Oops, I’m going off-topic again already — though only a little bit — because an exciting exhibition opened in Dundee the other day. It had been the talk of the town for months beforehand and there is even more talk now it is actually on show for all to see. The exhibition is called Making it Happen and it comprises six items: the six architectural designs which have been shortlisted in the competition for “V & A Dundee”. Yup, the V & A is coming to town and Dundee will be home to Scotland’s new museum of design. More on that later — first, the proposed designs.
Members of the public have all been invited to vote for their preferred design, so we took our visit very seriously: perhaps that comment left by Stuart or the box I ticked will change the course of our civic history! Or perhaps not. Nonetheless, it was extremely interesting to consider the thought behind each design and to reflect on how they had responded to the brief.
For this reason, I ruled out Steven Holl’s proposal straight away. I’m sorry, but you didn’t read the question so nul points pour vous. I need to tell you that the special aspect of this project is that the museum is to be built not in the city but on the river. The site is a bit of the Tay just beyond the dock where RRS Discovery dwells. Dundee has a long tradition of infilling along the Tay coast — the city has already encroached several blocks into the estuary — but this is to be a bit different. It might be on stilts, it might float, but whatever it does it is not a conventional build.
Steven Holl’s idea involves putting quite a narrow building a fair way out into the river and opening up an old harbour (one of those long since infilled) to create a floating garden. Lovely scheme (although their proposed museum building is not that great), but the Council’s masterplan already has a building right on that spot. And oor cooncil are not easily shifted. Think outside the box by all means, but don’t waste our time with something that ain’t going to happen short of a national inquiry. Maybe I’m wrong about this, so I’m not offering to eat any hats, but I’d be hugely surprised if the Earl Grey dock was reopened and without it Steven Holl’s design is not much cop.
But turning to the ones I do like — well, I was surprised. Of course I had seen all the pictures in the press beforehand, and one of the ones I liked least in the paper turned out to be one of my favourites when I saw the model and a fuller explanation of their thinking. That was the “crannog” design by Sutherland Hussey.
When I first saw this I saw a hefty lump of a cube parked in the river. But on closer inspection it is a much lighter structure than that. They say “crannog” — a kind of dwelling on stilts favoured by the Picts in this part of Scotland — I still say “oil rig”. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of rigs are towed into Dundee for maintenance and they are astonishing structures in themselves. However, they are even more astonishing seen from across the river when they are anchored next to a city and completely dwarfing it. Apart from the fact that they play havoc with the signal for BBC2, we have always rather relished the sight of an oil rig in the Tay. To take this feature of Dundee’s industrial life and turn it into an art gallery — well, why not? Judging from the comments on the website, however, I may be out of step with public opinion on this.
My absolute favourite, though, is one that I loved at first sight and I was very relieved that a closer encounter did not disappoint. This is the low wave-like form of the Snøhetta proposal. I think that seen from the city this building would be the perfect complement to the view out across the river. We are blessed with wonderful views here — Dundee is built around a conical hill so you have to work hard not to have a view — and I love the way these architects have responded to the natural beauty of the setting.
Besides its lovely shape, Snøhetta’s design also offers really good public space and gallery space. You’d think that the latter would be a given, but not every design seems to remember that the building does have a specific purpose. The team that I reckon has given the most thought to this aspect is Rex. Unlike many who were leaving comments at the exhibition, I’m not so keen on the exterior of their building or on their layout of the site, but I am really impressed at the way they have worked out the exhibition space. I’m also impressed by the simple details in their model which show that they’ve remembered it’s about design: their miniature exhibitions include cars, for instance, whereas the other architects’ models show generic indications of contemporary art — coloured splotches on the walls, amorphous shapes pretending to be sculpture. It’s the tiniest of details in their submissions, but it tells you something about how much attention they were paying to that brief.
Which brings me back to this business of a design museum. Whatever it is they have in mind for us, I’m pretty keen. But I am finding it difficult to interpret the corporate verbiage in plain English. The website is full of superlatives (major, leading, essential, …) but the bit that matters appears to be this:
“Dedicated gallery space will focus on 20th and 21st century design, which will illustrate how design changes to meet the demands of tomorrow’s society. A Design Scotland gallery will be committed to showcasing Scottish talent and the impact of Scotland in contemporary design. Together, the galleries will show and explain beautiful and useful objects, and illustrate how they were created from initial spark to final product.”
The concrete bit that I can get a hold of is the reference to “beautiful and useful objects”, but the only specific example I have seen mentioned anywhere is computer games — something which has become an important industry in the city. I do hope there are going to be tangible objects as well: after all, even in the 21st century we still sit on chairs, drink mugs of tea, wear warm jumpers and so on, and we do all these things while we are using our digital media. I’m hoping that as the project develops we are going to be hearing more about the content as well as the structure.