Dialogue between the elements – V&A Museum of Design, Dundee

Scotland’s new museum of design has a fittingly cutting-edge design by Kengo Kuma & Associates which combines bracing modernity with an organic feel, and connects a city back to its riverfront. James Parker reports.

This is a tale of two firsts. Dundee is the UK’s first city to be recognised by UNESCO as a City of Design, for achievements in fields as diverse as computer games, comics and pioneering medical research. It’s now also the location of a fittingly groundbreaking building dedicated to design innovation – the V&A’s first museum outside London, due to open next summer as celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s first major UK project.

The momentum generated by these two big ‘firsts’ and the ambition of a multi-headed municipal client have led to the practice producing something very special on a prominent site on the river Tay, visible to everyone travelling toward the city over the Tay Road Bridge. This dynamic new form has the potential to put Dundee on the global architectural map in the same way that Bilbao’s Guggenheim did for that city. The Guggenheim’s architect Frank Gehry chose Dundee for what is still his only permanent UK building, a much more modest Maggie’s Centre for cancer patients at Ninewells Hospital to the west of the city – the V&A is a different kettle of fish.

Its client Dundee Design Ltd (DDL) comprises the City of Dundee, the Scottish Government, Abertay and Dundee Universities, and the V&A itself. In staging its 2010 design competition for the building DDL wanted something that would form the centrepiece of a £1bn masterplan to improve the city’s neglected riverfront. It also had to be a part of the city, and reconnect it with the river. With this in mind, perhaps the biggest success of Kuma’s building is how, despite its dramatic geometry, its design harnesses a combination of unashamed modernity and an organic, earthy feel to manage this feat.

From the new urban plaza next to the permanently-moored ‘Discovery’ (the ship that took Scott to Antarctica) the building’s two tapering volumes slightly resemble two boats sitting side by side, one with its prow jutting out across the river. However viewed from the triangular main entrance the two forms are revealed to be connected at first-floor level, forming one new floor. The pedestrian walkway continues invitingly through the somewhat sea arch-like gap between the two, towards the Tay estuary, one leg of the ‘arch’ disappearing mysteriously into the water. Also, the undulating nature of the facade, clad in seemingly randomly shaped precast planks, becomes more noticeable as you get closer.

This is a big departure from what was here before, as project architect Maurizio Mucciola tells ADF. “Until six or so years ago the whole waterfront area was an industrial port, but most of the docks had fallen into disuse.” He says that when the practice first visited the site in 2010 there was a leisure centre sitting where the museum is, “which was not the best building to be in such a nice position.”

There was also a hotel and a network of roads which “weren’t doing any favours to the city” he says, in fact they were deterring anyone from wanting to take a walk down to the river.

This was a shame because the wide river estuary is “very beautiful,” he says – and despite its main function being essentially a gallery, the building has been designed to engage with its surroundings both in terms of grabbing views of it, and more literally, in its form. Having carefully explored the site, the architects “wanted to focus on the relationship between the building and the water, and trying to relate that back to the city,” says Mucciola.

A cliff facade

The central design response was the idea of emulating a Scottish cliff, complete with its horizontal striations, and water lapping against its base. Mucciola explains: “As a powerful natural element, the cliff played a strong part in the design, because the way it sits on the water is very strong but also at the same time very organic and gentle.” This has now been realised because the coffer dam built by main contractor BAM together with temporary piles and slab for cranes to sit on has been removed, allowing water to come right up to the wall. Kuma himself previously – and evocatively – described the inspiration behind the design: “The beauty of cliffs comes from the long dialogue between earth and water”.

In trying to give the impression of a rough, naturally striated rock face, the building’s cladding of metal-fixed and rough textured cast stone planks also helps to offset the overall somewhat forbidding scale of the building, giving it a more natural, organic softness. Using planks of varying length, depth, and inclination to match the contours of the facade, breaks up what could have been an overly linear result from such an approach. In addition, leaving a gap between each of these angled planks not only provides a space for windows to be hidden in, it also allows uneven shadows to fall on the dark pigmented reinforced concrete walls and create a further semblance of a cliff face’s randomness.

Says Mucciola, “Scottish cities have a great tradition of using local stone and each city is characterised by its use of local stone.” Although quarrying around Dundee is long past being able to provide the capacity this project needed (about 2,300 planks) the stone aggregate with its exposed rough texture was chosen to blend with local stone. The architects worked with the subcontractor to develop flexible moulds so that it could efficiently produce planks, no two of which are likely to be of the same dimensions.

The stone’s roughness gives it a bedded-in feeling on installation, and helps to moderate light reflection. Mucciola: “We have always thought that particularly in such locations a building with this sort of cladding shouldn’t be pristine. Having such a mineral and powerful material lends itself to ageing beautifully in a natural way.”

Internal spaces

The 8000 m2 building is designed in the form of two inverted pyramids, the steep taper at the bases chiefly done to provide a welcoming incline that encourage visitors into both the main entrance – Kengo Kuma keen to avoid a vertical facade which might “reject people” – and the gap between the buildings. It was also the result of a much larger footprint being needed on the first floor for the gallery and learning spaces located here.

The entrance leads into a 600 m2 double-height foyer space, lit by a number of small roof lights above and narrow horizontal slit windows cut into the concrete, 300 mm high (the same as the wall’s thickness). There is a museum shop and waterside cafe, and there is also space that can be easily reconfigured for events such as fashion shows or concerts. In the other building ground floor houses offices and back of house.

