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V&A: Exhibition Road Competition

Review by Nathan Breeze

If you’re a regular visitor to the V&A you would have noticed a gradual and ambitious series of renovations and expansions over the last few years. It is all part of the museum’s FuturePlan; bringing the V&A into the 21st century and restoring modern design and innovation to its heart. For each of these transformations the V&A has launched a series of open competitions; inviting proposals from architectural firms from all over the world. A recent example was the competition to design the V&A’s new outpost on Dundee’s waterfront, won at the end of last year by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Back in the London, the latest competition and the next stage of the FuturePlan is for a new gallery and public courtyard accessed from Exhibition Road through the Aston Webb screen. Both new spaces will be used to display the museums high profile programme of temporary exhibitions and events. This site has an eventful history; here 15 years ago Polish born architect Daniel Libeskind proposed a radical deconstructivist extension nicknamed The Spiral. Its provocative form caused outrage from South Kensington residents; a controversial planning decision was, however, avoided as the project couldn’t attract sufficient funding. Perhaps with this in mind, the museum’s brief for the current competition sets strict parameters to ensure that the existing Grade 1 Listed facades are maintained; enclosing the new courtyard and cafe with the gallery space pushed below ground.

From over 100 practices that entered the international competition, seven were short listed and invited to present more detailed designs. Refreshingly a single model solely represents each design; there is no P.R or flowery conceptual spiel. By building a model there is no hiding behind one beautifully rendered view (these are available online). The whole scheme can be considered and scrutinised from every angle by the visitor. Alongside the models is a comments book. You can spot the architect or architecture student who like my fellow Part 1 visitor and I, queried the lack of North signs, the inconsistent orientation of the models as well as the lack of detail afforded by their scale. Generally I would ignore these comments and concentrate on the rich variety of imaginative designs and the exquisitely made physical models. Most people have simply written down their favourite, something the judges are encouraging every visitor to do. Personally I was split between the very different proposals of London based architects Jamie Forbert and Amanda Levete.

Forbert`s design shows a mature sensitivity. A carefully considered processional route links the terraced public courtyard down to the gallery. The descent, not shown in some of the other models, is beautifully composed whilst there is a suggestion of a clever use of natural light to the subterranean levels. On the other hand Amanda Levete’s faceted public landscape that folds down to the gallery below creates a series of dynamic spaces and presents the opportunity of a unique destination in its own right. Levete’s recent curation of the Move: Choreographing You exhibition at the Hayward Gallery demonstrated her ability to strike the fine balance between creating a rich and engaging space without drawing attention away from the art itself.

Despite the fact that Amanda Levete Architects (pictured) won the competition, the real winner here is architecture and its increasingly rare engagement with popular culture and the people who will ultimately visit the future gallery. The V&A seem to be one of the few institutions of its kind that is investing in the culture of open design competitions. In an interview given before receiving his RIBA Gold Medal last month, British Architect David Chipperfield (who has completed most of his high profile work outside the U.K) bemoaned the lack of architectural competitions in this country pointing out that in the last year there had only been five open competitions in the UK compared to 200 in Germany and 1,600 in France. There are developed arguments both for and against a culture of competitions. Other than increasingly Architectures engagement with the public, they can provide an ideal springboard into work for a talented young practice but others argue they cater for visually seductive proposals that lack the enduring quality. What is certain is that a competition must be very carefully staged and structured to allow for the sufficient interrogation of the viability of the winning scheme whilst avoiding unnecessarily large losses for the unsuccessful applicants.

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