V&A Dundee: First impressions

After years in the making, the much-anticipated £80m V&A Museum of Design in Dundee has finally opened its doors. But does it fulfil its architect's vision of a “living room for the city”?

Feature by Hannah James | 16 Oct 2018

The V&A Dundee is the first V&A to exist outside of London in the UK, and the first museum in Scotland dedicated to design. The new museum cost £80 million to build, over twice the amount originally predicted. This sum was sourced from a range of funders, including the Scottish and UK governments, the National Lottery Fund, the Heritage Fund, and Creative Scotland. A new charity, Dundee Design Limited, has been established to run the museum, comprising of key partners within the city: Dundee City Council, The University of Dundee, Abertay University and Scottish Enterprise as well as The Victoria and Albert Museum.

The building is a commanding architectural statement that sits within the new £1 billion regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront. Once the home to a thriving ship building industry, the waterfront now houses the city’s new train station, several hotels, a garden, and the RRS Discovery, the ship on which Scott and Shackleton sailed to Antarctica in the early 1900s.

Concrete origami

It is among this varied collection that the V&A Dundee announces itself as an uncompromising concrete structure. Composed of two inter-connected geometric forms that join in the middle but also allow for a passageway through to the river behind, the building brings to mind the Japanese art form origami. The walls twist up and away from their foundations, providing an uncertain sense of size and scale as you move around and under. It is a building that is hard to read; what lies inside remains elusive.

The museum’s exterior is covered in a mass of smaller panels of concrete, each attached at differing angles, giving the sense from afar of a much lighter and less solid object. The V&A Dundee’s Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, has said to have been inspired by the rugged North Eastern coastline of Scotland, which he wanted to make a direct connection with through his design.

On entering the museum, a surprisingly enveloping space is revealed. In contrast to the cold and severe exterior, the interior is a sea of warm oak paneling, white walls, and natural light. At their base the interior walls are narrow, but as you move inside the cavernous hall they open up around you. A staircase wraps around the wall, inviting you upstairs, while a café and shop occupy the ground floor. Two generously-sized galleries take up a large proportion of the second floor: one housing the temporary exhibitions that will change biannually and the other the permanent collection celebrating Scottish Design. The museum also offers a restaurant, learning center and auditorium.

V&A Dundee's collections

The first temporary exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style has toured from the V&A in London, as many future exhibitions also will. The exhibition examines the ‘Golden Age’ of cruise ships in relation to changing politics, economics and tastes of the mid 19th to the late 20th centuries. The show presents an impressive collection of over 250 objects from private and public collections, encompassing paintings, sculptures, ship and engine models, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film. Each room within the exhibition feels both thoughtfully curated and beautifully presented, as the exhibition design allows these unique objects to be both appreciated and understood. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style raises pertinent questions regarding the history of travel, migration, and war at sea in relation to design and innovation, questions which are as relevant now as they were to societies back then.

The permanent collection, meanwhile, tells the story of Scottish design through a collection of 300 objects, ranging from the decorative arts to fashion, architecture, engineering, and digital design. At the heart of this collection is the fully restored Oak Room, created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This stunning piece of architecture and design has been in storage for 50 years, having been originally designed in 1907 for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow. This room is at the center of the Scottish Design Galleries and pays homage to the special place Mackintosh has within Scottish design history. Other standout pieces from the collection are Vivienne Westwood’s Harris Tweed tailoring, the Dundee born computer games Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, and the iconic hooded Orkney chair, as well as original drawings for The Beano comic.

‘A Living Room for the City’

In the lead-up to the building's opening the museum has been engaged in community projects that have reached over 100,000 people. Ranging from community gardening to working with hospitals and schools, as well as local design groups, these projects have aimed to demonstrate the importance and power of design to the wider community within Dundee and Scotland.

Like many former industrial cities, Dundee has suffered a difficult economic period resulting in much inequality and deprivation. It is within this context that the V&A was imagined and created over a five-year period. The museum’s vision was inspired by that of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, another city with a history of economic depression, which made a positive impact when it opened in 1997. The Guggenheim helped that Spanish city become a popular tourist destination, and this is what the V&A Dundee’s founders hope will also be the case for Dundee.

A “living room for the city” is how Kuma has described the museum, a tagline which you can purchase on tote bags, pencils and badges in the museum shop. Kuma has said he wants the people of Dundee to treat the museum as a place to meet, talk, work, eat and sleep – a civic building that will provide a much-needed public space to be warm and safe, as well as inspired and educated. This grand and noble ideology leads to the question: who will be welcome to use this space and how will they be welcomed?

This poetic concept of an epic, civic living room is perhaps best represented in the museum’s picnic room, where visitors can eat their own food and drink. Or maybe it is evident in the free water fountains that are available in each bathroom, or perhaps in the small reading space on the second floor. Where this ideology is less discernable is in the main hall, which is surely designed as the ‘living room’ itself. This grand space is sadly devoid of any comfy sofas or chairs upon which you could recline with your friends or children, take in the views, read a book, or use your laptop. Instead it is populated with chairs belonging to the paid café and restaurant as well as the expansive shop area. The oak paneling that covers the entirety of the reclining walls appears at first glance to be a seating bank that has the potential to turn the main space into a huge auditorium. However, on closer inspection, these forms are disappointingly decorative. These are unfortunately fundamental aspects of the museum’s design that have already served to undermine its ambition of being a valuable municipal space.

Over the opening weekend a protest walk was staged through the museum by members of the community who are critical of the large sum of money spent on the project in the context of Dundee’s economic hardship. How the museum will make meaningful relationships with its local community, while also appealing to a wider international audience, will be the test of its success. This “living room for the city” is yet to be inhabited.

Scroll on to read our interview with V&A Dundee's director, Philip Long, or click here

For more on V&A Dundee, head to vam.ac.uk/dundee