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Victoria & Albert Museum

Bold design for new V&A building by Daniel Libeskind, but government cuts force compulsory entrance charge

V&A in brave act of patronage

London

The Victoria and Albert Museum has recently announced that it is to levy entrance charges from 1 October due to the museum’s dire financial predicament.

The decision was publicised on the same day that the institution’s board of trustees selected architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for the proposed construction of a £42 million extension for the museum. The museum’s resolve to embark upon an entirely new building designed by a modernist architect sets a bold precedent for major London museums.

The museum is set to replace its current system of encouraging visitors to donate a voluntary sum of £4.50 (which raises £1 million every year) with a compulsory charge of around £5.00 from October. Admission will continue to be free for students, under eighteens and for everyone from 4:30pm to 5:45pm. In addition to the extra revenue generated by admission charges, as a charging institution, the V&A will be able to reclaim around £1 million every year in VAT.

Dr Alan Borg, the museum’s director, attributes the need to introduce entrance charges to government cuts in the museum’s finances. The museum is to receive £30.6 million in 1996, down from £31.6 million last year. In 1997, the Department of National Heritage plans to decrease its subsidy to the V&A by another £1million to £29.6 million. As a result, Dr Borg is looking to cut fifty posts in the museum this year, noting that: “We are being squeezed on the revenue side of the operation by Government cuts, yet thanks to the lottery, we have the capital to carry out grand projects”.

Dr Borg was on the selection committee that chose Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind (whose current projects include the celebrated, zig-zag shaped Jewish Museum in Berlin) from a shortlist of eight candidates, to design the V&A’s £42 million extension. The building, expected to take five years to complete, will occupy the last unbuilt area on the museum’s thirteen-acre site and will house the work of contemporary craftspeople as well as additional facilities for the museum.

If the extension wins lottery backing, it will be one of the few entirely new and free-standing museum constructions on this scale to be built in London. “[No proposals] have so far grasped the opportunity which now exists to do something exciting and challenging with architecture, to create a building in London which can achieve the status of a national icon”, comments Dr Borg.

Major London museums have until now shied away from planning important new buildings with the funding opportunities provided by the National Lottery, preferring to restructure existing buildings or to design buildings that are to stand in interior spaces. One exception is the V&A’s neighbour, the Science Museum which will start work in the autumn on a £44 million new wing jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Wellcome Trust.

The Tate Gallery’s Bankside project, promised £50 million in lottery assistance by the Millennium Commission, involves extensive restructuring of a dis-used power station. The British Museum, set to receive £30 million from the Millennium Commission, is to redesign the expanse of its Great Court and seal it with a new glass roof designed by Sir Norman Foster. Similarly, the National Portrait Gallery, still awaiting the outcome of its £8 million application to the National Heritage Lottery Fund, also plans to utilize an interior courtyard between itself and the National Gallery, albeit with a new building by architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones.

Libeskind’s “exploding” design for the V&A was promptly declared “ghastly” by Giles Worsley, editor of Perspectives on Architecture, the magazine backed by the Prince of Wales. He decried it as “completely inappropriate for Victorian surroundings”. Other responses were more encouraging: architect Edward Jones said he was delighted. “I feel pleased for him and the architectural world that risks are being taken.”

If the experience of the Cardiff Opera House project, which failed to get backing for architect Zaha Hadid’s modernistic design, is indicative of a loss of confidence in contemporary architecture, then challenging architecture is not always helpful in the hunt for lottery funding.

What the critics said

FOR

“It shows a new sophistication in this country to use non-British architects”

Pier Gough, architect

“I feel pleased for him and the architectural world that risks are being taken”

Edward Jones, architect

“At least the V&A has recognised that Britain might have something to learn from the rest of the world when it comes to contemporary architecture....For a museum of applied art and design established to show the Victorians not just the glories of their past but the possibilities of the future, it’s an entirely appropriate strategy.”

Deyan Sudjic, The Guardian

“We think the plans are great and we would love to see this stunning building built. We need more architecture of this kind”

Editorial, The Independent

“If there is one constant tradition in British architecture it is the rubbishing of landmark buildings before they are built. Libeskind’s design has the potential to be such a landmark, the Brompton Oratory is a complete contrast with the V&A on one side so why not this on the other?”

Owen Luder, President Royal Institute of British Architects

AGAINST

“An architectural absurdity masquerading as a museum wing”

Brian Sewell, the Evening Standard

“The extension is completely inappropriate for Victorian surroundings... all this sort of deconstructionist architecture does is say that cities are such hell.”

Giles Worsley, editor Perspectives on Architecture

“It will not be an easy building for Londoners to digest and absorb. It’s trying to make too much of a point. It’s too gymnastic, too flamboyant. It’s saying I’m big, I’m important, I’m here.”

Richard Burdett, director the Architecture Foundation

Entrance fees and visitor numbers

london. When the V&A introduced voluntary donations in November 1985, the number of visitors dropped from 1,733,314 for 1985 to 1,022,328 in 1986. The museum does not anticipate any further drop in visitors following the introduction of entrance charges as market research indicates that the majority of people already perceive the museum as a charging institution. Under the directorship of Dr Alan Borg, The Imperial War Museum introduced an entrance charge in 1989. Visitor figures actually show an increase from 281,901 in 1988 to 354,340 in 1989 and 411,760 in 1990 attributable to the reopening of sections of the museum that had previously been closed and to more exact methods of visitor monitoring. The Science Museum introduced an entrance charge in October 1988 and experienced an unspecified drop in visitor numbers. The figures have since increased from 1.1 million in 1989 to 1.6 million in 1995.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘V&A in brave act of patronage'