V&A Libeskind too “metaphorical”

A former keeper offers some practical suggestions

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In replying to your Opinion column, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s director missed a chance to tell us why a “spiral” building with scarcely a single vertical wall will function better for the display of twenty-first-century art than a building with walls on which things can be hung or against which they can be placed.

I am as curious as anyone to see what the odd building proposed by Mr Libeskind as a new wing of the Victoria and Albert would be like, if built. “More a metaphor than a building” was the way I heard him describe it. But how does one use a “metaphor” to display art, and what does one do if the walls of a “metaphor” as well as its roof begin to leak?

It would seem that the “spiral” concept resulted from an architectural competition with an inadequate brief, yet the “spiral” has ever since been treated as the scheme’s essence: in the beginning was the “spiral”; only then was function seriously considered.

The “spiral” would occupy the last large area available for development in a museum with desperate needs for space. One thinks of expansion-room for the Library, now that the plan to remove it to Chancery Lane has mercifully hit the buffers. The following is surely not an exhaustive list of other needs:

-exhibition space not only for twentieth- and twenty-first-century displays, but also for the under-displayed collections of the Indian subcontinent

-a Furniture Study Gallery, now that the British Galleries are to show so much less of the national Collection of Furniture

-temporary exhibition areas with access for container-lorries

-a loading-bay

-education facilities

-links between the Aston Webb block’s various floors and the Cole Building

-access to the library, lecture theatre, restaurant and shop when the museum is shut

-cloak-rooms

-lavatories

-wheel-chair access

-access for fire-fighting equipment

-air-conditioning

The sheer scale of Aston Webb’s Cromwell Road entrance will always make that feel like the Main Entrance, so orientation and information systems should be sited there, not concealed at the top of a side-street “spiral”.

Had the museum’s needs been held more firmly in mind from the start I find it hard to believe a “spiral” with leaning walls would have emerged as the most practical and economical, or even the most beautiful way of meeting them.

J.V.G. Mallet

Formerly Keeper, Department of Ceramics and Glass, V&A

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