• Making an exhibition of oneself

    On Friday, the Victoria & Albert Museum opened its grandly-titled Exhibition Road Quarter to the public. The museum’s existing entrance on that street has been remodelled and a new courtyard created beyond it. This has been paved with thousands of porcelain tiles that also roof a glass-walled café. Steps lead down into a lobby, which has been carved out of a corridor to the west of the museum’s central garden and from where visitors can access the rest of the museum. The final element of the new scheme lies beneath this lobby, however: a large ‘black-box’ space for hosting exhibitions. Rooflights connect it visually to the courtyard above. What does an initial visit reveal?

    The space occupied by the new ‘Quarter’ has always been known as Boilerhouse Yard after its original Victorian purpose. Changing technology left it and the rooms below unused for many years, although a series of displays of industrial design there in the 1980s were the genesis of the stand-alone Design Museum. The V&A’s plan to build Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral on this site was abandoned in the late 1990s after its Deconstructivist rationale proved too much for too many people. A comprehensive programme of restoring and re-presenting the rest of the museum, with modest architectural interventions where necessary, succeeded such extravagances and has, for the most part, been quietly successful.

    Separately, the increasing unsuitability of the museum’s current suite of rooms for temporary displays and the repositioning some years ago of Exhibition Road itself as a part-pedestrianised thoroughfare argued for a fresh approach at Boilerhouse Yard. Rather than rising above it, a new, state-of-the-art exhibition venue placed underground and fed from a new entrance would safeguard the items on display, simplify access and reduce crowding both in paying exhibitions and the wider museum. A competition was launched to provide this new space and address the connections between it, Exhibition Road and the remainder of the museum. This was won by Amanda Levete’s practice AL_A and the finished build is on show to all this week before it begins to earn its keep from paying customers.

    For over a century, the Boilerhouse Yard has been genteelly screened from the public by a tall Portland stone colonnade joined by elegant balustrading, the whole raised above Exhibition Road on a high, rusticated wall. Designed by Sir Aston Webb, the architect responsible for the V&A’s lavish Cromwell Road frontage, a central arch was its only penetration and the effect recalled a grand London mansion.

    Regrettably, this screen has now suffered an aggressive intervention whereby the portions of wall between every column – and, by necessary corollary, the balustrade in its entirety – has been removed, sliced out as if malignant, in order to provide that increased permeability. Loss of historical fabric aside, the result leaves Webb’s columns looking poorly proportioned and gives rise to a need to close these newly-made gaps up again after hours, a task performed by aluminium doors or gates attached to both sides of the column ‘bases’ formed by the surgery on the screen. In a further irony these doors have been perforated with thousands of small holes in a pattern said to be a reinterpretation of the pock-marking left by wartime shrapnel that still scars the museum façade here, yet the actual damage itself has been removed from the portions of wall left standing, either by filling and sanding or straightforward re-casing.

    Passing through the screen and entering the courtyard, confusion was my initial impression thanks to the jagged, diagonal geometry throughout. The café pavilion’s plan and folded roofline, the skylight (which also slopes in other planes), the angle of the main steps and even the porcelain tiles (over-fussy in themselves, with different colours, line thicknesses and shapes used in their design) all adopt a dizzying, Zaha Hadid-lite orientation that is inconsistent, illogical and jarring. It does nothing to clarify routes through or reassure uncertain guests inside what is in reality a very small space compared to the carefully-controlled publicity photographs, one that is also functionally busy.

    Like all entrants to the competition, AL_A had to accommodate the significant fall of land from Exhibition Road to the main or ground floor of the museum proper, almost the equivalent of a full floor. A ramp to one side yields a step-free route, but that some visitors were seen gamely plodding up the incline separating this from the main area of the courtyard despite paving clearly intended to discourage such efforts suggests this confusion is not restricted to critics.

    Inside, the new lobby is as composed as it could have been in the circumstances, with a line of display panels facing the garden and acting as an orientation point. Its white finish contrasts with the glossy black stairwell that takes visitors down into the first basement level, where the new exhibition space awaits. Its angled form and twisting route, also typical of many contemporary developments, are reflected in its opposite number leading back up (a one-way flow is intended in operational use). Amidst this monochrome palette pillar box red is used to pick out a cluster of four steel ceiling beams and the steel columns that support them, a structural composition that inserted during construction and which holds up part of the original museum façade above although this fact is no more obvious than

    the reason for such assertive highlighting in the first place. Finally, the cavernous exhibition hall is reached. Dark-walled, lit only by the skylight and empty of content, it is what it is – an endlessly-modifiable volume for future use, a blank canvass for the designers of tomorrow.

    It’s unclear how any of this truly demonstrates the architect’s stated aim of “deep engagement with the heritage, architecture and collections” of the V&A beyond the flip. The new work will no doubt be a practical success, not least because the new space can so obviously be closed off from the rest of the museum as needed, but I cannot help thinking Levete’s team has responded to the ghost of Libeskind’s showy excess rather than Webb’s logical planning and restrained extravagance. AL_A’s combination of deliberately awkward forms and unnecessarily busy detail is surely the opposite of what is needed to mark out an early 21st century addition to this firmly late 19th/early 20th century complex.

    (All images Chris Rogers except the first which is by and (c) Hufton + Crow and the second, which is from Google Street View)

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

final cover

Chris's third book reveals the hidden gems and well-known landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments. Chris appeared on London Live to chat with presenter Reya El Salahi about the book; click on the still below. Follow the book's Facebook page for more events and news.

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