FEATURES

To the Street

London

5 October 2017

Three and a half years ago, the Edwardian screen that marked the Exhibition Road entrance to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was dismantled stone by stone. The Aston Webb screen had been installed in and named for its designer, the architect who also designed the museum’s facade – a structure that evokes Christopher Wren, features domes and spires influenced by Renaissance Pavia, and which was conceived and constructed with the spirit of Empire in mind.

Each part of the screen, many of which had been left pockmarked by shrapnel during the Second World War, was numbered according to its position, packed away and put into storage. A chain of trucks then demolished a group of disused buildings that stood behind it. In the 20th century, the site had been used as a yard to accommodate the V&A’s boilers, which provided power to light and heat its galleries. It was freed up once the introduction of electricity rendered these obsolete. In the 1970s, the boilers were replaced by a series of buildings that housed exhibitions devoted to industrial design – an arrangement, the so-called Boilerhouse, that eventually evolved into London’s Design Museum.

Clearing those structures left a blank canvas for Amanda Levete Architects (ALA), the practice commissioned to design the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, a new wing of the museum. ALA was founded in 2009 by Amanda Levete, an architect trained at the Architectural Association, who worked for Richard Rogers before joining Future Systems as a partner in 1989, a firm that was co-founded by her then-husband Jan Kaplický. Levete designed the media centre at Lord’s cricket ground, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 1999, as well as Selfridges department store in Birmingham, both buildings with a space-age, sci-fi aesthetic that would seem to position them a world away from the Victorian history of the V&A. Levete’s plan for Exhibition Road was clear, however. Once a ring of pillars had been threaded 50m deep, within a metre of the foundations of the existing Grade I-listed building, diggers delved into the ground and removed more than 22,000 cubic metres of soil over the course of nearly four months. The resultant hole will form the cradle for the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery, the largest new cultural space in London since Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, while the roof will form the foundations of the Sackler Courtyard, an open space that will bridge the museum and Exhibition Road, incorporating a new café. The gallery below will be accessible from a new foyer, the Blavatnik Hall.

At her London studio – an airy open-plan space with a unifying red carpet, where you are asked to remove your shoes at the entrance – Levete speaks at length about the courtyard. She wants it to be a public space where people feel they can come together. “For me the success of this project will be marked not just by people having an enhanced experience of the exhibitions,” she says, “but also by this public space. I think public spaces are very important[…] especially in our tortured times.” The idea was to create a natural meeting point between the museum and the outside world that invites people in off the streets. “Exhibition Road has been semi-pedestrianised in recent years and [that] really changed the way in which people use the street,” she said. “It is a wide, handsome space. Yet there is nowhere off it, there is no respite.” The decision to include a café in the courtyard may seem like a small gesture, but Levete persuaded the V&A that it ought to open earlier than the museum, which is accessible to visitors from 10am, so that early arrivals – who until now could be seen lurking on the steps of the entrance on Cromwell Road – have somewhere to go while they wait. “By creating this urban space off Exhibition Road, you are bringing the museum to the street and the street to the museum,” she says. “You are encouraging different audiences, as you can get people off the street to have a coffee. You can get your bearings, you can understand where you are but you don’t have to go into the museum, though of course we hope people will.” In the 21st century, museums function as more than didactic spaces and the notion of a café as a meeting point with the outside responds to this. The hope is that customers will be encouraged into the V&A and be able to stumble upon the likes of a guitar wrecked by Pete Townshend in 1976 or an 18th-century mechanical toy made for Tipu, Sultan of Mysore.

Levete talks about wanting to create a narrative between the design of the courtyard and gallery, and the fact that this obliged her to grapple with “how[…] you deal with the paradox that the main event, the exhibition space, was below ground so is invisible to the public”. Her solution was abstract. “Our idea was to consider how to make the invisible visible – how do you, through the design of the courtyard, give a sense of what is below?” The sweeping pattern of the courtyard floor, for instance, is a flattened-out version of the shape formed by the folds of the ornate gallery ceiling underneath it. Indeed, this is one of the most striking features of the new quarter. The space has been constructed using porcelain tiles, each of which has been adorned with stripes using a light-blue glaze and which, collectively, form a pattern of geometric shapes. This choice of ceramic as the dominant material within the project was inspired by the V&A’s collection. “We had the idea for a ceramic courtyard as it would speak of the mission of the V&A, which was to marry industry with craftsmanship and artisanal techniques,” says Levete. The aim was to “literally express that on the floor of the courtyard”. What followed was an exploration of the technical qualities of ceramic. “We wanted to introduce colour and we wanted [the courtyard] to have a particular character,” she says, “then while we were doing research we understood the difference in the base clay of porcelain as compared to ceramic. Ceramic is biscuity, quite a dull base clay, whereas porcelain is so much finer.”

