A new branch of Victoria & Albert Museum - the first dedicated design museum in Scotland – has just opened its doors in Dundee. This is the first UK building designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates (KKAA), and it aims to be a genuinely 21st-century cultural facility, a place designed to be intimately connected with its natural environment and its social community.
Located along the waterfront of the River Tay, the museum is covered with 2,500 pre-cast concrete panels to recreate the peculiar image of the Scottish cliffs, particularly the dialogue between water and earth that creates those unique shapes of the cliffs. Similarly to the natural elements, the façade offers an ever-changing image due to its shadows, which vary depending on weather conditions. The interior is conceived a "living room for the city", a place to make everyone feel welcome.
Maurizio Mucciola – Italian architect, Founder of the office PiM.studio Architects based in London and former staff of KKAA – followed this venture from the very beginning as a project architect. We had a conversation on this project, and he kindly offered me some interesting insights.
The museum is at the core of the £1 billion transformations of Dundee's waterfront. Kengo Kuma & Associates won a competition - launched in 2010 - out of a stellar shortlist. The competition brief demanded to connect the city centre with the riverside area. The municipality of Dundee created a master plan for all area, and V&A Dundee was at the centre of it. Maurizio explains that the winning answer of KKAA was to connect the city centre and riverside by erecting a building with an organic façade, designed to create an intense dialogue with water. The primary goal of this project – often underlined by Kengo Kuma – was to build an authentically contemporary museum, not only an art container but also a civic space and a new identity for Dundee.
The exterior façade offers a masculine image, with the rough finish of the concrete modules made to resist the hard weather conditions and the salted water. It is a façade designed to age organically, without the worry to maintain an image of newness, but open to the natural alterations. This topic is frequently recognisable in the work of Kengo Kuma, where the materials follow the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of the natural cycle of growth and its imperfections. Conversely, the interior is more feminine - supporting the same language of random horizontal panels used in façade - but offering a warmer and softer image thanks to the locally harvested wood.
The void in the centre of the building is conceived as a connecting element: a new centrality to attract people from the city centre, a public plaza filled with activities to promote social interaction. Also, in this case, the Japan-ness of Kuma's approach is detectable. The gate created by the two interlocking volumes is inspired – as Maurizio explains - by the Japanese Torii, the traditional gates at the entrance of Shinto shrines. Torii often works as a link between the city and the temple, between the city and nature. Similarly here, the museum is a holy temple of the arts, and its gate becomes a transitional space between the city and the water. Another element derived from the Japanese aesthetic is perceptible in the use of the windows. The thick skin of the building is perforated only in a few points, just to frame specific views. Similarly to the traditional tea houses, where the tea master designed the frames to capture natural paintings.
Maurizio explained me the technical challenges faced in this project. As imaginable, the process of creating this innovative building has been extremely complex. The parametrically generated model of the museum designed by KKAA was translated in a constructible model by Tekla Structures, prize-winning software adopted by the facade contractor. Starting from the black concrete walls, Arup shaped an impressive structural system. The concrete shell composed of double curved inclined walls - a big structural challenge – is held together by the steel structure of the roof. All the formworks needed to be kept on site until the roof structure was completed.
The dark tone of the concrete - achieved after many tests – was necessary to create the contrast of shadows that identify this building. The fins that cover the museum shell - made of precast concrete - are all different to follow the shape and inclination of the supporting wall. The strategy adopted to increase the efficiency was to create a constant profile of the panels, where only the width and depth varies. To do so, a flexible formwork was specially constructed for this project.
Maurizio states that "pride is the keyword for this project". The pride that was shown by the 1,500 people involved in the construction of the museum - who worked in harmony for years – but also the pride of the museum staff and, most important, the pride of all the citizens of Dundee.
Finally, the elasticity of the client well needs to be appreciated. Even though the cost for this project rose considerably – mainly due to the high complexity of the design – the museum was successfully completed and can be now considered an iconic building and a new magnet for Dundee and Scotland. This proves that an exceptional architecture - still today – occurs only with extraordinary patronage.