Ian Ritchie Architects

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Critique of the V&A Boiler House Project by AL_A (for Architecture Today)

First published in issue AT280
Architecture Today, July/August 2017
28 June 2017
© Ian Ritchie


Let’s be straight out with it. It’s a great project – six years in the making and realised with uncommon élan and panache. The Client’s passion is interpreted by design professionals into a calm, yet fascinating seamless melding of urbanism, architecture and engineering, pattern making and storytelling.

The surface composition of tonal whites and blue-greys, with the merest hints of red and yellows of the new Sackler Courtyard, plays beautifully against the red brick and terra cotta walls of the adjacent gallery buildings.

Looking from Exhibition Road at the new gates set into the restored Aston Webb stone screen one is struck by the undulating perforated pattern of the aluminium screens which creates a veil-like quality. This is achieved by 20mm holes (a reference to the shrapnel damage visible in the adjacent stone) drilled at various angles through the 40 mm plate. The frames of the smaller screens lack gravitas when shut but, with a deft design touch, almost disappear when opened, whereas the central door is well framed, with the royal coat of arms subtly drilled into its centre.

Inside, the courtyard is a plateau of parallelograms – bluish grey Dutch hand-made tiles of porcelain with a bisque finish, striped with glazed grooves and relief profiles to warn of inclines. The rooflight offers a tantalising glimpse of a vast space below. It has a mirrored stainless steel internal protective wall to reflect light to the interior below – occasionally distorting the image – and contrasts with the exquisite soft peened rolled form of the outer surface.

The manner in which the new courtyard touches the existing buildings is delicately handled, with linear laser cut aluminium panels creating a darker edge to the old pale stone, and a lighter edge to the red brick. Less successful is the hip-level horizontal glass surface, which is very green with wide black fritting along the edge which still doesn’t quite conceal some of the silicone scraps.

The overall composition of ceramic courtyard floor tiling, laser cut aluminium grillage and fine sawtooth profiled part glazed, part light-coloured bisque roof tiles elegantly captures Prince Albert’s original vision to showcase creativity through architecture, design and craftsmanship. I suspect that the British architecture, design and engineering have mostly been, like the tiles, physically manufactured by industries beyond these shores. A poignant reminder at this Brexist moment.

Whereas all six invited architects of the 1996 Boiler House competition more or less filled the space, the delight of this winning composition is the architect’s embrace of fluid movement and emptiness. In Amanda Levete’s words, “The big move was to see the contemporary museum as an evolution from individual buildings and the hubris associated with them to an urban evolution – the messaging of space.” This reflects the approach the practice adopted in MAAT, Lisbon’s new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology.

What has been achieved is a delightful and welcoming urban threshold which, with the obligatory café, is a generous civic commitment to the other institutions in Exhibition Road and a new public space in London.

One could be picky about some of the finer aspects of the constructed work: the lack of finesse in the roof and courtyard tile jointing, some awkward junctions caused in part by the architect’s desire for spatial delight and connexity to the outside to help orientation, including the revealed sgraffito wall by former RCA art students on the rear of the Henry Cole building. But this would be to miss appreciating the overall. Hand-made tiles will vary – and it is this ‘trace de la main’ (a phrase coined by my erstwhile partner Peter Rice) which reveals a haptic and very human aspect in the architecture.

The immediacy of the evident design ingenuity and imagination combining history and modernity, the essence of the V&A, is another quality of the architecture which will engage passersby and visitors.

Through the new Blavatnik entrance hall, one catches a glimpse of the Pirelli Gardens (which is a reminder of the Exhibition Road Gardens pre Aston Webb screen and Boiler House) and notes the discreetly placed wee shop, before descending a very fine dark grey solid balustraded stair to a pool of zenithal light which marks the threshold to the new 1100m2 Sainsbury temporary exhibition gallery.

Spanning 38m, this cavernous space below the courtyard is roofed by a folded ceiling concealing an integrated design of structure and services. The whole is supported on 50m long piles, with fibre optic movement monitors. This, one suspects, is hidden cutting edge engineering design. The darkness of the space is relieved through slices of natural light in one corner – a very nice touch. No doubt the acoustics will be sorted out soon!

The project offers the V&A a real opportunity to embrace the digital age in new forms – online and live, through performance art, dance and perhaps joining in with London Fashion Week.

There is another 1500m2 of space for art handling below, along with a new goods delivery area. This improved logistics infrastructure is an essential element of the V&A’s expansion programme to Dundee and the Far-East, particularly China.

Gottfried Semper in his ‘Science, Industry and Art’ critique of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the Crystal Palace, wrote that “Collections and public monuments are the true teachers of a free people.” We are reminded of the continued financial source of ‘Albertopolis’ since 1851 – its Royal Commission still grants up to £2 million a year in research grants in science, design and the built environment.

The V&A’s investment in this project is a continuation of Prince Albert and Semper’s underlying social philosophy. It is a museum of the world which has been beautifully opened up to its neighbourhood through that all-too-rare combination of a great client and excellent design team.