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Congratulations to the V&A on believing in contemporary architecture's power

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The V&A’s FuturePlan sets a development benchmark for galleries around the world, says Christine Murray

The story of the V&A’s architectural renewal through FuturePlan, from a maze-like warren of disparate galleries behind a majestic façade to a vibrant, evolving museum of collections, has become a benchmark for galleries around the world looking to boost visitor numbers. What became the FuturePlan redevelopment began with a strategic masterplan, developed by Hopkins in 1987, to bring clarity to the museum’s layout.

This week, subscribers will receive a book produced by the AJ on the V&A, detailing the London museum of art and design’s ongoing transformation, with a preview of some of the works to come.

What is remarkable is the museum’s strong track record of commissioning good architecture, from Eva Jiřičná’s early work to renew the entrance sequence and shop, to recent interventions by practices such as 6a and MUMA. The approach has been pluralistic, yet refined and in accord with the existing fabric of the building. Some of the new galleries are better than others, but all display architectural ambition. The museum is described by director of design and FuturePlan Moira Gemmill as a collection of galleries, ‘each with its own character and ambiance’ - and yet unified by a clear plan and design language carried through the museum.

Most of the interventions emphasise the art and craft of building. The new galleries reveal the original structure in a contemporary way, while the design is in the detail. This tastefully timeless, but never dull approach is mirrored by Caruso St John’s recent work at Tate Britain, covered in our building study this week.

The future courtyard by Amanda Levete may seem a departure for the V&A - a more radical intervention with its alterations to the Aston Webb screen - and yet its big move is in connecting the Exhibition Road public realm to a new museum entrance. The craft is in its staircases and folded ceilings and the way its oculus allows light to penetrate into new galleries located 50m below ground.

Gemmill says all the museum’s architectural commissions are by competition, but they ensure their PPQs do not exclude emerging talent. In other words, the V&A is an enlightened client - and, as champions of design, they should be. But they’ve also reaped the benefit of their approach. The V&A announced record numbers of more than 3.29 million visitors in 2013, over 2 million more than the year after free admission was introduced in 2001.

Enlightened or not, it takes a strong constitution to inhabit a museum under constant construction for the past 13 years, without closing to visitors. Gemmill describes the process as open-heart surgery. The way architecture is covered in the media - as shiny, completed buildings, freshly uncrated and swept clean - can obscure the fact that building is a messy business.

This week, I visited one of V&A’s current projects by architects ZMMA, seven galleries - a whole wing - that will hold the Europe 1600-1800 collections. The 1,800m² site is only accessible through one window. Walking around, it was difficult to remember the precious collections situated above and beside. It would change the image of architecture if future clients could see what nerve it takes to build great spaces.

I hope you enjoy the book. Congratulations to the V&A on believing in contemporary architecture’s power to renew and enhance the existing fabric of our cities.


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