On the ground – V&A Dundee

Sergio Burns

An exciting shortlist of six architect’s designs for the new waterfront V&A Museum of Art in Dundee, has sparked interest and ignited debate at home and abroad. The short list – Vienna-based Delugan Meissl; Japanese architect Kengo Kuma; Americans REX and Stephen Holl; the Oslo-New York City headquartered Snohetta; Sutherland Hussey from Leith, Edinburgh – will be put before a panel of judges and a decision, hopefully, made early November (date to be confirmed).

But, with such an excellent standard of design, selecting one winning design from six will not be easy. “It has to be a difficult decision” Clive Gillman, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts and one of the judging panel agreed. “Because all the proposals are high quality submissions put together by expert teams.”

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The Dundee project has certainly caught the public’s imagination. A wall at the University of Abertay, Dundee’s library – where a three-dimensional exhibition of the designs will run between 29th September and 4th November – has disappeared beneath a carpet of post-it notes.

“Are there any good architects?” An anonymous scribbler mused on a yellow, square thought bubble. Another ‘cynic’ questions the whereabouts of ‘Frank Gehry’. One person suggested that the £47m price tag for the build could swiftly become £147m, and then £247m before the completion of the project in 2015.

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On the streets of Dundee people were equally enthusiastic to have their opinion heard. Nine year-old Judith Hughes enthusiastically promoted the merits of Sutherland Hussey, while Philip Pickavance, ‘from Ayrshire’ with a

Manchester accent, described the Leith architect’s design as looking like a ‘Portakabin’. ‘Portakabin’ was less than charitable I thought, because the Scottish design did have its merits. The interior, for example, appears spacious and traditionally museum-like, but I have to be honest and say it was my own six from six.

The problem that cropped up time and again amongst the commentators was its uninspiring, power-station, ‘box’ shape. “Kengo Kuma is top for me,” Mr Pickavance added. “It’s like a boat and that’s incredibly appropriate for an historic harbour like Dundee.”

Office administrator Denise Findlay agreed, but had reservations about the amount of money the project would cost. “I liked the Kengo Kuma…and the Bluebell was okay (REX). The flat one (Snohetta) looks like a good idea for wandering round, but as a building I don’t think it was a statement. I suppose the money could be spent on something more sensible, but it is nice to have something to bring people to the city.”

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Kuma is my personal favourite – a ‘comic book’ metro-structure with a hint of deconstructionist off-kilter. Lattice-shaped, light and airy walls, bright, spacious interior, ship’s bow and stern profile, reverse ‘V’, and intriguing angles; it ticks all the boxes for museum, waterfront and imagination. This design – if it wins – would chime loudly with the aqua environment of the location, and provide Dundee with one of the most imaginative architectural creations of the 21st century.

Despite my enthusiasm for the Japanese, Frances Stevenson, studio textile designer and lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, had a warning. “I think it is amazing” she said of the exhibition. “In fact this is my second visit, all the entrants are very different, but absolutely fantastic. I quite liked Kengo Kuma, his design sat really well in the sea and it wasn’t over-emphasised, but I do worry it might end up as a seagull perch.”

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Not everyone chose the Kuma. Software designer Rahul Oza admitted to being a science-fiction fan, which might explain his attraction to Delugan Meissl. “My favourite one was…don’t know the name of the architect but the spaceship one (Delugan Meissl). I quite like the fact that the steps kind of tend to go down into the river…it’s kind

of like a part of the environment.”

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One author on the forum described REX’s design as a window cleaner’s delight, which, of course, would satisfy one of the aims of the project – to help the local economy.

The Snohetta design received the vote of Dundee College lecturer Barry Carmichael. “The simple, flat design, unlike the others, does not detract from the River Tay which is synonymous with the image of Dundee. Attaining the V&A is a coup for the city, and a welcome distraction from the huge job losses suffered recently.”

Surprisingly, few mentioned Stephen Holl’s intriguing design. Strikingly tall, and some distance out in the water, Holl’s minimalist elegance and reserve happened to be my second favourite. I actually preferred this design to Holl’s Nelson-Atkins Kansas City Museum of Art build, but where it really scores for me is in its interior.

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The stimulation of debate around the short list for the V&A reflects the quality of the entries, and will do no harm for the profile of Dundee, or Scotland for that matter.

Scottish Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop commented. “The level of international interest in this competition demonstrates the considerable impact the whole Dundee Waterfront development looks likely to have on the city’s reputation as a cultural and creative centre.”

In the thin air of contemporary architecture, genius is all about imagination and pushing the envelope of engineering possibility. Opinion is divided about the short list for the Dundee V&A, but no one can deny these designs are breathtaking representations of some of the best in contemporary architecture. Good enough to set the world talking.

Sergio Burns is a freelance arts and architectural journalist based in Scotland.


Editorial , London




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