Should the V&A alter its Aston Webb screen?
Yes says V&A’s Moira Gemmill as the existing facilities can’t cope with increasing visitor numbers; but the Victorian Society’s Ian Dungavell argues butchering the Webb screen is unnecessary
Source: Amanda Levete Architects
Director at The Victorian Society
The V&A Museum spent most of the 20th century fighting its buildings, abusing its architecture in a manner that it would never have contemplated treating any of its other exhibits. In the last 20 years its attitude has changed and the museum has devoted itself to undoing unfortunate interventions and revealing the beauty and character of the buildings it has inherited.
That’s why it’s so surprising to see their proposals for the Aston Webb screen. The strongest argument against it is the ludicrous colonnade on stilts that will remain. No one who understands historic architecture could think it looks good to butcher it in this way, whether or not they’re a fan of Webb’s design.
But all is not lost and the screen can be saved. A couple of openings are probably required for access to the new temporary exhibitions gallery. We have suggested how that can be done — but not the wholesale stripping away of the plinth and balustrade.
It seems that Auntie V&A worries that she looks dowdy, and that passers-by on Exhibition Road have no idea she’s there. So perhaps a swanky new café revealed by opening up the screen will bring new audiences flocking in and visitor numbers up. And if she calls this new space “South Kensington’s Drawing Room” hordes of hip young things will be thronging to look at her precious objects
The vacuousness of this simple-minded desire for transparency is shown by the success of the Somerset House courtyard, which is practically invisible from the Strand.
The V&A will soon have the “ace caff with a nice museum attached” it has wanted for so long. And they want to make sure we can’t miss it.
Director of projects, design and estate at the V&A
The V&A’s design proposal for its Exhibition Road building project by Amanda Levete for a new courtyard, entrance and exhibition galleries has been granted planning permission by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.
This is a complex scheme and opening up the courtyard space to Exhibition Road will involve removing some elements of the screen, originally designed by Sir Aston Webb.
An improved entrance on the west side of the V&A is necessary. The existing facilities cannot sustain increasing visitor numbers. Half our visitors access the museum from this side, which will continue to grow as a result of the newly landscaped Exhibition Road. Opening up the courtyard space will provide a safer and more suitable gathering point for visitors.
All museums face similar challenges in welcoming as many people as possible and strive to remove any physical and intellectual barriers that may turn visitors away. The screen as it is acts as a barrier; it lacks the visibility and permeability to make the courtyard space behind both welcoming and enticing to the public.
The V&A, Amanda Levete and historic building specialist Giles Quarme & Associates worked together to ensure all detailing of the historic fabric was carefully and sympathetically considered following discussions with English Heritage, the local authority’s conservation officer as well as the Victorian Society. Suggestions by the Victorian Society to reduce the number of openings to the screen were explored but rejected on the basis that it created an architectural solecism for which there are no precedents.
We are convinced that the alteration is the right solution to provide a safe and pleasant welcome to the V&A.