Ceramics have been a fundamental part of the V&A’s fabric since its inception. You can still see the tile work that remains integral to the Poynter Room and the Gamble Room – two of the refreshment rooms in the cafeteria – each named after its designer. There is also the ornate Ceramic Staircase, which is mainly decorated using majolica, a form of ceramic popular in
19th-century Britain that imitated maiolica, a kind of Italian pottery developed during the Renaissance that was characterised by its opaque white tin glaze, on top of which decoration can be applied. The Ceramic Staircase goes up the west side of the Lecture Theatre building, leading visitors to what was originally the museum’s Ceramics Gallery. Historic images show that this gallery featured a series of columns that were lavishly decorated with ceramics. That was before the museum was refurbished in the early-20th century and a fashion for what was perceived as a more modern aesthetic prompted most of the columns to be stripped bare. Now, the gallery is used to display silverware. The few remaining ceramic columns and the staircase are a reminder of what once was. The Ceramic Study Galleries have been curated so that more ceramic objects are available for the public to see proportionate to the overall collection than is the case with respect to any other of the museum’s holdings. The variety is astonishing. There is a whole room dedicated to Chinese ceramics, mainly from the Qing dynasty, which includes hundreds of objects that vary in technique, pattern and colour. A set of photographs of Chinese bowls in pale-blue and green hues stuck to the project room wall at AL_A, alongside diagrams of the courtyard tile layout, show that this is where the architect found inspiration. “We thought, how do you introduce colour?” Levete explains. “And how can that colour reference the ancient Chinese glazes which we had seen in the V&A’s collection?”

At the time of my visit, the site is almost complete and the tiled floor is striking. The pale-blue hues of the porcelain courtyard contrast with the terracotta of the original surrounding walls, creating a dialogue between epochs. It is a dialogue perceived at first glance through the architecture, but one which brings to life the juxtaposition of objects of distinct historical
periods in the collections displayed inside. This area, the Exhibition Road Quarter, forms part of the V&A’s longstanding redevelopment plans – a scheme taking place at a time when many public institutions are scaling back, and which has been made possible largely by donations from individuals, grants and foundations raised in their millions by the museum’s development department, headed by Jane Lawson. The past eight years have seen the opening of new areas such as the Europe - Galleries and the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, while one of its Cast Courts, which house replicas of sculptures such as Trajan’s Column, has also been refurbished. There is soon to be a new members’ room designed by Carmody Groarke, and there are plans for a new photography centre. Further afield, offshoots of the V&A are also in progress. A V&A East is to form part of the new cultural district taking shape at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford and there are plans for a V&A Dundee Museum of Design in Scotland, as well as a V&A gallery at a new cultural hub in Shenzhen, China. The Exhibition Road Quarter, however, amounts to by far the most extensive and ambitious overhaul that the museum’s original South Kensington site has witnessed in more than 100 years – it is in one sense the base project from which others develop. Equally, it is an undertaking with a chequered history, given that it is the second attempt at redeveloping the Boilerhouse Yard site. Daniel Libeskind was first commissioned to redesign the site in 1996 and the legacy of that project has shaped Levete’s work here.

Initially, Libeskind’s design – which was called the Spiral, although it looked more like a cascading pair of boxes – was hailed as a work of creative innovation. It was at the cutting edge of what Charles Jencks referred to as “Nonlinear Architecture” and he considered it to be an example of the “aesthetic of undulating movement” that he aptly predicted would be pivotal to architecture in the 21st century. But the Spiral was not without its critics, who felt that it would compromise the Victorian architecture of the museum. William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times, put it in blunt terms in 1996 when he wrote that the proposed building would be “a disaster for the Victoria and Albert Museum in particular and for civilisation in general”. An eight-year quest for funding to help realise it followed. The Spiral ended up unable to secure the support of the Millennium Commission Arts Council, despite it having received planning permission from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. When it was eventually denied Heritage Lottery Funding in July 2004, the V&A realised that it was fighting a losing battle and before long decided to move on.

For whoever picked up the development of Boilerhouse Yard, then, a great deal was at stake. There were high passions around the project and a significant investment had already been made in one failed commission, but Levete says she approached it with open eyes. “The V&A went away and thought about what they really needed, and what they actually needed was one super-flexible space for the temporary blockbuster shows and not a series of small spaces, like the earlier proposal.” Levete says she had to closely consider the purpose of the project. “We started to think, OK, so it is not about the building as icon, perhaps it is about creating the iconography of place.” The priority given to fostering a sense of place seems to mark a new direction in museum design. In previous decades, the field has been characterised by the dominant, bombastic tone of buildings such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, the swooping metal structure that sparked the Bilbao effect – the idea of attracting a world-class museum to put a city on the map. Gehry’s approach has subsequently been vilified as much as celebrated, and Levete is conscious that the tide has turned, arguing that the failure of Libeskind’s V&A commission to materialise heralded a new direction for architecture. “For me, the demise of that scheme marked the end of the moment of building as icon,” she says, and she intends her design to represent a distinct departure from that idea. “This new courtyard had to have a really specific character and so we began to view the project not just as a cultural project but also as an urban project.”

