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The V&A’s long-awaited Exhibition Road Quarter by Amanda Levete Architects opens

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First announced 20 years ago, the Exhibition Road Quarter will open to the public this Friday

The new spaces designed by Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) complete a project that was first announced in 1997, when Daniel Libeskind’s controversial ‘Spiral’ scheme was mooted for a 2005 opening. When this scheme was scrapped in 2004, it was not until 2009 that new feasibility studies were undertaken, with the subsequent launch of a competition that saw AL_A selected as the winner in 2011.

The Exhibition Road Quarter aims to reframe the relationship between street and museum, and introduces a new 1,100m² temporary exhibition space - The Sainsbury Gallery - and 1,500m² of art handling and conservation space all sitting underneath a new courtyard, entrance hall, 30-seat café and shop.

Revisiting Aston Webb’s original intentions, the newly altered Aston Webb Screen makes it easier for people to drift in from Exhibition Road. Marks left by shrapnel damage were reinterpreted in the perforated aluminium doors between each of the screen’s columns, with a large central gate reintroducing the Royal Crest that sat above the original entrance. 

Behind the Aston Webb Screen is the Sackler Courtyard - the world’s first porcelain public courtyard paved in 11,000 handmade, patterned tiles that were inspired by the rich tradition of ceramics at the V&A. These tiles continue along the sloped roof of the café space.

The pattern of this courtyard is derived from the geometry of the gallery ceiling below, and the ceiling in turn is a response to the structural challenge of spanning 38m uninterrupted and column free, also negotiating the 2m level difference between exhibition road and the museum. The space draws in natural daylight via an oculus above (inspired by a museum vitrine) that can be exploited by exhibition designers, and these skylights also become a means of framing the surrounding historic buildings above.

The vast dedicated conservation and art handling spaces and new loading bay were designed with the largest objects the V&A handles in mind (the Majahara’s Rolls Royce being the largest to date), and provide secure spaces for unpacking and preparing. Construction involved piling down almost 50m within 1m of a Grade I-listed building, underpinning a wing of the V&A while the museum remained fully operational. The courtyard is supported by 14 triangular trusses that span the void above the Sainsbury Gallery, which sits 18m below. 

007 the sackler courtyard and cafe, v&a exhibition road quarter, designed by al a ©hufton+crow

007 the sackler courtyard and cafe, v&a exhibition road quarter, designed by al a ©hufton+crow

Architect’s view

The Exhibition Road Quarter is a reflection of the pioneering identity of the V&A and continues its mission of innovation into the twenty-first century. 

We have reframed the relationship between Exhibition Road and the Museum, creating a less formal, more public place that is as much of the street as it is of the Museum. It will attract and welcome in new audiences, making ideas of accessibility and democracy very explicit. This Quarter reimagines the museum as an urban project. The new courtyard creates an exceptional place for London – a destination for installations, events and, above all, for appropriation by the public. 

Our design was born from a deep engagement with the heritage, architecture and collections of the V&A. An understanding of the mission of the Museum and its collection led to our ambition of ‘making visible the invisible’ played out in the design through large moves and small details alike. 

We have used the Exhibition Road project to tell the story of the V&A. We reflect its values, its commitment to daring and innovation, and the continuation of the radical. There is no other institution that would be quite so audacious in its commission, in the blend of the old and new, and in the daring of the construction process to realise it. 

The V&A has collections and a curatorial approach that has made it the world’s leading museum of art and design. It now has a gallery space and state-of-the-art conservation and art handling facilities to match its unrivalled international reputation.

Amanda Levete, AL_A

Aston webb screen gates design concept diagram

Aston webb screen gates design concept diagram

Project data

Client Victoria & Albert Museum
Architect AL_A
Engineers (SMEP) Arup
Quantity surveyor Aecom
Lighting designer DHA Designs
Historic building adviser Giles Quarme & Associates
Planning consultant DP9
Project manager Lendlease
Main contractor Wates 
Specialist AWS contractor PAYE 
Specialist subcontractors Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum: porcelain tiles, Octatube: oculus, Midland Alloy: Aston Webb Screen gates, Astins: gallery ceiling, EE Stairs: gallery staircase, Cornish Concrete: stepped terrace, Mazorati Ronchetti: café bar 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Rogers

    Obviously one needs to actually see it to comment properly. That said, the courtyard is hard to read in the pics thanks to the confused angles - Escher would have liked it. Ditto the stair, whose shape seems to nod to Libeskind anyway and whose colouring seems to show Jim Stirling is actually alive and well. Did this lack of orthogonal lines really have to arise automatically from the structure? The Aston Webb screen is the most concerning element though - why remove all the walls between the columns if you then have to close the resulting spaces up with glass doors? And the shrapnel marks seem to have been erased from the existing stone, which looks smooth on the image. Odd.

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  • Chris Rogers

    Having now actually experienced the work, I have to say I’m not convinced. The courtyard is much smaller than the pics make it appear, and the cafe (another one??), a loading ramp, steps and the 'oculus' make it crowded. The bases of the pillars forming the Webb screen have been recased or smoothed, erasing their history rather than celebrating it. The perforated metal gates are fussy and unattractive, as is the much vaunted porcelain floor - weirdly angled and coloured and dazzling even in dull light. The messy staircase to the basement gallery is dated already. Really disappointed.

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