09 February 2019

Dundee City waterfront and its new V & A Museum

The V & A had no museums or galleries of its own outside London. Instead it worked with a small number of partner organisations in Sheffield, Dundee and Blackpool to provide a regional presence. This post shows the huge changes recently made to the V & A brand, at least in Dundee.

The £1 billion transformation of Dundee City Waterfront, which encompasses 240 hectares of development land along the River Tay for 8km, is a strategic and progressive 30 year project (2001-31) to build the city’s global fame. The water front, divided into five zones, will become a destination for visitors and businesses through enhancing its physical, economic and cultural assets. Dundee City and the University of Dundee, both of which were instrumental in bringing the V&A here, spent more than 10 years in the planning.

The new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee is a 8,000 square metre building, situated on the waterfront, built to resemble the cliffs of East Scotland. This Dundee landmark was finally opened to the public in Sept 2018.

It is an £80 million building on the river, a conjoined pair of inverted pyr­amids in rugged concrete inspired by Scottish cliffs. On land reclaimed from the river bed, the two inverted pyramids twist both horizontally and vertically as the building gets higher, suggesting a wave-like movement.

V & A Museum Dundee consisting of pair of inverted pyr­amids
and RRS Discovery, Captain Scott's vessel

It was Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma’s first UK project, a site that will announce Dundee’s ambitions to the world. It is impressive when the visitor passes towards the land­scape, through an arch formed between the two main blocks; and its cragginess suits its tough northern location. The exterior is clad with 2,500 precast concrete panels which vary in size and shape to create different shadow patterns. Each of the panels, which measure up to 4m, was attached to the building using brackets.

The galleries occupy the upper floor, allowing for vast spaces. In fact V & A Dundee boasts the largest temporary exhibition space in Scotland. An exterior walkway passes through the middle of the building, joining the river to the city in the manner of a gateway.  Good design, as the contents of the galleries show, is joyous.

Dundee’s setting, on a slope towards the broad river, allowed the V&A project to improve the old part of the water front. Visitors enter the museum through a double-height main hall with a cafe and ample seating. Benches line the long sweeping staircase that leads to the first floor gallery spaces, and a book-shelf lined seating area where visitors can sit and read. The restaurant has expansive views out over the water.

Sweeping main hall with a cafe, stairs, lift tower and water views

There is a generously scaled entrance hall which can also be a public space for the locals. A broad stair and lift tower within the entrance hall opens up to a broad first-floor deck for exhib­itions. The museum’s inverted pyramid shape gives sloping planes that might nicely fulfil Kuma’s stated aims. Kuma says his building is organic, by which he means that its rough-hewn shape looks like a work of nature, a design that grows harmoniously out of it. In terms of quality of construction, the builders have done a good job.

Solid concrete, to which a cosmetic outer layer of yet more con­crete has been heavily applied, is a bit too Brutal for me. But never mind. There’s the landscape, the city and the population. Then see The Discovery, the ship that carried Scott and Shackle­ton on their first, successful Antarctic expedition. It returned to the city that built her.

Scottish Design Galleries, the heart of V & A Dundee, are the first in the world dedicated to telling the great history of Scot­tish design. 300 beautiful objects representing a wide range of design disciplines, our Scottish Design Galleries explore Scot­land’s unique design landscape, both historically and in modern times. Visitors will discover the everyday relevance of Scottish design, even if they didn’t know until now what was locally designed.

The first space in Scottish Design Gallery was Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1907 Oak Room which is being restored and reconstructed as a centrepiece of the galleries. The room was part of the Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow, rescued from the demolition of its host building in 1971 and the pieces kept in storage until now. Unseen since then, the tearoom is one of the world-famous architect’s most important interiors, close in design and ambition to the now lost Glasgow School of Art library. The metal lamp shades with coloured glass enrich the shadows of alcoves beneath the gallery. The design is a beautiful oaken ensemble of light, structure and ornament.

There is lovely timing here. Just as the Glasgow School of Art burned in June 2018, the final touches were applied to this other Charles Rennie Mackintosh jewel. V & A Dundee has already begun its work of repair!

