Every now and again, an architect achieves something that is transformational and that is what Amanda Levete Architects has achieved with the new Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum, all the more so because there is very little architecture in the traditional sense, as much of the new space is below ground, but what has been achieved is a radical transformation of space and identity by one project which is a real bargain at around £55 million compared to the Tate Modern’s £260 million for it’s new extension.
Taking a difficult location off Exhibition Road, which at one time was the home of the Boiler House – the precursor to the Design Museum – and had a previous proposal for Daniel Libeskind’s “Spiral”, so called because of its shape and rising costs, which was out of context for this relatively constrained site, squeezed as it is between three historic buildings, Amanda Levete Architects, working with Arups on the engineering, has magically created a new entrance, a new public space in the Sackler Courtyard, added new space and new transparency and, as could be seen by the visitors that were pouring through it, completely changed the visitor profile, bringing in younger visitors than the previous formal entrance off Cromwell Road was achieving.
Continuing the Museum’s tradition of supporting contemporary art and design, the new entrance courtyard is finished in geometrically-designed porcelain tiles and the new metal gates subtlety recall the shrapnel damage which the old walls sustained in the Second World War while the old Aston Webb screen has taken on a new lease of life and the cleaned-up facades of the buildings around the courtyard can now be seen in a much better way than for many decades, with the new entrance allowing transparent views straight through to the John Madejski Garden.
New spaces such as the shop, cafe and the underground column-free Sainsbury Gallery space have connections through windows and rooflights to the world around them so that they are referenced back to the old museum buildings and, following on from projects such as Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery, the staircases are a tour-de-force (also sustainably avoiding the natural urge by visitors to use lifts).
There might be some quibbles. The new gallery is very much an architectural space with its folded roof and may constrain the design of temporary exhibitions – it will be interesting to see how curators respond to this – and the Henry Cole Building does not yet feel totally connected, perhaps this is to do with what activities are taking place in the building, especially on the upper floors.
The real transformation is that the new Entrance has done something which other cultural organisations such as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall are doing, opening up the building outside normal visitor hours. The crowds leaving early evening Proms at the Royal Albert Hall will be pleasantly surprised to find the new Victoria and Albert’s gates wide open and the café in full swing, with seating outside in warm weather. This transforms the connectivity of the Museum. breaks down the walls of the museums to the community, and provides much-needed animation to this otherwise-austere part of Exhibition Road.