Ship shape: V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma


Kengo Kuma’s magnificent V&A Dundee opened its doors this autumn, attracting record numbers in its opening weeks. We take a closer look at, and around, this iconic building — and examine the context and collective energy that helped bring the project to fruition


Words by Veronica Simpson
Photography by Paul Raftery

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It has certainly taken the spirit and determination of a whole city to realise the cultural and civic landmark that is Kengo Kuma’s new £80.1m V&A Dundee.

Which is not to detract in any way from the genius of Kuma. He has conjured a unique structure — part rugged cliff, part ocean liner, with its prow cantilevered 19.5m out over the River Tay. It references both the extraordinary coastal landscapes of Northern Scotland and Dundee’s shipbuilding past. With its craggy striations of concrete panelling, dappled with light from the surrounding black, shallow pools — part of the landscaping designed by Optimised Environments (OPEN) — it has just the right sculptural, elemental charisma to act as a magnet, luring residents of this once mighty industrial city back to the broad and glittering banks of the Tay.

Formed of two twisting, inverted pyramids, there is a nice symbolism to the cave-like opening at its core: a triangular hollow arising where the spiralling pyramids collide to create the upper floor’s expansive exhibition spaces. Kuma, speaking at the building’s inauguration, was very clear about the role this building had to play in activating Dundee’s riverfront plan.

Kuma hopes the museum expresses the sensibility of Japanese houses or temples, whose overhanging eaves are designed to attract social activityKuma hopes the museum expresses the sensibility of Japanese houses or temples, whose overhanging eaves are designed to attract social activity

When the V&A swam into the picture, back in 2008, it took what had been a relatively modest £29m council riverfront regeneration plan to a new level, justifying a far more ambitious £1bn scheme, incorporating 50ha of brownfield site stretching the half mile or more between the Tay road and rail bridges that straddle this new landmark. ‘Eight years ago, when I visited the site, the city and nature were separate,’ says Kuma. ‘It is a typical situation but I thought the city and nature should be integrated. That kind of new relationship was the core of our design. What we tried to create is a gate… between the River Tay and the city.’

But this ‘gateway’ building has encountered many challenges since the V&A backed Dundee as the location for their first outpost outside of London. Some journalists after the Dundee opening harped on about it being ‘four years late’ and made much of the various budget revisions: a speculative £27m estimate at competition stage escalated to £45m, and then nearly doubled. But since 2014, when Kuma’s team and Arup had worked out how on earth to build this complex, half-marine structure, procured the necessary permissions (building in the river brings with it lots of red tape) and the client pieced together the funding plan (which involved the lengthy process of applying for and then being awarded £19m of Heritage Lottery Funding), it has remained constant at £80.1m. Furthermore, since construction started in 2015, it has been on programme and stayed on.

The exterior’s craggy striations of concrete panelling references both the extraordinary coastal landscapes of Northern Scotland and Dundee’s shipbuilding pastThe exterior’s craggy striations of concrete panelling references both the extraordinary coastal landscapes of Northern Scotland and Dundee’s shipbuilding past

The people of Dundee actually chose this building. In 2010, after 120 international competition entries had been assessed and the shortlist of six schemes drawn up, models of the proposed structures were displayed in the library of Dundee’s Abertay University, in a public exhibition which lasted six weeks. Staff were on hand to explain the architecture to the uninitiated; citizens were then asked to vote — and nearly 7,000, of Dundee’s population of 150,000, did so. Kuma’s building got the highest score.

The expert jury also had a say, which included Graeme Hutton, professor of architecture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD), part of the University of Dundee and regularly listed among the top art colleges in the UK. He says now that Kuma’s project stood out above those of Snøhetta, Steven Holl Architects, Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, REX (a spin-off of OMA) and Sutherland Hussey Architects.

Although the structure was clearly ambitious, Mike Galloway, Dundee Council leader at the time, talked about this being exactly the kind of ‘big idea’ that Dundee excels at, citing the collaborative spirit that prevails in the city and on the client team, a partnership comprising Dundee City Council, both universities, Scottish Enterprise and the V&A.

The riverfront and surrounding public realm has been massively improved to designs by Optimised Environments (OPEN)The riverfront and surrounding public realm has been massively improved to designs by Optimised Environments (OPEN)

If the V&A had any doubts about Dundee’s ability to pull it off, they were soon squashed by then-director Sir Mark Jones. As a former director of Scottish Museums and Galleries, Jones knew Dundee well, knew its excellent reputation for art, design and innovation (substantiated not just by DJCAD and Abertay, but also the thriving Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre that Richard Murphy had built there). He was a champion for Dundee throughout, says Stewart Murdoch, Dundee Council’s director of leisure and culture: ‘When I met him early doors, it was, “How do we galvanise support for this?” He was obviously doing his work within the V&A.’ The city’s scale is helpful, according to Graeme Hutton: ‘We’re big enough to make things happen, but small enough to have everyone sitting at the same table.’

