Moira Gemmill spurned celebrity architecture in favour of new talent and ideas, says Rory Olcayto
British architecture has lost a truly inspirational figure in Moira Gemmill, who died last week in a cycling accident on Lambeth Bridge in London. Moira, until her departure last year to lead capital programmes for the Royal Collection Trust, was in charge of the V&A’s FuturePlan, the ambitious strategy to reinvigorate the world’s first design museum. She was tasked with enlivening faded galleries with new architecture and design. How she went about this, however, is what set her apart from most of her peers. Instead of deferring to starchitects, as is the case with most top-tier museums, Moira turned to emerging talent, some untested in gallery design. As anyone who has visited the V&A this past decade will know, the results range from the good (Glowacka Rennie’s Grand Entrance WCs), to the very good (Softroom’s Jameel Gallery), to the absolutely brilliant (MUMA’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries).
Moira worked with former AJ editor Stephen Greenberg’s proposal to use the budget set aside for Daniel Libeskind’s Boilerhouse Yard ‘Spiral’ – abandoned a year before her V&A tenure began in 2005 – on 50 smaller projects throughout the museum estate. It is only now, in retrospect, that we can see how revolutionary, and against the grain, this simple move was. Sadly, it is not one that has been much copied by big clients in the cultural sector but, at the very least, it should form part of Moira’s legacy: the woman who spurned celebrity architecture in favour of new talent and ideas.
Moira was also a great supporter of The AJ, working with us to produce a FuturePlan book, and also as a judge in our Women in Architecture Awards since their inception in 2012. The news of her tragic death has been a great shock to us all. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.
The relationship of former AJ editors and the V&A doesn’t stop with Stephen Greenberg: Kieran Long, who was AJ’s editor between 2007-09 and is now the museum’s senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital, has overseen the current V&A exhibition All of this belongs to you, which Owen Pritchard reviews this week (p59). Reaction has been mixed but, whatever your preconceptions, one object’s inclusion makes this show important and worthy of your serious consideration: the Guardian laptop destroyed on government orders because it contained National Security Agency data leaked by Edward Snowden. What has this got to do with architecture you ask? Everything. Twenty years ago architects were among the more vocal critics of the exponential spread of surveillance cameras across our townscape. Today, our perceptions of privacy have shifted: satellites track the phones in our pockets, we share personal data with global corporations simply to access a little free Wi-Fi and surveillance cameras are more numerous than trees on our streets. So what does spatial privacy mean now given every move we make is logged? Should architects make places that mitigate this? Enable it? Do nothing? You tell me.