The Victoria and Albert Museum needed new space and increased access. Amanda Levete Architects' Exhibition Road Quarter takes the museum deep underground, creates the world’s first porcelain plaza, and simultaneously reveals its history
Words by Herbert Wright
Photography by Paul Raftery
From the Exhibition Road, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new £54.5m expansion doesn’t exactly make an exhibition of itself. In a gap between its stately buildings a void remains behind a screen of neo-classical columns, just as it has since 1909. But the void now plays a crucial role in the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, which opened in June, designed by Amanda Levete’s practice AL_A. In purely elevation terms, you couldn’t call this a high-profile project, yet it’s a giant step forward in future-proofing what is billed as the world’s leading arts and design museum.
Amanda Levete’s 8mm Chairs on the new porcelain Sackler Courtyard with an Aston Webb facade and (right) the Aston Webb Screen
The new works are about surface and going beneath it. A new row of extraordinary gates open up from Exhibition Road into a spanking new courtyard surfaced with porcelain. Beneath it lies the biggest basement extension in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea — and the borough is notorious for those. This one is so big that even the most excessive subterranean spaces dug for oligarchs or princes pale in comparison. At its heart is a vast state-of-the-art gallery, big enough to house any blockbuster show in a single space.
West to East Section
Not least, there is also a new museum entrance — ‘I suspect that this will become the most used,’ hazards Levete. That’s quite a thought when you consider the crowds passing through the iconic central Grand Entrance in the 220m-long Cromwell Road facade, designed by Sir Aston Webb and opened in 1909. (Webb’s even more famous facade is Buckingham Palace’s, built 1913.)
The Sackler Courtyard with outside stairs descending to the V&A’s new entrance
The Exhibition Road Quarter site is defined by Grade I and II* listed buildings. On its northern side is the Godfrey Sykes designed red brick and terracotta sgraffito-facade of a five storey 1873 block by Henry Scott, which since 1983 has been the V&A’s Henry Cole Wing. Wings of Webb’s enormous main museum building come up on eastern and southern sides, and along Exhibition Road, spanning the gap between it and the Henry Cole Wing, is the Aston Webb Screen. It was always an odd structure divided by a central arch, a colonnade of columns was mounted on a balustrade, which stood on a white cement wall whose purpose was to hide the museum’s unsightly boiler facilities. They occupied a rectangular space called the Boilerhouse Yard.
After the boilers ceased operation, the V&A appropriated it for the Boilerhouse Project, in which from 1981 Stephen Bayley mounted provocative exhibitions of contemporary design in a series of new, low-ceilinged, white gallery spaces. That project upped sticks and moved to Bermondsey as the Design Museum. That left the V&A with a prime vacant plot, and in 1997 they unveiled Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral, a supremely deconstructivist volume of angular crystalline surfaces tumbling out on to Exhibition Road — Levete sums it up as ‘bombastic’. Spending constraints killed it in 2004.
Plan of Exhibition Road Quarter
The museum under director Mark Jones paused for reflection, and commissioned feasibility studies in 2009 to explore how it could house its temporary exhibitions. The decision to go underground on the site was ‘a confident thing for the V&A to do’, says Levete, and she reports that Jones had to convince some in the V&A that it ‘would be exciting’. In 2011, AL_A won the competition to design it against entries from the likes of Snøhetta, Heneghan Peng and Jamie Fobert. As it went through the planning process, AL_A contributed a ceramic Bench of Plates to the London Design Festival 2012 at the V&A. The Exhibition Road Project went on site in 2013.
The Aston Webb screen (top) photographed as it was, with balustrade, wall and shrapnel damage; (middle) survey drawing as it was; (bottom) drawing with replacement gates
Levete says that her design is ‘the polar opposite’ to Libeskind’s, and not just in form. The Spiral would have obliterated the Aston Webb Screen. The new scheme retains it but replaces its base wall and balustrade with gates to open up the yard to the public, and an even deeper reveal through the clear windows of the new entrance right to the Madejski Garden deep in the museum complex. Not everyone was happy with losing the wall, leaving the columns effectively on double-stacked plinths — Ian Dungavell, director of The Victorian Society until 2012, complained about the ‘ludicrous colonnade on stilts that will remain’.
But now the screen presents a completely permeable interface between the street and the new courtyard, with five pairs of 2.4m-high gate doors either side of the central arch, each with red opening edges. The gates themselves are permeable too, including the central arch ones, and from across the street look almost transparent. This is down to their perforation by a grid of 18mm-diameter holes, cut by Midland Alloy of Telford — 3,500 in each of the 20 aluminium plates either side of the larger central gates, which have 6,960 each.
