As London's Victoria and Albert Museum unveils its new Exhibition Road Quarter, the South Kensington institution is set to revitalise its original mission as a "schoolroom for everyone"
How do you go about making sure a museum founded in 1852 remains relevant today? That was the question posed by the Victoria and Albert Museum to the RIBA Stirling Prizewinning architect Amanda Levete. Her London-based practice, AL_A, was commissioned in 2011 to design the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, following an international competition. The expansion, which opened at the end of June, features an alternative entrance to the V&A, additional gallery space, and the world's first porcelain public courtyard. The project took six years to complete and is by far the museum's largest – and boldest – undertaking in more than a century.
"The museum really wanted us to maximise the size of the courtyard and the gallery, which meant piling as close as possible to the existing historic buildings," explains Alice Dietsch, a director at AL_A. "The challenge was structural and to do with vibration, movement and monitoring, so we could protect the fragile fabric and decoration of the V&A during the piling and excavation work."
During the opening weekend, more than 60,000 visitors stepped through the re-imagined Aston Webb Screen and into the new Exhibition Road Quarter. There, they discovered the Sackler Courtyard with its 11,000 handmade porcelain tiles, the Sainsbury Gallery underground, and the Blavatnik Hall entrance.
"We took a risk in proposing a radical alteration to the Grade 1-listed Aston Webb Screen, which no longer serves to hide but reveal," says Levete. "We opened it up so people could drift in from the street. It was a daring move, given the presumption that Grade 1-listed buildings are sacrosanct and that it's safer to resist such material alterations. But the screen had to change to enable us to bring the street into the museum and take the V&A out onto Exhibition Road. It is a way of allowing the museum to engage with contemporary life beyond its walls. I feel very strongly this is part of the role of the museum in the 21st century."
Clearly, the idea struck a chord with the V&A. After all, the institution – one of many in Albertopolis, named for the area's driving force, Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria – was founded on those very principles of intellectual democracy, or as its first director Henry Cole put it, the museum should be a "schoolroom for everyone".
Photography © Hufton+Crow
This is an excerpt from the “Road to renewal" article from the October 2017 issue of Perspective magazine.
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