The Victoria & Albert Museum has always been one of my favourites due to its hybridity of old and new – from historical artefacts to contemporary cultural exhibits, everything from early modern royal portraiture to the history of underwear.
So, fittingly, the new Exhibition Road Quarter is also a hybrid of old and new. Visitors can now enter through a colonnade fashioned from the Ashton Webb screen, which was built in 1909 to conceal some boiler rooms and is pockmarked with damage from World War Two. This is contrasted with sloping glass, geometric shapes, and what has been described by one critic as “the Guggenheim turned on its side and then beaten senseless with a hammer.” It’s ostentatious, to say the least, but somehow it all fits together.
Opening during the V&A’s ‘REVEAL’ festival that ran from 30 June to 7 July, this new quarter, designed by architect Amanda Levete, provides the museum with a new entrance, courtyard, and a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The total cost of the project is £54.5m and donors include the Monument Trust, the Headley Trust, and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The inside of this new quarter is bright, airy, calm, and sleek. What can be seen of it, anyway – due to delays in construction, the first exhibition to take place in the new Sainsbury Gallery will not open until the end of September, so it is not currently accessible to the public. However, it sounds impressive. The size of an aircraft hangar, it is one of the reasons that the original £27m budget had to be doubled. Like the exterior, this may seem a little over the top, but this new space will be hugely beneficial to the museum.
On one hand, it’s heartening to see so much money being spent on culture and the arts, especially when these things are being cut from school budgets. But maybe that’s the issue – perhaps these large sums of money should be put into education and making the arts more accessible instead of splashing cash on flashy architecture.
But still, free museums are an important part of opening up access to the arts, and expanding one of London’s most popular cultural sites is certainly not a bad thing. Levete’s work may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does well to combine old and new, modernising and preserving. When art so often looks at the present while remaining mindful of the past, it seems a fitting exterior, especially for this museum of hybridity. Even if it has been beaten senseless with a hammer. That could be a metaphor too. Maybe.