V&A outpost by Kengo Kuma – high cultural ambitions for the east coast town in Scotland
Since the Guggenheim effect in Bilbao, big museum brands have become recognised as great initiators for urban regeneration. Dundee in Scotland, on the edge of Europe, is the latest to adopt the strategy by opening an outpost of the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum and hiring Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to deliver an architectural experience that will transform the cityscape. The new museum sits on the waterfront – its angular form has been compared to a futuristic shipwreck.
Kuma is known for architectural designs that are inspired by the irregularity of nature. At the new V&A building in Dundee there are no straight lines, which creates an illusion of spatial movement in and around the building. Kuma is also inspired by old traditional building techniques of his native Japan, the use of wood and beautiful local materials. The façade of the new edifice is constructed with prefabricated concrete panels and the interior – with its use of wooden slabs in different sizes in the soaring entrance atrium – echoes the same irregularity in rhythms. The floor is covered with a dark stone, where white marks from fossilised seashells play as reference to the waterfront location. Beautiful materials and the effort of rejecting all structural monotony has come at a cost however. The budget famously doubled halfway through the project, with the final bill coming in at £80 million.
The concrete was a functional choice to protect from harsh climatic conditions, but it also fits aesthetically with the urban identity and resonates with the dark stone found in the cityscape extending beyond. The museum has been praised for the way in which it relates with the setting, despite its spectacular form, but nevertheless some criticism has been raised too. While Gehry’s design for Guggenheim was one of the very first architectural experiments with the help of digital programming, here the play with form relies equally on complex mathematical formulations.
Inside the sloping walls provide irregular openings and the atmosphere is warm. Kuma, who is the chosen architect of Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium, aims to bring intimacy to the largest of developments. The exhibitions are drawn from the V&A collections, but in the Dundee outpost the focus is on Scotland’s design heritage, including 300 objects made in Scotland. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of the Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which was saved and stored after the original building was demolished and is now displayed in the museum. Aiming to restore civic pride and inspire creativity, the museum will no doubt become an enduring magnet for locals and tourists alike.
Asmo Jaaksi, founding partner of JKMM Architects,spoke to us about the new museum designed as an extension of the 1930s iconic Lasipalatsi building. Carved under the old bus station, the irregular domes above add a sense of play to the cityscape. Below the galleries are dedicated for experimental arts.
How would you describe the new exhibition space, which is a bit lost now behind the hi-tech digital spectacle of the Team Lab collective, what was the key concept of the design?
The starting point is a space that would be open and adaptable. It looks very different when it’s empty. This exhibition by TeamLab takes over its boundaries, totally transforming the sense of space. It’s a vast open area with three connecting galleries, with the undulating roof structure resembling a flying carpet, which you can’t observe during the current exhibition. But perhaps in the future we’ll be able to see also exhibitions within the entire open space. And indeed, adaptability was one of the starting points for the exhibition space.
The fact of building underground, what kind of challenge was that from a design perspective?
Elsewhere there are many museums that are built underground. I didn’t see that as a challenge in itself. In fact exhibition spaces are well suited to be underground, because walls will mostly be used for displaying artworks and don’t need to have openings, and beneath the ground level it is also a protected environment. The challenge is of course to create a pleasant visitor experience. The main objective of the museum is to attract and welcome visitors so that they can enjoy whatever is exhibited. That’s probably the biggest architectural challenge, to make an underground space inviting. Of course structurally this has been a massive challenge. Not just the fact of building underground, but because it’s such a central and dense urban location with lots of traffic passing through. We had to dig deep into the terrain, which was then transformed into the underground galleries.
You mentioned there are several museums build underground in other countries, did you have any specific building in mind as a reference or idea when you started working on this design?
It’s hard to point to any particular one as there are many good ones. But of course everyone knows the Louvre extension, a great example of an underground museum. That contemporary addition raised the level of attraction of a grand, historic environment in a spectacular way. Here it’s a very different situation and the entire museum concept is very different, but in wider terms there are similarities. Here also we are bringing a new era to a site, where it’s not possible to add anything on the ground level and you need to think how it can be done in an interesting way. The glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard is of course iconic and already a classic. Here it’s all more recent, but in the same way we wanted to bring a contemporary twist to a historic site.
How do you see the underground urban development in Helsinki, where there are many routes going across the city below the ground?
It can be interesting if it helps in developing meaningful urban connections. In the design of the museum we had plans to integrate an underground train station as part of the Pisararata transport system, which would have offered direct access to the museum. In the same way as some stations in bigger cities, it could have been named after the museum. So if the underground connections help to improve and facilitate circulation, it can be very interesting. There is lots of ground below that could be developed, but of course these spaces need to be well designed in order to be attractive and functional.
Sometimes these underground routes can feel isolating and they seem a bit neglected. What’s your view on that?
Maintenance is very important, so that a sense of value remains in the new urban fabric. When we build environments of high quality, they should also inspire and generate a commitment to look after them better. So, everything starts with doing things with good intentions, that is the prerequisite for sustainable design. When environments are created in a haphazard way, they easily become neglected.