The first floor linking both buildings has a lounge exhibition area leading off to four galleries, totalling 1650 m2. They will feature everything from Scottish design through the centuries, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famous Oak Room tea room (restored and rebuilt) to international travelling ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. A corridor runs from the first-floor reception past the atrium foyer space – whose upper section forms the ‘prow’ over the river – to an auditorium, ‘creative learning centre’ and a staff area.

Continuing the natural theme, timber is the key material internally, providing a warmer counterpoint to the prevailing mass of concrete, including planks cladding the walls of the main hall. Says Maurizio Mucciola, “The Scottish weather can be tough sometimes, so we wanted a welcoming feeling to the interior, and timber is obviously a traditional material in Scotland.” The upper floor spaces have oak floors, and there is some timber cladding to spaces like the auditorium. The main hall, which also features a very long timber bench running along its perimeter, has a floor of Irish limestone.

The interiors have been designed to be “very open” says Mucciola. “From most parts, you can see across to the rest of the building, and we hope that people will enjoy lingering in the spaces. We wanted to create a real civic centre for Dundee and for visitors.” He says that local feedback has been very positive so far, despite the bracingly modern statement the building makes, and a “sense of ownership and pride” has been reported.

In terms of sustainability goals, the project is targeting BREEAM ‘Excellent’ and features natural ventilation via automatic roof vents to all spaces except the galleries. There has been a focus on sustainable sourcing of materials, “down to the paint”, and there are also various renewables such as air source heat pumps, geothermal bore holes and lighting which responds to exterior light levels to maximise efficiency. Mucciola says there is a general move to making museum spaces less strict when it comes to internal climate control: “There is a tendency now to try and relax the restrictions where possible in museums and galleries to increase energy efficiency while keeping exhibits safe.”

Concrete curves

Perhaps the most impressive design feature is the double curvature in situ concrete wall which is the main structural element of the entire building, formed from 21 sections. Due to the design’s complexity, tapering in towards the ground while linking two forms, some of these sections twist dramatically in and out, with several presenting extreme curvatures. The most extreme example (illustrated on page 33), Wall section 18 goes from a 33o incline towards the river then curves through 123o to a 24o incline away from the Tay, over a 15 metre length of wall.

Initially the architects used a combination of 3D modelling software, testing this against a physical model, to arrive at the right shape, but once structural calculations were needed it was easier to break the walls down into sections. Says Mucciola: “Obviously we had engineering input from Arup, and we started working with them as our own engineers very closely since the earliest stages of the project, and at all times.” He adds: “Any small modification we were doing was fed back to them so they could recalculate.”

The enormous amount of bespoke formwork (11,000 m2) that was needed was one of the biggest challenges on the project, although not one that the architects had direct responsibility for. “They had complex shapes because they had to be both faces of the wall, and to perfectly match the 3D model,” says Mucciola. The tolerances BAM and formwork subcontractor Peri had to work with were only a few millimetres, so the formwork had to be precisely aligned.

Mucciola is full of praise for the level of collaboration, which he says is unusual: “The way the entire design and construction team has worked together has worked out very well, which is not very common.” He puts this down to the fact that “everyone liked the design – when I went down to the site, everyone including the staff making the sections were very proud of what they were doing and there was a genuine will to get a good result.”

One way in which the architects assisted in making this process a success was by creating a mock-up of the wall to make sure there were “smooth joins between the formwork,” and this included carrying out tests and discussing the necessary tweaks with BAM. The architects have had continual involvement throughout the construction phase due to the complex nature of this project, and its engineers have been site almost every day checking the quality of the concrete, and resolving any issues or questions the contractors had, on the spot.

Connected to the city

The architects have carefully focused on the important goal of ensuring the building both draws visitors to the riverfront, including via new public spaces outside, and that it feels part of the city. Internally, the insertion of over 100 narrow horizontal windows throughout the building, as well as giving a soft light to gallery spaces and at low-level, views for children, are also a subtle way to remind visitors that they are in Dundee. Mucciola says: “They frame many different views of the outside – the river, the Discovery, or back towards the city. It’s not very common to have windows in galleries but we thought it was important.”

As part of the riverfront masterplan, a new train station is currently nearing completion near the end of Union Street, the major thoroughfare connecting the city centre to the river. The building’s entrance has been carefully positioned so that it is clearly visible from the train station and from the street itself, however the new landmark Kengo Kuma and team have created is virtually guaranteed to draw not only hordes of visitors from the town but from across the globe.

This museum will also be a stunning legacy of the V&A’s former director Martin Roth, who died this summer from cancer, aged 62. Having led this multi-faceted project, it is sad that he did not get to see it completed.


Client: DDL (Dundee Design Ltd) – Dundee City Council, Scottish Enterprise, Abertay University, University of Dundee, Victoria & Albert Museum

Lead architect: Kengo Kuma & Associates
Project manager: Turner Townsend Project Management
Executive architect: James F Stephen Architects
Delivery architect: PiM.studio Architects
Structural and services engineer: Arup
Landscape: Optimised Environments
Quantity surveyor: CBA
Wayfinding: Cartidge Levene CDM/DDA Consultant C-MIST
Water feature specialist: Fountains Direct
Main contractor: BAM
Concrete: Careys
Formwork: Peri
Floor area: 8,500 m²
Cost: £80.11m
Building completion due: January 2018
Opening: Summer 2018