The Aston Webb Screen from Exhibition Road
The smaller gates also record something lost with the wall. Second World War bombing had left shrapnel damage along the entire frontage down to the Cromwell Road, including the Aston Webb Screen. ‘We’ve memorialised the shrapnel,’ says Levete. The new holes are angled perpendicular to where the shrapnel damage had been, which cause some to bunch up.
Like an infinity pool, the porcelain courtyard seems to vanish over an edge between the café and oculus
It’s an extraordinary exercise, and recalls Forensic Architecture’s analysis of damaged spaces in war arenas such as Pakistan and Gaza to document more recent explosions. Admittedly, it’s not easy to visualise the shrapnel craters mapped by these gates, but their distorted grids quietly subvert the orthodoxy of the grid while celebrating precision craftsmanship.
There’s a lot more of the latter as we step through into the new 1,200 sq m Sackler Courtyard. It’s the world’s first public space paved with porcelain — 11,000 glazed tiles in 15 types, with simple geometric patterns in pale blue shades with yellow and deep red popping up occasionally, inspired by buttercups and poppies. They were hand-made by Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum in the Netherlands. ‘The big challenge was to [make them] slip-resistant and meet EU standards,’ comments Levete. The effect is subtle, neutral against the Victorian facades around it, but distinct.
The 1873 south facade of the Henry Cole Wing rises beyond the café roof, both beyond the oculus
What do we find on this porcelain surface, apart from visitors? On the north side beneath the Henry Cole wing is one of two parts of the project to rise above ground level. This is Levete’s own deconstructivist volume, fully glazed beneath an angular roof that overhangs a cafe and folds like origami, its L-shape plan turning the corner around the Henry Cole into a narrow gap off the courtyard, where it hosts the gift shop and service access. The roof is laid with 4,300 porcelain tiles, but ridged, to prevent staining and perhaps skateboarders tempted to tackle the point where it slopes down the ground. Zaha Hadid also liked roof surfaces touching the ground, notably at the Serpentine's Magazine restaurant and the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, but unlike those from her departed friend, Levete’s roof is an exercise in planes, not curves.
This view shows the whole Sackler Courtyard, with the oculus (bottom) and its five skylights into the Sainsbury Gallery
The courtyard’s porcelain surface continues into the cafe, and the cafe furniture spills out into the courtyard — at least on clear days. It was designed specifically for the V&A. The stackable 8mm Chair and 8mm Table for Moroso were named after the thickness of its aluminium that has parallel laser cuts, and they were unveiled at Salone del Mobile 2017. Across to the south, the courtyard reaches an ‘oculus’, beside which it slopes down a ramp that turns to meet the wide sweep of stairs stretching back to the cafe. The ramp and stairs descend 2m to the new entrance. Not as big as those that Levete designed into another porcelain-surfaced project, MAAT in Lisbon, but these elements are now a distinctive part of Levete’s vocabulary.
Toilets are pink, for all genders
The oculus lies within a smooth, continuous steel balustrade. This is the project’s other above-ground element, but low enough for children and wheelchair users to look over, into alternating opaque and transparent up-facing trapezoid panels, which correspond respectively to some of the 14 great trusses supporting the courtyard and skylights into the new Sainsbury Gallery below them. Red is used, referencing the red velvet that once lined museum vitrines. The inside of the balustrade is mirrored, creating an extraordinary mash-up of reflections, colours and angles, almost like a huge kaleidoscope.
Stairs ascend into the gift shop, which incorporates some Aston Webb facade
The new entrance is called the Blavatnik Hall, set within the old museum building between the courtyard and the Madejski Garden. Three arches in the Webb facade have been replaced, and inside, the room is minimal — not even a reception desk. As in Tube stations nowadays, staff hang out on the floor to field the public. Originally, the floor had been in mosaics made by women at Holloway Prison, but this has been replaced with terrazzo edged discretely with new mosaic.
It connects into the old museum at ground level but an extraordinary feature lures you down to the new. This is a set of theatrical balustrades of lacquered tulipwood (American poplar), as black and shiny as a dominatrix bodysuit. The stairs descend into an outer balustrade, and inner ones follow them down two storeys towards what Levete calls the ‘big event’ — the new gallery. ‘It would have been easier to put the stairs in the courtyard but I didn’t want to clutter the exhibition space,’ she comments.
New mosaics and a darkly sexy set of balustrades in the new entrance, the Blavatnik Hall
There is drama in the space that the descending staircase and an ascending companion turn through. Ceiling beams and columns that reach up to them vividly contrast with the black and white walls with a colour called ‘international orange’.
It has history: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1937) may well have been grey had the colour not been promoted by its architect Irving Morrow, and (with subtle variation of hue) it was associated with modernity in artefacts from Twenties’ aircraft to Yuri Gagarin’s space suit in 1961.