Were you concerned about the small cracks around the concrete surfaces on the mounds above?
It was expected that something like this might happen and we are keeping an eye on the issue. It’s not about climatic conditions. There is a lot of experimentation in this architectural project on many levels, where we didn’t just use previously tested models, and then there might always be something unexpected.
The new university building Tiedekulma, also by JKMM Architects, has a very simple exterior that belies complexity inside. Is that something that you aim for?
In the long run, I’m drawn to a certain level of modesty, where the surrounding context is respected, instead of bulldozing the existing environment in order to make a big architectural gesture. At the Tiedekulma building the surrounding context is even more culturally significant than at Lasipalatsi. It’s surrounded by historic architectural layers: university buildings by Engel and then more recent by Ervi. So I felt we had to be very careful and discreet with the facades. Here around Lasipalatsi there have been more transformations, so there was also more freedom to experiment with new forms. However I feel it’s important to be considerate towards history and the environment in the long run. That’s how you can fit new architecture within temporal layers and create enduring spatial continuity in the urban fabric.
The exhibition Machines à Penser explores the idea of isolation close to nature as an important part in the creative thinking process.
When Dieter Roelstraete was invited to curate the Fondazione Prada exhibition to coincide with the Architecture Biennale in Venice, he knew immediately what he wanted to do. ”I have been thinking about this topic for years: the idea of the huts” he explained, referring to some very specific huts associated to three leading thinkers of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The idea of philosophers working in isolation, surrounded by wild nature had intrigued Roelstraete, who studied philosophy himself and understood the attraction of being able to focus your thoughts in a profound way. ”The dream of the hut is a very powerful vision of being away from the global 24/7 connected society”. Although this need was very much evident already way before the internet, as Roelstraete has observed through his interest towards huts: ”Many artists, writers and composers felt the need to isolate themselves to be more productive: Strindberg had a hut, Edward Grieg had a hut”.
Of the three philosophers Heidegger is probably the most quoted in the theory of architecture. His ideas on phenomenology have been very influential for architects and academics, and his hut in the Black Forest in Germany has become a sort of pilgrimage site. The iconic hut dating from the 1920s has attracted phenomenology enthusiasts and philosophical tourists from all over the world. ”When I went there with my friends we all thought we’d like to live there. Of course it’s a bit a of a joke, because we can’t have it”, Roelstraete says, ”But there is something very seductive about it”.
Wittgenstein’s cabin was built on an even more remote location in Norway, where it could only be reached over the water across the Sognefjord. Although the hut has been removed from its original location, the empty site is now a tourist destination. Adorno’s hut is even more mysterious as an appropriated construction by the Scottish poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay.
The lure of rural seclusion has influenced architects as well. ”Many architects build huge structures that define the cityscape, but they would actually like to live on a farm in Switzerland”, Roelstraete observes with a hint of irony. And indeed that was also very much the case with Le Corbusier, who loved staying in Le Cabanon, a small timber cabin on the Côte d’Azur. It wasn’t as isolated as the philosophers’ huts, but anyhow there is a contradiction in the futuristic schemes he envisioned and the simple cabin life he seemed to prefer.
Scattered across the lagoon-facing parkland behind the great Santa Maria Maggiore church, you will find eleven temporary pavilions commissioned by the Vatican. The pavilions have been designed by renown international architects, including Norman Foster, Smiljan Radic, Edouardo Souto de Mora and Terunobu Fujimori. It is a rare collection of contemporary sacred architecture and the first time Vatican takes part in the Venice Biennale.
The Skogskapellet by Gunnar Asplund was the guiding reference, that architectural historian Francesco Dal Co gave to the eleven invited architects. They have all imagined a small, spiritual space within a forest-like environment, the structure connecting to the site. Away from the tourist crowds of Venice, the whole area indeed is a beautiful place for quiet contemplation, as well as an opportunity to witness some exquisite designs. The concept of the pavilions follows the Serpentine Summer Pavilions format.
Apart from the size of the plot (seven by ten meters) given to each pavilion, the architects responded to the brief with a range of interpretations of religious iconography. Norman Foster used wooden struts engineered for an airy tent like space where three crosses form the central supporting system for the pavilion. Shrubs planted on the sides of the building will grow over the summer months to slowly transform the atmosphere of the space. Spanish architects Flores Prats and Chilean architect Smiljan Radic (who did the Serpentine Pavilion in 2014) provided spaces with more abstract religious symbolism.
Perhaps the most direct response to Asplund’s forest chapel is Terunobu Fujimori’s pavilion, which from the outside looks like a summer cabin of unusual, childlike proportions. Constructed directly on the ground, its sturdy structural beams form a cross inside in the same way as in Foster’s more open space.
