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Dundee, Scotland – Kengo Kuma scoops Victoria & Albert competition

Japanese iceberg nudges into Scottish waters

The competition for an international centre for design, to be located on the regenerating waterfront of Dundee, was launched towards the end of 2009. With a keen eye on the achievement of the emblematic Bilbao Guggenheim, the city of Dundee and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum teamed up to drive the initiative.

The crucial role of the V&A is worth noting, both as a partner in the Dundee initiative and as an inspirational impetus for the project. Of the 122 entries that registered for the competition, a shortlist of six was eventually arrived at earlier this year by an eight-strong jury, two of whom were architects. The shortlist for V&A at Dundee included Steven Holl Architects and Rex (former OMA partners) both from New York, along with Norwegian practice Snøhetta, Delugan Meissl Associated Architects from Vienna, Edinburgh-based Sutherland Hussey Architects, and Japan’s Kengo Kuma & Associates.

In their different ways, the first five each aspired to create the ‘landmark building’ specifically sought in the brief. Snøhetta’s elegant proposal was ‘docked’ as well as embedded in the shoreline in a very landform-related manner, reaching outwards to the hills across the Firth of Tay. Those of Holl, Rex, and Delugan Meissl presented themselves as more dramatic arrivals, delivered with impact on the shore-edge yet scarcely heeding the city itself, as it strained to receive them.

Sutherland Hussey’s scheme came loaded with traces of Dundee’s dockside past that recalled the city’s seaport pre-eminence of three generations and more ago, in an uncharacteristic retro-mode, begging the question: Can Scotland ever unshackle from hoary old industrial tropes? Yes we can, was the answer, epitomised by the sixth shortlisted proposal from Kengo Kuma (working with a mostly Scottish team of collaborators), which was judged the final winner.

As neither a signature building nor metropolitan endorsement of a presumed provincial ethos, Kuma’s scheme seemed to soar over the predictable preoccupations of the five others. Such was the public interest that there were 27,000 hits on the competition’s shortlist website. As if floated into the waterfront like a sculptural iceberg, Kuma’s project attaches itself gracefully to the urban spaces of the city. Aptly, it also nestles near to the RSS Discovery, the masted vessel of Antarctic explorer Captain Scott, which is anchored on the dock.

Kuma’s structure of slatted (even actually ‘machicolated’) high technology stone cladding will weather slowly and benignly, with a natural effect. This is inherent in the systemic horizontal gaps between the layered, compound stone panels (cast complete with insulation and structural concrete cores), which are made up of over 90 per cent quartz, granite, marble and natural stone elements. The glazing fits seamlessly between each layer where required. The whole content reads tangibly, yet also as something ‘other’, revealed by scanning up a clear axis to the city centre.

Kuma shows his fundamental grasp of how to insert a multi-faceted cultural container into existing city fabric and how to evoke the curiosity and mystery that stirs the imagination and fires up generations of visitors. From the sanctuary of Kuma’s scheme the orientation up and down the Tay estuary, lapped by tidal flows seawards and back, will be spell-binding, especially on summer evenings. From the city too, the image of a magical geological formation will be compelling. At last, here is architecture for the 21st century.

Taken together, the combined resonance of the V&A’s own collections (to be rotated for exhibitions) and the emulations and aspirations of the ‘home team’ of university, art college and design staff (with several international practitioners), plus artists and students, form a viable basis for the V&A Dundee as specified in the original competition brief. This is expected to galvanise creativity in design and proactive commerce throughout Scotland, the UK and Europe.

The competition was seemingly run in an exemplary way, reinforced by a gritty realism about raising the necessary budget of £47 million, which is reassuring in today’s clenched economic climate. On hearing the news of his win, Kengo Kuma was typically decorous. ‘I am thrilled to be able to work with those at the V&A and Dundee’, he said, ‘in order to give shape to their vision and to contribute meaningfully to the cultural richness of the city.’

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