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Tuesday29 July 2014

V&A director explains his architectural strategy

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Mark Jones has overseen 34 architectural projects during his tenure and in tough times is sticking to his vision

Over the last 10 years the V&A, under the directorship of Mark Jones, has physically transformed itself more than any other institution in the country.

Jones, who announced last month that he will leave the role next summer, has seen the redevelopment of 70% of the museum’s seven miles of gallery space. During his tenure, 34 architectural projects – more than three a year – have been completed by almost 20 different practices including Muma, Stanton Williams, Softroom and Eva Jiricna.

“We had a big job of renewing a museum that was set up as a school for design and a resource for the public, that hadn’t been renewed for a very long time,” says Jones, who cut his teeth by working long stints at the Museum of Scotland and the British Museum, where he curated the much-copied Fake? The Art of Deception show.

His contemporaries describe him as extremely professional and hardworking, yet shy – which could explain why he underplays his personal involvement in the transformation of the V&A.

“I don’t choose all the practices. That’s the way we work here,” he explains. “It’s people like Moira Gemmill [V&A director of projects, design and estate]. We work together – she is the driving force in design.”

Ultimately he believes this approach has worked: “I don’t think we’ve commissioned any dud designs, I’ve never thought: that was a bit of a mistake.”

But, digging deeper, it is apparent he always had a clear vision for what he wanted to achieve during his time at the museum – a vision he has clearly stuck to, by taking a piecemeal approach that has come together to create the V&A we have today.

“We could have done it as a single project, which has the advantages of unity of vision,” he explains. “But we have deliberately chosen not to do that; we think it is a huge disadvantage – you end up with something 10 years later that all looks 10 years old.

We could have done it as a single project… but we have deliberately chosen not to

“It’s also more fun to visit a museum that’s changing. For us that makes this option infinitely better.”

Despite the austere times Jones has continued to push major projects, including the 1,500sq m extension of the museum on the site of Libeskind’s doomed Spiral – one of the only schemes to slip through his fingers after the government pulled its portion of the funding.

The museum this week shortlisted seven teams to find a replacement design, which will feature underground gallery space and public realm at street level opening out on to Exhibition Road.

Jones says: “Of course an advantage of [the Spiral] not happening is that we now have a new vision for extending underground [in that space] – times change and people’s priorities and attitudes change.

“I want Exhibition Road and the surrounding area to become a destination like the South Bank. The relationship between the street and the museum will be transformed by the open courtyard.”

The V&A has also lent its name and design expertise to a £47 million Kengo Kuma-designed outpost in Dundee.

Jones defends his backing of the project, which some believe could falter in the economic climate. “Our job isn’t to build a building,” he says. “The deal is that the city raises the money. We provide our name and programme and they build the building – we’re not running the project.”

With less than 12 months left in the director’s role, he isn’t slowing down. He continues to push for the transformation of the North and South Courts, which he hopes will get under way in three or four years’ time.

“They have very elaborate decorative schemes that are currently hidden, but once we can use the new space for temporary exhibitions these rooms can be renovated to expose that,” he explains.

But how will his successor cope with this daunting task?

“In the 19th century, people that ran the V&A were very conscious that when they created new buildings they were living the belief that the design was important,” he concludes.

“I think the same is true now and they will continue to think carefully about doing work with architects.”

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