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the V&A's Gwyn Miles on Libeskind's Spiral project

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

Gwyn Miles, director of major projects at the Victoria and Albert Museum, delivered a talk as part of 100% Design which was remarkably unrevealing about the design and development of the V&A's Spiral extension, billed as its subject. Ironically, since the main thrust of her delivery was to emphasise the need to make the V&A 'accessible to a wider audience', the Spiral itself, as a piece of architecture, seems to elude attempts at elucidation and evocation.Miles appeared to be lumbered with a set of architectural drawings which she herself was not particularly comfortable with, notwithstanding her suggestion that the cross-section was pretty straightforward in terms of showing how the scheme would work.

The presentation was unable to show how the Spiral would be linked to, and work in conjunction with, the rest of the existing V&A, despite Miles's emphasis on the fact that it will not be 'just an entrance pavilion', but the key to 'unlocking the whole museum'. She described the plan of the V&A as a 'nightmare', which was impossible to clarify in map-form: of the seven different maps produced in the past 16 years, 'none work'.Apart from the difficulties faced by visitors, it makes working in the museum difficult, while the existing service access, designed for horses and carts, is almost laughable. On top of these problems, there is a 'need to animate the galleries', says Miles, in order to provide 'added value' in terms of people's learning experience: 'To look but not touch is not good enough any more', she declares.

According to Miles, the 'aim of the V&A is to change radically into the twenty-first century', and 'the new building will lever it into a new way of thinking.' She suggested that the Spiral would miraculously unravel the present complicated connections between floor levels, but could not show how. She said that 'when open it will have made quite radical changes to the rest of the interior', but again gave no indication of what these would be.

She also failed to show anything of what the new gallery spaces would be like and how they might achieve a level of animation lacking in the old ones.

Nevertheless, Miles insists that the new building 'will offer visitors an opportunity to see the future'. She described the pleasure of discovering, after Libeskind's competition scheme had been declared winner, a prescient drawing by Henry Cole, dated 1868, of a tower on the competition site, with a spiral staircase running around the outside from top to bottom. The implication that the Spiral is simply meant to be, as a vision of a new age, was somewhat countered by her more matter-of-fact assertion that Libeskind had showed a far better understanding of the brief than any of the other competitors.

But above all, the Spiral will provide 'an experience that's worth coming for'.

Gwyn Miles's talk took place at Earls Court 2, in conjunction with 100% Design. The V&A is currently assembling the funding package for the Spiral; construction is intended to start in 2002, ending 2005.

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