London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the global don of applied arts boasting superb collections of textiles, ceramics and metal wares, is adding more strings to its bow with a sleek new ‘quarter’ designed by AL_A, led by Amanda Levete. New facilities include a huge performance space, art handling units, a cargo entrance and a modern courtyard entrance, which smoothly ensconces a café and shop into its porcelain-tiled midst, and guides visitors to the new entrance hall.
Completing ‘Albertopolis’ – a vision devised by Prince Albert in Victorian England for a cultural quarter in South Kensington – the extension opens the V&A up onto Exhibition Road, joining neighbours the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. In addition, it hopes to smoothly procure some new audiences, attracted in by the architecture of the contemporary courtyard, which includes a futuristic-looking metallic oculus, and a sweeping aluminium extension that glides between the existing Grade I building.
The Sackler Courtyard featuring the new cafe and view of the Aston Webb Screen from the V&A. Photography: Hufton + Crow
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Eighteen metres below ground is where the rest of the story plays out; the 11,100 sq m column-less Sainsbury Gallery – which stretches 38m in length – will be a new venue for live music and ‘performance’ – a word that new director Tristram Hunt, appointed in January 2017, purposefully introduced into the V&A’s lexicon within his opening remarks at the launch this week. In a spirit of renewal and evolution of the much-loved museum, Levete weaves sensitive references to its heritage throughout her contemporary design. The 11,000 handmade porcelain tiles that coat the courtyard in a luminous surface were inspired by the collections.
Levete's design also allowed the Aston Webb screen, originally built in 1909, to be preserved yet also adapted into 11 colonnades for its new use as a public entrance. Previously in place to hide the V&A’s clunky boilers, the screen was hailed with shrapnel during the Second World War creating a pattern of dents and marks, that became a part of the heritage of the structure. Levete beautifully interpreted the marks through delicate perforations in the sleek aluminium gates that neatly fold back to allow visitors to filter through the screen from Exhibition Road.
After six years of planning, the Exhibition Road Quarter will open with an arts festival allowing the public to explore the new spaces that AL_A have woven into the 165-year-old museum.