Structural columns and beams are painted in international orange
More recently, interior designer Ben Kelly deployed it in his madly eclectic-industrial Haçienda scheme in Manchester (1982); his website is still full of it and, it is said, so is his kitchen. Morrow spoke of international orange as ‘luminous’ and ‘prominent without insistence’. At the V&A, Levete says ‘it speaks the enormity of the task’ of the underground engineering. It is also ‘messaging’, like Richard Rogers’ colours marking high-tech functionality.
Few will see the Sainsbury Gallery when it is empty and the sheer scale of what is essentially a 38m x 30m rectangular hall is apparent. It’s only a third of the Tate’s Turbine Hall area, but it offers a huge 1,100 sq m. The single great gallery space is another opposite to Libeskind’s Spiral, which would have been a complex of small galleries.
The V-shaped truss beams are clad in plaster and span 38m across the Sainsbury Gallery
It lies directly under the Sackler Courtyard, which is carried by 14 great V-shaped trusses, engineered by Arup. They enable the space to be column-free and shape the ceiling into a series of great, angular, faceted ridges like the side of an accordion.
They are clad with plaster and carry all the technicals, such as light runs and ventilation. Rectangular holes house hanging points for heavy exhibits, with each able to take a load of a tonne — heavier items can be strung between multiple points.
The ceiling height ranges from 6.5m where you enter to 10.5m in the southern corner on the Exhibition Road side. From the oculus, five skylights introduce the ‘drama of sunlight’, but can be closed by carbon-fibre shutters.
A skylight in the new above-ground volume above the stairs to the Sainsbury Gallery below
Below that is a domain the public won’t see. The 1,500 sq m level B3 houses plant but is also dedicated to conservation, art handling and loading. It harks back to the time the V&A needed to install shows. A 6m x 3m art lift 3.5m high reaches here, and blue paths on the floor guide goods into the chamber complex.
With its heavy metallic fire doors and prison-like barred screens, B3 feels like Fort Knox. It sits directly on the concrete base of the underground box, 18m down, which had to be secured by tension piling up to 48m deep, to prevent the ground pushing the whole structure upwards. Cambridge University is monitoring it with buried optical fibres in the tension piling.
Glazing in the new above-ground volume reveals the north-facing Aston Webb facade and the Sackler Courtyard’s stairs
The second staircase leading back up from the Sainsbury Gallery literally rises towards the daylight — a large triangular skylight in the above-ground volume’s leg behind the Henry Cole building gives glimpses of a Webb facade, and even the top of a lift shaft that would have connected to the Libeskind Spiral. On the way is a mezzanine level with toilets (both the women’s and men’s are pink inside). Three quarters of the water for flushing is harvested from rain, a feature that has helped the project gain a BREEAM Excellent rating. Naturally enough, it’s a case of exiting through the gift shop, the staircase bringing us into one designed by Mark Pinney Associates.
The Blavatnik Hall, with new entrance from Sackler Courtyard
What is the Exhibition Road Quarter really all about? It’s clearly deeper than the V&A’s last open-to-sky intervention in 2005, the Madejski Garden by Kim Wilkie and including the Zen-like Oval Pool. The starting point was to meet fundamental needs that were becoming critical to the V&A. With more than three million visitors in 2016, it needed fresh space and openings to breathe.
To find space, building down makes sense in dense, historic urban fabric, and the thermal mass of the ground behind walls boosts energy performance. Buried museums could become a trend. Kwadrat’s Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland burrowed down into brownfield and coincidentally, like the V&A, opened new public realm over its underground volume. AL_A is already a practice experienced with underground space. Levete says ‘at MAAT we go below ground, at Mumbai [the Mumbai Museum, second in a 2014 international competition] we go down [with a stepped, sunken courtyard]. Mumbai is very much about the relationship with public space and the historic’. Which is just as the V&A is. The Exhibition Road Project opens up three historic facades as well as creating that sight line straight into the heart of the complex.
Exit through the gift shop, designed by Mark Pinney Associates
External space is also key, not least because the gathering point for groups outside the building had been the street. The Cromwell Road is a major thoroughfare, and Exhibition Road too has traffic — so much of it that Kensington and Chelsea council had to modify its much-vaunted ‘shared space’ scheme in which vehicles and pedestrians would have visually negotiated the street’s use. That scheme now defines what is road and what is not, but it has liberated space for the thronging crowds outside the Science Museum opposite the Aston Webb Screen, and the Natural History Museum just south of it. Levete hopes that Kensington and Chelsea council will consider totally pedestrianising Exhibition Road — ‘it would be more of a promenade’. Meanwhile she contends that with the new courtyard ‘the street is part of the museum and the museum is part of the street’.
That might be a little idealistic, but it’s only one step from the truth — a step through an extraordinary screen that spans 108 years, and leads deep into a new century.