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Philip Long profile: ‘V&A Dundee has the potential to make a big impact’

Philip long crop 3 robert perry
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V&A Dundee director Philip Long is overseeing a project that has soared in cost and is running three years late. He tells Ella Braidwood about altering Kengo Kuma’s design and his hopes for the new museum 

Philip Long is as energetic and excited as the electric blue suit he’s wearing. As we begin our conversation, he pulls out his notepad and starts to rapidly flick through the pages. ‘I’m just doing this in case I need to write anything down,’ he says. ‘There’s so much stuff flying around my head with the project. It’s hard to remember everything!’

Long certainly has a lot on his plate. Since becoming director of the V&A Dundee in 2011, he has been overseeing the multimillion-pound project of building the UK’s ‘first ever design museum’ outside London. Following Kengo Kuma’s selection to design the museum in 2010 – a year before Long took up his role – the scheme’s cost has rocketed by £30 million over its £49 million budget and is currently three years behind schedule.  

Long has been instrumental in altering Kuma’s original design, shifting it almost entirely on to the land

Indeed, the 2015 McClelland report commissioned by Dundee Council to investigate this financial fiasco concluded that ‘unique challenges’ associated with Kuma’s innovative design meant that the scheme was never likely to come in on its original budget. 

So, who is the man steering the V&A Dundee? And what has he done to put the project back on track? 

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Long speaks with a soft Scottish accent. He is talking to me in the London V&A, where he has just had a meeting. Having studied visual art at Lancaster University, Long has close connections to the design world – and actually turned down a place at Aberdeen to study architecture. In fact Long’s father was an architect – employed by Scottish legend Basil Spence in the 1960s and 70s – and worked on a number of housing and education projects including the Department of Virology at Glasgow University.

Visualisation of revised museum design with the building moved inland

Visualisation of revised museum design with the building moved inland

Visualisation of revised museum design with the building moved inland

Long’s career in museums began with a master’s degree in gallery studies at Essex University, however he credits his five years working at The Fine Art Society in Glasgow for giving him a ‘hands on’ education in Scottish art history and design.

It was during his almost 20-year stint at Edinburgh’s National Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, where he became a senior curator, that Long really made a name for himself. At the gallery, Long curated an array of exhibitions – ‘on everything from [Charles Rennie] Mackintosh and Basil Spence, through to Howard Hodgkin, Lucian Freud and Robert Capa’ – and was responsible for Scotland’s presence at the Venice Biennale in 2007. 

What was it about the V&A Dundee, then, that tempted Long from the national gallery after so long? ‘It was a difficult decision,’ he admits. ‘The galleries were an amazing place to work, and so I had to think very carefully.’ In the end, he says, it was his interest in the relationship between art and design that led him to apply for the position.  

Since joining the V&A, Long has been instrumental in altering Kuma’s original design, which has morphed from a building largely jutting out over River Tay, to being shifted almost entirely on land – a move both cost and risk related. 

‘The original concept was that it should be a building that helps reconnect the city with the sea,’ Long says.‘[But] we became concerned as the building became clearer in its design. What was becoming complicated to understand was: how would it be constructed over the water? What would be the method? What would be the cost and the programme?’ 

When I speak to Long a few weeks later on the phone, I press him further on this worrying revelation. Surely the judging panel wouldn’t choose such a design if it wasn’t known how to even build it over the water? 

V&A Dundee under construction

V&A Dundee under construction

V&A Dundee under construction

‘It wasn’t specific to the Kuma scheme,’ he says. ‘All of the submissions to the architectural competition showed a building out over the river … The problem was the degree of budget, programme and construction uncertainty that would potentially very seriously risk the project. [The design change] gave greater assurances that the project could move ahead.’ 

But if all the projects carried the same financial risk regarding the project going ahead, why did the judging panel choose any of them?  

‘The costs were tested for all of the projects,’ he says. ‘The challenge is that there was an ambition for a building, which presented unique construction challenges. Whether it is the V&A Dundee or any other building of that type, it is very hard to arrive at cost certainty at that stage. That is something the architectural profession understands.’

To his credit, Long’s bold decision seems to have rescued the project. The building is now well under way and on course to open in 2018 – about two thirds of the way up, he says. 

Kuma responds to challenges with ‘creative solutions’ that are often better than the original idea

Last month at an AJ100 lunch in Glasgow, Long revealed that ZMMA – a practice that previously worked on the Europe 1600-1815 galleries at the V&A in London – will design the museum’s Scottish Design Galleries. And he is keen to stress that there will be further opportunities for architects to work with the V&A Dundee in designing café and retail facilities. 

Despite the problems with Kuma’s design, Long speaks highly of the Japanese architect, saying he responds to challenges with ‘creative solutions’ that are often better than the original idea.

‘[Kuma] was inspired by the Highland form of the country and by the cliff forms around the Scottish coast,’ he says. ‘He took that as a means of doing that job of relinking the city with the sea. So there is a sense of an overhanging cliff that sits down into the river.’

Born out of conversations between the University of Dundee and the V&A dating back to 2007, the Dundee museum is part of a £1 billion public-private project to regenerate the city’s waterfront.

And Long is keen to stress that this project will truly make a difference precisely because it is located in Dundee, rather than in Glasgow or Edinburgh. The city of some 150,000 people fell into decline after the Second World War, with the loss of its traditional industries and high unemployment rates. Last year, local paper The Courier reported that the city had the highest unemployment rate in Scotland at 40 per cent. 

‘After decades of difficult years and uncertain times, Dundee is now a city that really is transforming,’ he says. ‘At the forefront of that is the realisation of this project, the V&A Dundee, which is giving birth to a remarkable building.’ 

Long claims there is ‘huge local support’ for the project, saying ‘people are more concerned that it won’t live up to their expectations.’

While Long is clearly ambitious in his plans for the museum – he expects it to exceed its 350,000 annual visitor target in the first year – he won’t be swayed into making direct comparisons with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and the famed ‘Bilbao effect’. 

‘The V&A Dundee has the potential to make a big impact,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying at all that it can replicate [the ‘Bilbao effect’] but I think there are some interesting comparisons.’

Long, then, has a lot to live up to. Having insisted that the project is now back on track, he must deliver – his reputation is on the line. Thankfully he is confident and ever-optimistic, skirting around the project’s pitfalls and insisting that problems have now been solved.

‘No one said the job was going to be easy,’ he concludes. ‘This job’s not for the faint-hearted.’ 

Philip Long CV 

1984-87  University of Lancaster – BA (Hons) Visual Arts
1987-88  University of Essex – MA Museum and Gallery Studies
1988-93  Assistant director, The Fine Art Society
1993-96  Research assistant, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
1996-98  Special project adviser to the trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland for the development of a National Gallery of Scottish Art & Design
1998-2008  Senior curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
2008-2011  Project manager, National Galleries of Scotland, and senior curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
2011-present  Director, V&A Dundee

Aquatic ambitions

Kengo Kuma’s original competition-winning design

Kengo Kuma’s original competition-winning design

Kengo Kuma’s original competition-winning design

According to Kengo Kuma, the thinking behind the 2010 competition entry was to ‘literally extend the public space into the water, not only with the new museum but with a real piazza’.

In doing this, Kuma hoped to shift the ‘focal point’ of the masterplan into the river, creating an open space for museum events, and allowing citizens and visitors to enjoy the reshaped waterfront. 

Following Kuma’s selection, Mike Galloway, competition judge and director of city development for Dundee City Council, said: ‘The Kengo Kuma design gives us something that is bold and ambitious, but buildable and practical.’ 

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