One of the Scottish Design Galleries

In the Scottish Design Galleries, see some of the contributions that this nation of 5 million people made to world design. There is the heavy engineering that you might expect, bridges and ships, but also the abstract, modernist glassware of the late-Victorian Scot­tish designer Christopher Dresser, the luxurious classicism of the C18th Scottish architect Robert Adam and the new brutalism.

With a wide range of objects, from furniture, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, fashion, architecture, engineering and digital design, the space is split into sections. The oldest object in the Scottish Design Galleries is the exquisite Book of Hours, decorated with painted medieval ill­um­inations; it was made in Rouen in northern France c1480.

Blockbuster shows will be able to travel between one V & A Museum and the other. Dundee museum opened with the V&A’s splendid Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition.


Sydneysider said...

Just as the Sydney Opera House is an instantly recognisable symbol of that city, so will the V&A become the known symbol of Dundee. On ads, maps, postcards.

Hels said...


you are correct. The Dundee silhouette will become well known everywhere.

And another thing. Just as Danish architect Jørn Utzon's original design was not loved by everyone in Sydney, and was modified and expensive, so a couple of the responses to the Dundee V & A have been less than flattering. The Guardian called it "a flawed treasure house on the Tay".

GlasgowLife said...

The Oak Room is displayed at the heart of V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries, a permanent display showcasing the significance and relevance of design with a particular focus on Scottish achievement. It was the largest interior that Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow. The 13.5 metre long, double-height room, designed in 1907 and completed in 1908, is acknowledged as one of his key tearoom interiors. Mackintosh’s experimental ideas in the Oak Room informed his design for the Glasgow School of Art Library, which was completed a year later in 1909.

10 September 2018

Hels said...


what an excellent reference, thank you. Will furniture and decorative art from Glasgow's Ingram Street Tearooms be added in the future?

Andrew said...

I like the building very much and I can't think of any other particular style of building that would work on the site as well.

Hels said...


From the very beginning, the museum was to improve, modernise and cultivate the Dundee waterfront - which it is doing!!

But here is something that I didn't notice before. Do you think the inverted pyramids have a ship-like silhouette?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I will visit for the treasures inside, and will be fascinated by the Oak Room the the Discovery, but I doubt I will become a fan of the building's design. Buildings shaped like sculptures are too whimsical for me, and sloping interior surfaces make me physically uncomfortable. It also looks like visitors will have to walk enormous distances before they encounter any art--a fault shared with many modern art museums and renovations. Anyway, I love that they are including the industrial and maritime heritage of Dundee with the more delicate artworks, and there is always the V&A in London if I want to gaze at the building.
p.s. The Ocean Liner show sounds like a good one!

Hels said...


I suppose the waterfront of many old transport-hub cities fell apart during the 20th century.

For Dundee, the Waterfront Masterplan moved forward in coordinated steps. The railway tunnel was strengthened, the railway station was modernised, the new Olympia Leisure Centre was finished and best of all, the V & A Museum of Design took pride of place. By the end of it all, Dundee will go from a forgettable city to a memorable city.

How appropriate, then, to include the industrial and maritime heritage of Scotland with other designwork and other arts. Agreed!

Parnassus said...

Hi again, So many waterfronts are now decayed, that it is wonderful that Dundee is undertaking this project. One problem with Cleveland is that it never properly appreciated its waterfronts (Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River), and never developed them into its plans. Dundee was smart in incorporating permanent institutions such as the V&A, which will provide continuity of attraction; redevelopment with only a bunch of restaurants and shopping areas might die down after a while.

By the way, thanks to your article, the song "The Old Polina" is now running through my head, with its refrain "From Dundee to St. John's," and I can't get it to stop! Is this song also well-known in Australia?

Hels said...


Interesting, isn't it? I suppose it depended on how central to a particular city the decayed old waterfront was, and on how much money that city had to renovate vast tracts of land. Cleveland probably made a mistake in not developing top quality plans. Even Dundee left it for a long time.

The Old Polina's lyrics were on line, but not familiar to me at all.