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Softroom's Sackler Centre at the Victoria and Albert museum

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Softroom’s interior for the Victoria & Albert Museum reconciles virtual models with the art of making things, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Dennis Gilbert

The Sackler Centre for arts education in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is built around a spectacular reception, dominated by a concrete staircase and the cedar-clad underside of a new auditorium. Despite their size and weight, both components seem to hover in the double-height space.

London-based practice Softroom has reworked two floors of the museum’s Henry Cole Wing to provide workshops, studios, a gallery and dining hall, as well as the auditorium. By linking the building’s lower two floors, it does part of the work that Daniel Libeskind’s ill-fated Spiral extension, axed in 2004, was meant to do.

Softroom’s smart volumetrics, its control of materials and composition, and its sensitive reworking of the existing fabric are best expressed in the reception. Mirrored surfaces highlight and reflect Victorian details and inflate the sense of space. New elements forged from concrete, glass, steel and timber emit a pleasingly solid, architectural feel. Reopened archways channel natural light into the deep-set plan, and inside the auditorium, a curving, timber wall-roof encloses the neat rows of steeply raked seats.

The aesthetic is familiar. It’s Modernism of some kind, but it doesn’t sample Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. Instead, the slick, moulded interiors of sci-fi movies such as Star Wars come to mind. Softroom director Christopher Bagot admits that set designers such as Ken Adams, who worked on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) and a number of Bond films, were an influence. The hygienic interiors of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were another cue. Polycarbonate light screens mimic the film’s backlit surfaces and, just like the menacing black monolith that appears in a classically styled room at the film’s conclusion, the heavy concrete staircase is an uncanny contrast to its Grade II*-listed context.

There are sound reasons for Softroom’s influences. The practice emerged in the 1990s, in a time that saw pop culture, brands, design and technology converge, and it was quick to realise that pixels and polygons offered as many opportunities to young architects as bricks and mortar. Softroom’s multimedia projects, including fantasy-home spreads for Wallpaper* magazine and digital backdrops for the BBC, showed virtuality was its lifeblood. Even Softroom’s name suggests the convergence of the virtual with the actual.

The Sackler Centre is Softroom’s third scheme for the V&A’s FuturePlan programme, which aims to ‘renew the 150-year-old museum, bringing it into the 21st century while retaining the history and quality of the original building’. In 2004, the practice refurbished the museum’s members club; two years later it designed the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. The Henry Cole Wing, completed in 1871, was originally a naval architecture school. Barring the dormant grand staircase at the north end, its interiors are modest, but Softroom has amplified its imposing proportions.

Unlike the reception’s money-shot qualities, other key design moves are less visible. On both floors, steps have been removed to create gently sloping surfaces. A room at the north end of the lower level has been knocked through to create a gallery. The reception’s arches, filled in during previous alterations, have been reopened, and although they are below street level, they filter light through from windows on the Exhibition Road elevation. The reception, too, was once split by a concrete floor.

The centre of the plan is occupied by a workshop and digital studio on the lower floor and a seminar room above. On the western flank is a dining hall, while toilets and a corridor on the eastern flank lead to a reopened arch, the reception and the staircase. The tight, circular plan is easy to negotiate - none of the building’s many previous iterations had a comparable clarity.

Until the Sackler Centre, Softroom’s best work was the Kielder Belvedere in Northumberland, a walkers’ retreat completed in 1999. This triangular pod is clad in mirror-polished and lightly etched stainless steel that reflects the surrounding trees. One side features a convex bulge and a curved slot window, and inside, the ambience is lifted by a yellow-tinted glass roof.

The Kielder Belvedere is impressive because it combines the strange virtual beauty of a hi-res digital render with an inherent sense of craft. The Sackler Centre does this too. Every space has a crafted flourish, a gadgety cleverness that draws on the detailing you might find in a product-design studio or a computer game environment. The workshop has enamelled steel cupboards; cloakrooms have backlit polycarbonate sheets; the reception desk is sculpted from Corian. A workshop sink can be raised or lowered.

The staircase has mirror-polished handrails and its underside is grooved, inverting the pattern of the auditorium’s thin larch strips. Upstairs, the projection room is clad with mirrors to reflect recessed arches on the wall it connects with. Polished concrete floors have been applied throughout. They look good, but are practical too: busloads of schoolkids use the Sackler Centre every day.

The whole job, which more than doubles the space previously allocated to education, cost £2.6 million. Budgetary control on a demanding project like this is the mark of a maturing architect. Softroom’s other major building project, Wireworks - a nondescript five-storey housing block in Southwark, London - was a disappointment. Strip away the sculptural wire-cladding from its inexpressive elevations and you’re left with a bog-standard Sto-rendered speculative development. It’s as if Softroom failed to match its design aspirations with the available budget.

Bagot describes the Sackler Centre as ‘architecturally significant’. ‘It’s not the biggest we’ve done,’ he says, ‘but in the range of spaces we’ve created and the type of intervention it is, it feels important. It feels very architectural, whereas previous projects have been more like interior design.’ The Sackler Centre, suggests Bagot, is proof that Softroom can do real architecture. It’s a fair point. The practice’s most celebrated work is the Virgin passenger lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. Well built and flush with posh materials, it’s still basically a fit-out, albeit a very expensive one.

Despite Softroom’s digital background, there is a sense that Bagot considers its virtual projects a distraction from the art of making real things. He barely responds when I try to discuss them. But to ignore Softroom’s virtual cognisance is a mistake.

The Sackler Centre’s architectural qualities are in part derived from the spatial freedom that exists within the workspace of computer modelling software, and its solid materiality makes it feel like a real-world instance of a digital model. In particular, the reception’s three-dimensionality and the weird clash of old and new has parallels with the vivid interiors of shoot-em-up video games like Quake or Unreal.

On the landing of the centre’s concrete staircase, you can look across the building’s many layers, as if floating inside the virtual space of the computer screen. You can see newly exposed brick walls, the reinstated archways, the polished concrete floor below and the curving timber roof above. Linear fluorescents lend a high-definition sheen and the empty space of the double-height reception surrounds you. The two floors of the Henry Cole Wing could never have looked - or felt - this good in the past.

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