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Meet the V&A’s head of design: David Bickle

David bickle credit charles hosea 001
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The AJ speaks exclusively to David Bickle, director of design at the V&A, about the museum’s new outpost in Stratford and filling the shoes of the late Moira Gemmill

Former Hawkins\Brown partner David Bickle was appointed director of design by the V&A last year following the departure of the much-loved Gemmill.

Gemmill had held the post for more than a decade before leaving to become director of capital programmes at the Royal Collection Trust in early 2015. She was tragically killed in a cycling accident last April

In his role – officially director of design, exhibition and FuturePlan – Bickle is overseeing a range of projects. These include Amanda Levete’s £49 million Exhibition Road building project, Kengo Kuma’s new outpost for the museum in Dundee, forthcoming phases of the FuturePlan for South Kensington and the proposed new venue within the Olympicopolis cultural quarter in east London.

How did you end up working for the V&A?

I’d always had an interest in visual arts and culture, then I was head-hunted. I had an email out of the blue followed by a whole series of interviews. It was probably the fact that I also had a grounding in commercial architecture because of the way in which the studio worked at Hawkins\Brown – I had a number of projects to look after. I understood what it was like to work for a multi-stakeholder client.

You worked at Hawkins\Brown for nearly 25 years. What’s it like to now be working as a client?

A good client is clear, very concise and participatory. That’s a big aspect of what we do here. An architect’s role is to bring out the best in the brief, but a client has to participate. It’s not a passive process, so you have to actively engage with the thinking that goes behind a brief and the emerging building. The skills and the collaborative work practices I’d built around me as an individual serve me well in this kind of environment.

How should an architect work with a client?

Architects are there to serve the client’s brief, but they’re also there to offer something unexpected to the process. They’re there to provide research, insight and thinking – and a means to get inside the client’s head. Architects are often ill-equipped to ask those critical questions of a client and to respond by saying: ‘Actually what you need is this; there’s a mismatch between your brief and what you need.’

David bickle credit charles hosea 004

David bickle credit charles hosea 004

What are you looking for from architects?

Good architecture comes out of conversation – a real dialogue and collaboration between architect and client. Here the client [the V&A] is a fairly big institution where there are often conflicting needs within the museum. It’s our role within projects to be able to filter and communicate the intentions of the museum so there isn’t confusion. We do want our architects to offer something unexpected, but within the culture of the museum. They have to love and understand the museum’s history, its collections, the culture and the way in the institution is moving … they’ve got to come with a curiosity and a willingness to engage in a conversation with us.

London mayor Sadiq Khan recently said that culture was ‘at the heart’ of his administration, and promised incentives to ‘make living and working in London affordable’ for creative people. What do you think of his statement?

I would absolutely endorse that. There’s a real danger that we’ll see a creative migration. We’ve got to be very serious about that and I’ve spoken about it for a very long time – that we [will] begin to marginalise our creative community.

It’s not just artists – it’s designers and architects as much as anything; practitioners who can barely scrape together enough money for rent. They’re being forced out to the margins of our city.

Are you worried about pushing out local artists as a result of projects like the V&A East in Stratford?

Personally, I’m not worried that the V&A will be part of that because we are working very hard with partners in Stratford. I also know the London Legacy Development Corporation is working very hard to retain studios in Hackney Wick … I’m a non-executive board director on a number of local artist organisations.

I understand implicitly the pressure that rising land values have on those ecologies, and cultures that take root and often marginalise parts of London up to the point of destroying regeneration. There is enough recognition from those that can make a difference; politicians and people who can change planning policy.

Latest image of Olympicopolis [in Stratford, east London] which will feature a new outpost for the V&A

Latest image of Olympicopolis [in Stratford, east London] which will feature a new outpost for the V&A

Source: Queen Elizabeth Park

Latest image of Olympicopolis, Stratford, east London, which will feature a new outpost for the V&A

What parts of British architecture should be preserved for future generations?

Participatory forms of practice are definitely worth preserving; and those that seek out a close relationship to the communities in which they operate within. Also, those that see research as being the core to their work are worthy of note. I see in them something that has a validity and a substance at the heart of it.

Other than what we know about, do you have any more future plans for the V&A?

There’s a major part of the museum that has been untouched for a very long time and it’s about a quarter of the footprint of the museum. We are developing the brief right now.

How have you found filling the late Moira Gemmill’s shoes when she was there for nearly a decade?

Moira was a much-loved colleague and somebody who laid the foundations for what I’m able to do now. I’m indebted to the way in which her work here, along with that of her colleagues, has transformed the way the museum is seen; the way the collections are housed; the way the values of the museum have moved forward dramatically in those 10 years. Her structuring and future plans have laid those big foundation stones, which I’m able to springboard off with my own particular take.

Is the role tough? Have you made any mistakes?

Touch wood, I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes. The museum’s at a transition, at quite an ambitious point, where we’re designing, delivering and thinking about a whole host of major capital projects. That suits me and my experience particularly well. I’m director of exhibitions, as well as the public temporary exhibition programme, and that has a whole different framework I’m learning about. But I’ve got some great colleagues. I’ve got a head of exhibitions who has been very patient and guided me through the process of how an exhibition comes from the genesis of an idea all the way through to it being delivered.

Credit charles hosea 007

Credit charles hosea 007

Source: Charles Hosea

David Bickle

What role could the V&A have in Dundee in recognising the challenges of contemporary Scottish architects?

The V&A Dundee, like the V&A East and in South Kensington, has a commissioning programme of wanting to work with the very best local architects; for them to be part of the emerging cultural framework of the V&A Dundee and to participate in the broader narrative. It’s a great opportunity for Scottish practitioners to be involved with that particular project.

Could things have been done differently regarding the procurement of the V&A Dundee?

The V&A’s involvement is quite minimal in so much as it’s being delivered by Dundee City Council. [The council] is working very hard to make sure the building is on budget and on time. From my experience of working with them, they’re incredibly professional and they recognise their responsibilities. So far it’s been really enjoyable working with them as partners.

Do you have any ideas for Friend and Company Architects’ £1 million overhaul of the V&A shop?

I’m really interested in the way the world is moving in terms of how you consume things and visual culture being a way of how you continue those [things]. And the way a narrative can be played in relation to objects we have in the museum and objects we might have in the shop … that there’s a direct correlation between the manufacturing process of the things in the museum and the things within the shop. I want to tease out the backstories and narratives.

Does a media personality come easily to you?

I recognise it’s an important part of my role. It’s something that doesn’t come easily to me, but I know that it’s part and parcel of what’s expected of me.

Has your family been supportive of you?

They’ve been hugely supportive of me, very supportive. You could say of somebody my age it’s a big leap to make to join an institution like the V&A, but they’ve been massively supportive. It’s just been an incredible tsunami of experiences and I can see that continuing into the future.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • chris Dyson

    David is a great person for this post he has vision and tenacity
    I am sure he will go very far and take the V&A to ever new heights that we would all like to work with in the future

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