Which is not to say that there haven’t been disagreements. Apparently a proposal during content development talks (post Jones’ departure) that the V&A would dictate the entire programme was stoutly resisted. Consequently, its permanent gallery space — the Scottish Design Galleries, styled by architects ZMMA — is all about Scottish design and ingenuity, featuring 300 items (albeit largely drawn from the V&A’s extensive Scottish collection) in a highly absorbing cabinet of curiosities. Temporary exhibitions will be a mixture of the V&A’s blockbusters and international exhibitions selected by the curatorial team to play well to the specific community of local, national and international visitors — additional Dundee tourist numbers of 500,000 a year have been predicted.

The column-free, 1,000 sq m temporary gallery provides an elegant home for the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibitionThe column-free, 1,000 sq m temporary gallery provides an elegant home for the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition

To ensure a good mesh between the culture of this newcomer and that of its host city there has been a great deal of work behind the scenes, driven by the client partnership.

There are two members of DJCAD staff in the museum, one of which is a design for business research manager, working with Scottish Enterprise. ‘This building has to be an advocate for design, for Scottish design, and design in Scotland,’ says Paul Harris, dean of DJCAD. ‘We have activities lined up from the informal to the formal — school and college level — but also engaging with business so that they understand design as a boardroom function, rather than an add-on to make things look nice.’ The second member of DJCAD staff is a curator, who will work between the school and the V&A, tasked with raising the profile of design curation. ‘We have access to one of the galleries each year to put shows on,’ adds Harris. ‘There is a lot of support in kind going on. And there are also opportunities for people at the V&A to be guest lecturers within our programme.’

Education will also be central to the museum’s activities, according to Janice Aitken, DJCAD’s associate dean for public and community engagement: ‘One of the things the V&A has done absolutely beautifully is create learning spaces. Having been in that area of work for many years, I was incredibly impressed on my first walk round… These learning spaces will be used effectively to bring young people, older people, people with disabilities into the building to do activities related to design. The building has been designed to accommodate not just people passively watching art and design, but to actively facilitate engagement. That to me is the most exciting aspect of the whole thing.’

The first-floor restaurant — Tatha Bar and Kitchen, designed by Lumsden Design — boasts superb river views via floor-to-ceiling windowsThe first-floor restaurant — Tatha Bar and Kitchen, designed by Lumsden Design — boasts river views via floor-to-ceiling windows

The interior itself is working hard to put a wide range of visitors at ease; at first encounter, it is surprisingly homely, light and open, in contrast with the brooding, rough-hewn bulk of its exterior. One of the initially disappointing elements of the ground floor is the lack of visual connection to the river, aside from one glazed triangle. Drama and richness are certainly there, though: in the improbable angles of the walls and the feathering of thousands of oak panels up and over them, designed to bring an intimate, human scale to the experience. A museum shop and cafe, both designed by Lumsden Design, welcome visitors. A long kitchen counter dispenses drinks and food to those sat at the large, white tables.

If it feels more like an unusually high-end craft community centre, that is probably intentional: Kuma’s oft-quoted ambition for the building is as a ‘living room for the city’. If friendliness is the dominant quality on the ground floor, there is an escalating glamour as you ascend the building, via the steel, glass and black marble staircase. In a piece of inspired experiential choreography, there are glimpses of the river provided via oblong apertures carved out of the concrete walls, which build to a fabulous tableau at the top — a sweeping panorama over both floors and far beyond, connecting the building with city and riverscape. An open promenade curves around the interior piazza towards the two large exhibition halls: the aforementioned Scottish Design Galleries and a huge temporary exhibition space. As you continue along the promenade, there is another temporary display space and lounge area, behind which all the multiple meeting and education rooms and an auditorium are hidden.

The museum’s welcoming ground floor — with a cafe and shop designed by Lumsden Design — expresses Kuma’s aim for the building to be a ‘living room for the city’The museum’s welcoming ground floor — with a cafe and shop designed by Lumsden Design — expresses Kuma’s aim for the building to be a ‘living room for the city’

The finale is a first-floor restaurant with spectacular river views via floor-to-ceiling windows, which also bring you up close and personal with the V&A’s nearest neighbour, RRS Discovery. Built in Dundee, this legendary ship’s maiden voyage in 1901 took Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first, successful journey to the Antarctic; the Discovery and its museum were previously the only riverfront attraction.

The building communicates sociability throughout, via a diverse array of seating, from benches in stair alcoves to the long, low, wooden ledge that rims the bottom of the woodpanelled walls. Kuma, interviewed in the museum’s inaugural publication by director of programme Sophie McKinlay, talks about the 21st-century museum as ‘a space where people can spend time in a more casual way. People can sit, have a coffee, work, sleep, play… The building needs to be central to the daily life in the city and not just a place to look at design.’