These pavilions provide a great opportunity for observing details, materials and structures, as well as the larger historical and artistic dialogues in which they so clearly take part. The choice of architects presented in the Vatican’s exhibition area demonstrate a will to take part in contemporary cultural and artistic debates. The Vatican’s introductory participation is one of the highlights of this year’s Biennale. It also makes you think how sacred spaces must be hugely inspiring commissions for architects, perhaps anticipating also a new kind of spirituality needed for the planet.
Danica O. Kus has photographed Serpentine Summer Pavilions since 2009. The latest by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo is the tenth that she has documented. The architectural quality of each temporal Pavilion and their unique characteristics has been an enduring inspiration for her photographic work.
An exhibition showcasing her photographs of the ten Pavilions will be open during the London Festival of Architecture at the Slovenian Embassy in London. For architectural photographers the opening of the Serpentine Summer Pavilion in June is one of the highlights of the year. I asked Danica about the very special nature of the Serpentine series and its meaning for her.
How would you describe the new pavilion by Frida Escobedo in relation to previous ones?
The new pavilion seems quite modest at the first sight. But when you enter the space and you feel the atmosphere everything changes…the reflecting light from the roof, the play of light and shadows, the breeze which comes through the rough tiles, the reflection of the trees and tiles in the pool…it is very poetic pavilion and delightful to photograph. I like the idea that this pavilion is made of inexpensive materials and beautifully designed to each detail. Also it combines a Mexican tradition of making breeze walls and English mass-produced tiles.
It is very poetic pavilion and delightful to photograph – I like the idea that this pavilion is made of inexpensive materials
What are the elements you observe first in buildings?
When I come to a new space I first observe the atmosphere, the light and shadows, the sky, the structure, reflections…. Inside I try to feel the atmosphere, the smell, the temperature, the sound, the light…if the space is comfortable it’s easy to start with photography …if not I have to find a way and be creative…which is also good…
Can you describe the first summer pavilion that you shot and how did it go?
I shot the first summer pavilion in 2009. It was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Japanese architectural practice SANAA. It was an absolute pleasure to photograph: the reflective metal structure standing on tiny columns and reflecting the park surroundings. I remember that it was difficult to stop photographing and leaving the space, because the aluminum structure was changing in relation to the time of the day and weather conditions…
Has there been any pavilion that was more difficult to photograph and why?
Each pavilion is so unique and inspiring…I think it’s a wonderful experience for each photographer. I can’t say which one I prefer or which one was more difficult to photograph. Each time I’m surprised by their uniqueness and high aesthetics so I’m always very motivated and drowned to the subject in order to present it in its best form. The creative aspect of each pavilion gives also additional pleasure. It’s also a pleasure for visitors to take photos and be creative…
Whose work has been an inspiration for you in your career as photographer?
I have been inspired by the great photographers like Andre Kertesz, Edward Steichen, Ezra Stoller, Julius Shulmanand many contemporary photographers. I like their work because of their originality, new vision, composition, timelessness…
How is the idea of ‘Freespace’ interpreted in the national exhibitions of the Giardini –
Curated by Dublin-based architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the 2018 Architecture Biennale offers a broad view into the complexities of contemporary environments. With emphasis on details instead of the grand concepts of the previous Biennales, it’s a fresh look onto the multiple layers of meaning in architecture.
The proposed theme ’Freespace’ leaves plenty of space for interpretation. Responses in the national pavilions were ecological, futuristic, social, poetic and conceptual, reflecting on the idea of architecture as a language within society. Farrell and McNamara seem to challenge architecture as purely technical or political, but instead looking at the complex systems where both the smallest details and the long history need to be understood simultaneously in order to make great environments.
What is a great city in the future? How can we make sustainable environments? How can architecture generate wellbeing to individuals and the planet? Social spaces and infrastructure were explored in several exhibitions, some with historical outlooks and others with futuristic proposals. Some offered intensely researched, multilayered shows such as the US Pavilion on ecology and individual responsibility, while the UK Pavilion wasmore restrained, and rather bleak, but poetic – created by the leading contemporary architects Caruso St John in collaboration with conceptual artist Marcus Taylor. Both countries responded to their own political crisis in very different ways. UK was awarded a special mention by the jury.
The ’free gifts’ provided by nature (as also suggested in the overall curatorial proposal) is an elusive topic in the Nordic Pavilion, presented in a rather mysterious manner by young architect Eero Lunden, and nicely taking over the Sverre Fehn designed space. Ecology is equally beautifully evoked at the Australian Pavilion, where it was a collaboration between artist Linda Tegg and Baracco+Wright Architects.
Materiality and the presentation of architecture was a topic explored by the Swiss team, which was awarded the Best Pavilion Golden Lion. It’s a fun environment, showcasing the neutral minimalism of the domestic space, the utmost functionality as opposed to the poetic, unexpected and crafted environments imagined as ideal spaces. It was also the total opposite of the tense programs that could be found at the Korean Pavilion, the Spanish Pavilion (experimental and performative) and the French Pavilion. The Pavilions with plain statements won over the jury this year.