AL_A’s design for the site is subtler than Libeskind’s. In part, this is inevitable in that the commission was for an open space and an underground gallery rather than a building, but it is also a question of aesthetic. It is clear, for instance, that Levete is interested in pattern and geometry in a way that seeks to co-exist with the existing Victorian architecture. “It was very important that whatever we did speaks of progress and modernity but at the same time was respectful of the past,” she says. A boldly lacquered pair of black timber stairs take you down to the gallery from the new foyer, the Blavatnik Hall, for instance, where “Toblerone” trusses comprise the ceiling of the space and form a concertina. Meanwhile, the café and the Oculus, which functions as a skylight for the gallery, are each wrapped in a sleek, curved outer form that is reminiscent of Levete’s earlier work. There are also details that refer to the museum’s original architecture. The floor in the Blavatnik Hall includes a mosaic-patterned edging that is familiar from many other areas of the existing building, and the stairs are supported by a steel beam painted in international orange, the colour of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which is a symbol of industrialism intended to hark back to the museum’s founding vision to promote industry.

The use of industry is particularly apparent in the work involved in the technicalities of the tiles. The challenge was to create around 15,000 handmade tiles of a suitable quality for the courtyard. “In Victorian times you had porcelain-tiled porches, but they would have been super slippery,” observes Levete, “so we started working with manufacturers on what we needed to add to porcelain to make it non-slip[…]. And how we could bring that kind of handmade quality to the tiles but still have volume production.” The way the tiles looked and felt was a serious consideration, but functionality was also essential. For instance, the tiles would have to undergo testing to ensure they would withstand impact, could be cleaned and did not stain.

Alice Dietsch, AL_A’s director, explains that the practice worked with three different tile companies and developed around prototypes before deciding on a porcelain floor tile as opposed to any other ceramic, in a process that took two and a half years. “I think it is going to be the first porcelain courtyard in the world,” she says, “so we had to make sure porcelain was going to be suitable.” Dietsch shows me a number of prototypes in different shapes, which clearly differ in materiality. The final tile has a certain finesse in terms of quality, and it feels by far the smoothest to touch even though it is unglazed. It was selected because of these aesthetic and sensorial attributes, but also because it was found to be hard-wearing, strong and non-porous. “Given the amount of experimentation that happened it wasn’t an easy substance to produce,” says Dietsch. “The quality of the clay was perfect.”

The tile with the “perfect” clay was made by Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum, a company in the Netherlands that has been making ceramic tiles since . Tichelaar has its roots in brickmaking and has developed an expertise in manipulating clay and manufacturing glazes. Its factory in Makkum, a former fishing village in the northern province of Friesland, now produces ceramics and the company has worked with international designers such as Hella Jongerius, Irma Boom and Studio Job, as well as with several other museums. The V&A courtyard, however, is its most complex project by far. Jan Kok, a project manager who began his career restoring old earthenware for museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one of at least full-time staff working at Tichelaar on the development of the bespoke tiles for the V&A courtyard. “We discussed which materials and tiles to use,” he says, “and we then produced samples of glazed and unglazed tiles from different materials to find out what the options were.”

The most technically challenging aspect was producing a clay that was desirable in consistency and colour without the need for a glaze, which would have made its surface too slippery. The final result was a special clay formula combined with malachite, a green copper mineral. The glaze was restricted to the grooves or stripes on each tile in order to enhance its grip. The tiles had to be handmade because of the complexity of these grooves which, in order to achieve the desired pattern, were not applied across the entire length of every tile. “You have to take a plaster mould, fill it with liquid porcelain then fire it in the kiln until you have a beautiful slip-resistant tile,” says Kok. The grooves on the surface of each tile were then glazed by
hand with an instrument similar to a pipette. “This has never been done before,” notes Kok.

In situ, the pattern of stripes seems to undulate around the courtyard like an abstraction of soft ripples on water. The grey-blue is intermittently broken up by yellow or red stripes – a reference to poppies or buttercups in a meadow, which AL_A used as an initial image to represent the courtyard floor before it had framed exactly how to conceive the pattern. Although this is an urban courtyard, such subtleties create a feeling of the organic. The seamless pattern that sweeps across the courtyard masks the toil put into the tiles – viewed at a distance, they coalesce into a blanketing sea of diagonals. Although it is near complete when I visit, the courtyard still contains machines for cutting tiles and someone affixing the last few sections. It is like putting the final pieces of a long and complex jigsaw into place.

The Aston Webb screen has now been delicately reinstated in front of the Sackler Courtyard. It has been opened up by removing sections of the lower part and replacing them with perforated metal – a decision taken following revelations that Webb himself had wanted the screen to be designed this way. To retain the story behind the parts that were pockmarked, AL_A designed sheets of perforated metal that would bear these impressions like scars. It will be via the new gates of this screen on Exhibition Road that the museum will open its arms to the street and, although the V&A was founded on the basis of a colonial collection, architecture like Levete’s courtyard seem to gesture towards a new era in which the stories told by museums are no longer the preserve of the Establishment. Ideally, one in which they should be diverse and belong to everyone.