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Kensington's stimulating new context


The planning approval for Daniel Libeskind's Victoria & Albert Museum's extension was as welcome as it was unexpected. The members perhaps divined that their officials were playing safe - and who could blame them - by saying on the one hand that it was a marvellous design, but that on the other they could not possibly recommend it. If fortune favours the bold then perhaps Lottery funding will soon be found, allowing the v&a's determined director Alan Borg (a real patron of architecture) to commence the building programme. If one has a regret, it is that the site is not more prominent, but no doubt it will become an attraction in its own right.

In this building, Libeskind and his engineer, Cecil Balmond of Ove Arup & Partners, are playing a sophisticated game in which architectural form, a philosophical proposition about the experience of space, and the structural possibilities made possible by computer technology, are fused in a highly stimulating way. It is a celebratory alternative version of Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. In both cases, the sites and their building connect to a large, historically significant structure. In both cases it is the links between old and new which determine the outcome of your experience of the internal space. But where Berlin is claustrophobic and ultimately an experience of nothingness, of absence, the v&a extension is the opposite, opening up and connecting to the past, in order to celebrate life, presence and the future.

In the process, architect and engineer will produce a building that adds to, rather than destroys, an existing context. Like all innovative building forms, it does not demand or invite replication. We will not see a rash of such structures in the immediate vicinity. But it will change the way we think about the v&a, and the way we think about South Kensington. That is the effect, in combination, of the words which feature on the museum's portal stones: on the one, 'Inspiration'; on the other, 'Knowledge'.

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