The jewel in the crown for the Scottish Design Galleries is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original Oak Room, built for Mrs Cranston’s tearoom in Glasgow, and reconstructed hereThe jewel in the crown for the Scottish Design Galleries is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original Oak Room, built for Mrs Cranston’s tearoom in Glasgow, and reconstructed here

There is still much work to be done, especially in the area between the V&A Dundee and the city centre. There has been a strong, negative reaction to the clunky office block that is rapidly emerging across the road from the V&A. When questioned about the neighbouring developments at the opening, Kuma was tactful: ‘We hope the whole area can work together to achieve a new relationship between the city centre and the water.’

Murdoch is insistent the city is simply proceeding with the original plan, as intended: ‘There was always going to be development between the old core of the city and the river. It was about bringing the city to the waterfront… And Kengo Kuma knew that. His building was designed to be a part of that cliffline.’ He insists, however: ‘The development brief for that waterfront is looking for aspirational architecture, high-quality finishes. At the end of the day, a local authority has to take what it’s given, what it can control. But it has that level of ambition.’ For now, Dundonians are enjoying the massive boost in global attention the city has attracted (with both the Wall Street Journal and Italian Vogue declaring it a ‘must-see’ city).

A triangular hollow arises where the spiralling pyramids collide to create the upper floor’s expansive exhibition space    A triangular hollow arises where the spiralling pyramids collide to create the upper floor’s expansive exhibition space

‘Every Dundee hotel is fully booked until Christmas,’ Murdoch tells me when we speak in September. However, the week of its opening was marred by the announcement that one of Dundee’s few remaining large industrial employers, Michelin, may be slashing its workforce and production by 25%.

But this is all part of the rollercoaster of civic governance. ‘The V&A Dundee is just one building. We’ve got a list as long as your arm of the things we need to do for this city,’ says Murdoch. In the meantime, since opening, there have been ‘huge’ visitor numbers (27,000 to the museum in the first week alone). Delegations from all over Europe have come to see what all the fuss is about — including The Bavarian Regional Government and the Academy of Urbanism. Is this the new normal? ‘Perhaps, for a while,’ says Murdoch. ‘It is both remarkable, humbling and just a little exhausting!’

Construction of the museum

The RRS Discovery, the museum’s neighbour, made a legendary maiden voyage in 1901 to the Antarctic; the ship was previously Dundee’s only riverfront attractionThe RRS Discovery, the museum’s neighbour, made a legendary maiden voyage in 1901 to the Antarctic; the ship was previously Dundee’s only riverfront attraction

The V&A Dundee is a feat of engineering which, when the project was awarded to Kuma and Arup back in 2010, had never been attempted. Arup had originally planned the structure as stacking concrete slabs 60cm thick, with huge pieces of steel inside, but analysis revealed this to be structurally compromising.

Through experimenting with 3D modelling, the Arup team came up with the reinforced concrete shell solution that is seen today. The 3D model Arup developed became a vital tool between architects, engineers and BAM Construction’s Scottish team, to guarantee the precision required on everything from the dimensions and placement of each of the 2,500 individual precast concrete panels that hang on the outside to the interior pipes, ducts and cables.

But first, they had to build out into the river. This meant constructing a temporary cofferdam (a watertight structure), using 12,500 tonnes of stone so that the team could pump out the river water, reclaim part of the riverbed and facilitate an access road around the perimeter. Once the foundations were complete, the two separate concrete cores — one for each ‘pyramid’ — were built, then the interior walls which support the exterior shell; the latter is made from in-situ concrete, poured into a mould made up of 2,400 pieces of formwork (all bespoke, and digitally cut, by a team of 20 in Germany). This shrouded the building for a year to enable all the floors and the roof to be in secured before the formwork was removed. The final challenge was lifting all the cast stone panels into place — a process which took seven months.

Surprisingly, for a building this complex, the relationship between the teams — architects, constructors, engineers — remained remarkably harmonious. John Tavendale, the man charged with delivering the capital project from March 2011 (through Turner & Townsend), puts that down to tight management. ‘The project has been completely on programme since late 2014, when we knew that was going to be our start date.’ The trick, it seems, was to have a contingency, a percentage built into the budget to deal with problems as they came along, and to have fast lines of communication between constructors, engineers, architects and client.

Tavendale — an alumni of DJCAD’s architecture course himself — is hugely proud both of the building they have completed and the city’s vision to build something so unusual. He says: ‘If you don’t want any risk, go and build a box. By doing two inverted twisting pyramids that nobody’s ever done before, you’re accepting that [everyone] is working beyond their normal capacity and having to be incredibly creative and progressive in their solutions… The value that [approach] has delivered is now the centrepiece of a £1bn waterfront regeneration plan.’

This article was published in Blueprint Magazine Issue 361. Buy the issue here, or subscribe to Blueprint





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