Kengo Kuma’s Shiplike V&A Dundee Lands in Scotland

The futuristic, concrete-clad outpost of the London-based design museum is part of a larger effort to attract tourists to Dundee’s burgeoning waterfront.

V&A Dundee Kengo Kuma
Courtesy Hufton + Crow

“For too long we were seen as the poor relation compared to some of our neighboring cities,” says John Alexander council leader for Dundee, Scotland’s fourth-largest city. “Now there’s a fire in the belly of Dundonians that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

That blaze of civic pride has been prompted in part by the opening of the V&A Dundee, the first major outpost of the Victoria and Albert Museum since its founding in 1852. The result of a project 10 years in the making, Kengo Kuma’s angular, striated concrete building has appeared on the River Tay as a clear statement of the city’s intent to transform itself through “culture-led regeneration.” In 2010, the Tokyo-based architect was announced as winner of the V&A Dundee design competition, unanimously triumphing over five other practices including Snøhetta and Steven Holl Architects.

At the time, Lesley Knox, chair of the jury panel praised Kuma’s design for the new experience it would offer of the city, its internal and external excitement and, perhaps most importantly, its ability to encourage visitors to return again and again. For not only is the V&A Dundee an enticing new prospect to enable the city to compete in the country’s lucrative tourism market, but it is also the key component of a wider $1.3 billion waterfront redevelopment project hoping to attract further investment.

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When the V&A was established, at the height of the Victorian era, Dundee was famous for jute, jam, and journalism, as local lore has it. Today, these three industries have faded, and the city is now home to thriving biomedical and digital gaming industries. In recent decades, the city has made several attempts at economic revitalization through cultural catalysts, notably the opening of the Antarctic exploration vessel RRS Discovery museum in 1992; Verdant Works, a museum dedicated to the local textile history in 1996; and the Richard Murphy–designed Dundee Contemporary Arts in 1999.

Yet, the V&A Dundee is by far the city’s largest statement of faith in the cultural sector. Coming in nearly double its original estimated cost, it is also the most expensive. As a consequence, despite Alexander’s claims of local pride, the museum has not been without critics. Its initial budget of $35.8 million, then $59.7 million was eventually settled at just over $106 million, prompting protests from anti-austerity campaigners at a time when deep funding cuts have impacted the country’s public healthcare system and other services.

Surprisingly, given its photogenic facade, from the other side of the river Kuma’s building quietly blends into its urban skyline. Crossing the Tay Bridge early in the morning, the facade’s 2,429 precast concrete panels cast deep shadows that render the building almost invisible from afar. Despite the inevitable comparisons between the V&A Dundee and the Guggenheim Bilbao, Kuma’s building—the first design museum in Scotland— is striking without being spectacular. For all the complex mathematical modeling used to create the volume’s angular form and double-curved walls, it’s undeniably nautical, like the hull of an icebreaker ship whose pointed prow stretches out over the river.

Kuma hopes his efforts to open up access to the river and provide a “living room for the city” will win over local residents. “As the city and nature were separated when we first visited the site,” he says, “what we tried to achieve is a gate that connects the river Tay and the city.”

V&A Dundee Kengo Kuma
Courtesy Hufton + Crow

Inside the dramatic entry lobby, oak panels step down and warmly mirror the concrete panels of the facade. “It was important to bring a warmness and a softness [to this space] by using natural materials and no straight lines,” Kuma says. “Nothing is straight.”

Kuma’s notion of a living room, expressed through the museum’s cavernous entrance lobby, has been significantly shaped by lead architect Maurizio Mucciola who sought to integrate the elements of a European urban square to the space—namely, a café and benches. Given that the lobby is taken up by a ticket desk, cafe, and museum shop, it’s not precisely public, but the volume is spacious enough to feel generous; Mucciola (who worked for Kuma for seven years before setting up his own U.K.-based practice) points out that all the café and shop furniture is on wheels in order to allow for a variety of events to take place.

One noticeable absence, however, is that of the raked seating on the sloped wall of the entrance lobby—a prominent feature of early renders. Mucciola explains that it was too difficult to work around the health and safety issues while keeping the aesthetics of the space intact. Instead, beneath the oak paneling, a long wood bench runs around the edge of the room providing additional seating away from the cafe.

Overt wayfinding is almost unnecessary as a generous staircase, in the same patterned Irish Blue Limestone used throughout, curves around the large lobby, clearly directing visitors to the two exhibition spaces on the second floor. The larger of the two spaces, a vast 12,000-square-foot hanger, currently hosts a traveling exhibition on ocean liners.

In the second space, the Scottish Design Galleries, a permanent display designed by ZMMA, showcases a spread of 300 objects from the V&A’s collection designed or made in Scotland. Among the treasures, an unexpectedly pink, glittering fireplace designed by Robert Adam for Northumberland House sits alongside an equally shimmering diamond-winged tiara which once belonged to the Duchess of Roxburghe. Pride of place in the center of the gallery sits Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1907 Oak Room, designed for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow, restored and on display for the first time in 50 years—particularly poignant in light of the recent devastation of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

In a city that seems utterly committed to culture-led regeneration, it remains to be seen whether Dundee can capitalize both locally and internationally on the interest sparked by the arrival of the V&A. Alexander, however remains characteristically optimistic, citing a 10 percent increase in overnight stays in the months prior to the museum’s opening.

“At heart, our ambition is to help people understand Scotland’s wonderful design heritage,” he says. “That is a tale of our innovation, our entrepreneurship and of our creativity. We are doing that not just to explain that history, we’re doing it especially so it can inspire new creativity.”

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