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Thursday24 July 2014

Should the V&A alter its Aston Webb screen?

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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

New vista

Source: Amanda Levete Architects

Amanda Levete’s proposal for a “punched through” screen at the V&A.

‘No’

Ian Dungavell
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.

‘Yes’

Moira Gemmill
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.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • It's a screen not a colonnade. Get that right first.

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  • It is not neccessary to form a colonade and it looks clumsy. The doorway to the museum has only a certain width and copes with visitors it is a museum after all and not an airport or shopping centre! a museum is a place of calm and contemplation not rush and sell.
    The proposal breaks a potentially wonderful sequence of spaces with this as a great outdoor room / gathering space creating a colonade will simply be broken for ever...or perhaps this is all a distraction from other more important aspects of the design?...

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  • tesserae

    Part of the V&A 's strong identity is to do with the beautiful inner courtyard, a place where people can be individuals unworried about hurly burly of the annonomous street which this opening appears to totally draw into. There's enough chewing gum on the street outside already. Put a glass caf next to this and it will only accentuate the pedestrian nature of this opening. Again something which the V&A pertently is not. The V& A is place in which one needs to time to slowly transport oneself to all the fantastic and intelligent mature displays. The artefacts it holds were not designed with children in mind but grown humans to the heights of their abilities out of profound love and respect for their art, not for their individual rights of expression to the exception of any other soul. It seems to me that it is too easy to destroy this for the sake of a voyeuristic caf in a hope of herding people in. I would say that there is a greater need than ever before to protect the V&A from any kind of pedestrianisation in this age of carelessness. Personally I do not agree with many of the changes so far, the notion of ancient treasures of Chrisendom as they used to be displayed at the heart of the museum being the bedrock of Western Civilisation after the Romans has been replaced by the shop of wanton commercialism. There is no longer a historical feel of development from meagre rare resources of the Byzantine era to the Renaissance flowering intersperced with Gothic that used to be. It was an artistic wander through other worlds - which now seems removed some steps further away to a mere intellectual experience. Pull in the pedestrian and I fear the young will suppose that the entire place is just that, and nothing more, if they are not given the chance to view it differently to other common place museum experiences. The Screen as it is protects the integrity of the museum, sure it looks ok opened up, but it is about WHAT the screen does that counts in this instance. Modern interventions are so common place and predictable these days it seems vital to retain the original concept.

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  • The double plinth detail is a seriously wrong approach to classical detailing and I find it hard to believe that conservationists would have gone along with this with so many better precedents that can be followed; the V&A client-body must have cast some sort of spell over everybody concerned.

    Having the consents necessary to proceed does not prevent a reconsideration of this particular element! Please try harder.

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  • On a strictly practical matter, how will the courtyard be made secure when the Museum is closed? If the courtyard is not secure, it will increase the problem of making the building itself secure.

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