The new Photography Centre at the V&A by David Kohn Architects has created a gallery that encourages visitor interaction with the museum's newly-acquired extensive photographic collection
Architect: David Kohn Architects
AV consultant: Hawthorn
Main contractor: ME Construction
M&E consultant and Structural engineer: Arup
Project manager: Gardiner & Theobald
Quantity surveyor: Currie & Brown
Gross internal floor area: 600 sq m
Completion: October 2018
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Images by Will Pryce
Following the donation of extensive archive materials from the Royal Photographic Society, the V&A required a new space to show a photography collection that now encompasses 800,000 prints, negatives, and objects – one of the most extensive in the world. The competition to design this new gallery was won by David Kohn Architects in 2016; finished in October 2018, the newly restored space located in the oldest part of the V&A includes permanent and temporary displays, as well as an events space for seminars, talks and video screenings.
A photograph can act as a time capsule – transporting the viewer to a different time and place – but even before entering the gallery, the visitor is invited to readjust their view through the viewfinders of historic cameras to understand how different photography was before it arrived on a camera phone. Examples range from a camera obscura, complete with cloth hood, to a relatively modern Polaroid – a format already unfamiliar to many millennials, except for its skeuomorphic resurrection in Instagram’s original logo.
Flanking the doors to the gallery are two glass cabinets, packed with more than 140 cameras. Project architect Jessica Lyons says: ‘We liked how the scale changed, materiality changed, the detail so beautiful to see up close.’ Making a feature of the cameras at the entrance doesn’t just display photography’s rich history, but ‘highlights how dense the collection is’ – giving a taste of what is still yet to come from the V&A Photography Gallery.
Flanking the entrance are cabinets filled with more than 140 cameras
The climate must be carefully controlled for the display of delicate photographic materials, but in these Grade I listed galleries dating back to the first phase of the V&A’s construction, any interventions need to be discreet. Hidden from sight, a mechanical plant sits on the roof of the main gallery space, whereas inside, walls and ceiling were subtly covered in insulating material, and the architects used the existing features high up on the walls to hide necessary air vents. The wall colours of petrol-blue and mustard were chosen to complement the historic painted lunettes that line the upper part of the gallery. Wooden seating throughout is provided by Tom Graham Workshop. These are striking sculpted forms, yet do not impose on the space; blending in with the gallery’s wooden floor they offer reassuringly tactile and solid seating to enjoy the collection from.
The gallery has interactive aspects to its displays
After opening a series of smaller rooms to form an open space, a key part of the project and a main feature of DKA’s original competition entry was the ‘landscape’ of bespoke vitrines that now sit along the gallery’s centre. The cases do not bisect the room, but encourage movement across it, so that the museum crowd meanders around these glazed peaks. As it was DKA’s first time working with exhibition cases, the architects enlisted the help of specialist supplier Florea to help realise the high levels of security and climate control required. Though the cases appear simple, they have been designed for maximum functionality: the two sloped glass faces mimic the silhouette of gable roofs and provide the most ergonomic angle of viewing; the easily moveable wheel mounted cases (a first for the museum) are designed as separate modules that fit flush against each other however they are arranged. The cases’ internal lighting is well-suited to accommodate a changing roster of the collection’s objects, with integrated light boxes to display negatives, and lights mounted on magnetic strips that can be easily repositioned.
The ‘Dark Tent’ created by specialist supplier 2D:3D provides a space for screenings and other events
An unexpected element of the new gallery is a giant ‘dark tent’, based on the travelling darkrooms of 19th-century photography pioneers. The structure, by specialist 2D:3D, is made of powder printed steel and lined in stained plywood. This provides a more intimate space that will mostly be used to display informative films on the history of photography, but can also be opened up for events such as screenings, talks and readings – its steel ‘drapes’ framing an area for projection. Though this is currently situated at one end of the Photography Centre, a second phase of the centre is planned. With an elegant enfilade of three further rooms joined by arches, the dark tent will eventually be at its heart.
The petrol-blue and mustard-yellow paint palette of the walls was selected to complement the historic painted lunettes lining the upper gallery
The architects say it was a great pleasure to work with such a large institution, a dedicated client project manager, team of curatorial experts, and specialist contractors. The sensitivity and care with which they executed the project communicates all this as well as their own dedication to craft and design excellence. The design is replete with things to touch, spaces to inhabit, and worlds to enter: an exhibition space in which to discover what photography is about.
Specialist display cases
Tom Graham Workshop