by Jerry ElengicalOct 15, 2022
Why does architecture seek an anchor in its context? What dialogues emerge when a building is rooted in its place?
Kengo Kuma & Associates' first building in the UK and Scotland's first design museum, the V&A Dundee was selected from a pool of 120 diverse design concepts, as part of an international design competition. The 8445 sqm building sits as a concrete architecture jewel on the Dundee waterfront, its jagged cliff-like form echoing the shipbuilding heritage of its site and the surrounding. Positioned on what was once the Earl Grey Dock, a location that was a thriving maritime landing stage, the V&A Dundee reimagines the location. Kengo Kuma's new vision employs multiple cues – both in the structure and its spatial experience – that tie the architecture of the V&A Dundee with the waterscape. The £80.11 million project sits at the centre of the 30-year-long, £1 billion Dundee waterfront transformation that stretches 8km alongside the River Tay and its estuary over an area of 240 hectares.
The building's outer form carries a strong visual reference to the Scottish cliffs that line the country's north-eastern coastline. The result comes together in twisting concrete walls that meet a strikingly sculpturesque aesthetic. The façade design particularly stands out for its robust horizontal layering of precast rough concrete panels. Throughout the day, the striated surface cast off ever-changing geometric shadows that render a sense of playfulness and transience to the setting. The overall built form is composed of two inverted museum, which paves the way to a sprawling common space where visitors can savour panoramic views of River Tay. According to the design team, the archway references 'the commemorative Royal Arch which was built nearby in 1844 to welcome Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the city'.
The twisting surfaces, at various points on the outer form, allude to the hull of a ship or a prow leaning over the water. The overarching complexity of the structure got the architectural team to work in close collaboration with engineering firm Arup, construction giant BAM Construct UK, and project managers Turner & Townsend. To analyse the granular details that subsequently affect the structural design, the teams worked with an integrated 3D model of the building to understand the project digitally before it was built. One of the advantages of working with this model can be seen in the wall thickness, which was originally devised to be 60cm thick. With the integration of heavy steel, this was cut into half while the steel skeleton was replaced with thinner reinforced bars. The seeming fluidity of the walls too, though projected concerns, in the beginning, became a strength of the design in the process. Much like how origami relies on the folds made on the paper to become more rigid.
Upon entering the museum, one first experiences the building's social core - a large main hall that sits alongside a café, shops, and other visitor facilities. The space is distinguished by its stepped interior walls which feature hanging oak veneered panels punctuated by linear apertures. These openings let in natural light through the day and render playful shadows inside while enabling controlled views of the waterfront. While the connection between the architecture with the water is spatially pronounced, the material palette corresponds to the looming homogeneity. As per the design team, 'the floor of the main hall is set in Carlow Irish Blue limestone', a dark stone embedded with visible fossils of sea creatures and plants. In addition to this, the café, restaurant and shop's cash desk uses concrete mixed with mussel shells as bespoke polished surfaces that pay homage to the River Tay's endangered freshwater pearl mussel. The material, according to the design team, is a sustainably sourced by-product from the local shores.
Crossing the mezzanine floor which has a large picnic room for schools and families to use (with its walls and floor clad in bamboo), a glass elevator takes you to the upper second floor. Overlooking the hall below and enabling fresh perspectives of the city, this floor leads into an open foyer connecting the various exhibition galleries and public spaces within the building including the Michelin Design Gallery and the Thompson Learning Centre. Here, European oak is seen on the flooring. Other programmes on this level comprise a design residency studio, a multi-purpose auditorium for conferences and community events, and a restaurant.
The building's construction took off with the making of a temporary cofferdam composed of 12,500 tonnes of stone. Once the cofferdam was in place, in 2015, the physical construction of the museum commenced. Taking us closely through the construction process, the design team explains, "With the installation of the foundation, two separate cores could be built. From the cores, interior walls reaching out to the perimeter of the building – designed to support the outward-leaning exterior walls – were erected. Next came the process of pouring the concrete exterior walls. To do this a huge web of temporary structures was created. It was only when the roof and floors of the museum were in place, completing the superstructure, that the temporary works could be removed and the museum building within could be uncovered. The exterior of the building was completed when all the 2,429 pre-cast concrete panels were lifted into place."
Speaking of the project, its architectural protagonist Kengo Kuma says, "My inspiration always starts from the place where the project will be. […] As we started thinking about the project one of my colleagues showed me a picture of the cliffs of north-eastern Scotland – it's as if the earth and water had a long conversation and finally created this stunning shape. The design of V&A Dundee attempts to translate this geographical uniqueness into the building by creating an artificial cliff." "The big idea," he continues, "was bringing together nature and architecture, and to create a new living room for the city."
Buildings are the vessels of our stories – of the times lived, the time that is now, and which is to come. Embedding context into architecture, like what V&A Dundee has managed to achieve, is much like laying a cultural foundation: one in which narratives of the past do not overshadow the future, but only reinforce it.