular archway frames a view of the Tay Road Bridge. Again I must say I was lucky with the weather, I am sure the experience would have been rather different in horizontal rain, but the view was quite outstanding. 

Of course I can’t help adding in the fact that the museum uses renewable energy in the form of geothermal energy. That’s got the building some brownie points from me when considering the design. Thirty, 200m deep holes have been dug into the ground, with heat pumps installed on the roof. The pumps draw heat from the ground to provide heating for the building in winter. They also transfer excess heat from the building in summer down into the ground, not only cooling the building but also storing heat that can then be used in the next winter. I think it’s so important that any modern building should really consider it’s carbon footprint and it should be designed to minimise this as much as possible.

Although the form of the building could be considered quite intimidating with it’s strong, sharp edges, I have to say I really think it works well in it’s environment. The position and angle of every piece of the structure has been considered in a way that embraces the waterfront and creates these unique views. As a DESIGN museum, a lot of pressure is put on it to be well designed. I believe it has been successful in this. I love how the modern aesthetic still manages to encompass the heritage of the city and the nature surrounding it. As a design museum, I really think it’s important that it offers an experience and the V&A certainly does that.

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