Issue 206
Winter 2018/19


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Nov 21, 2018

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Newcomer on the Dundee waterfront

Design writer and academic Richard Carr, himself a close neighbour of the new V ∓ A Museum, reflects on the layout of the building and its place on the banks of the ‘silvery Tay’

RRS Discovery, overshadowed at its berth by a cliff-like V ∓ A Museum

JUDGING BY the long queues of people waiting to get into the V∓A Design Museum in Dundee, Kengo Kuma’s new building, hovering like a huge silver, brown and black ribbed spaceship on the edge of the River Tay, is a great success.

Only the second building to be designed almost without a single window overlooking the river (the first was James Parr’s Earl Grey Hotel, abandoned in favour of the Hilton in the 1980s), visitors enter via a huge atrium, its floor in Portuguese granite covered with fossils, its soaring walls reminiscent of a similar treatment given by Zaha Hadid in her Museum of Transport in Glasgow. The latter is hung with bicycles. (Trouble is, anyone interested in bicycles cannot get close enough to see the details of their design).

The atrium contains the museum’s reception, a small café, stands available for corporate use and an area suitable for being divided into intimate displays. From it, a sweeping staircase leads to the main exhibition spaces, the restaurant, offices etc. on the floor above.

At the outset, the exhibition spaces contained the museum’s permanent collection of contemporary design while the big display was devoted to Ocean Liners – the one area in the museum that has an entry fee and is suitable for staging blockbuster exhibitions brought up from the V∓A in London.

Indeed, this facility was supposed to operate in Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) when it opened in 1999 – but somehow, Dundee never seemed able to attract the cognoscenti from Edinburgh and Glasgow and the drive for blockbuster exhibitions petered out. It will be interesting to see whether the V∓A in Dundee can succeed where the DCA failed.

With regard to the Ocean Liners exhibition, the display draws upon all the material saved from the French art deco liner, Normandie, after she sank inexplicably in New York’s harbour at the outbreak of the Second World War, as well as featuring the Queen Elizabeth, launched on Clydebank just as the war began.

Sadly, there’s no section on QE2, which has just opened (after languishing for years unused) as an hotel in Dubai. Since John Brown built the ship with considerable government subsidy, the Council of Industrial Design insisted funding be linked to the best in British design in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

This gave a tremendous boost to pioneering companies (and their designers) working on flooring and other coverings, furniture, light fittings. tableware, etc. during the heady post-war years when Britain established itself (along with Scandinavia, Italy and then Germany) as leaders in the world of design.

As for the permanent design collection, part of the justification for setting up an outpost of the V∓A in Dundee was to offload some of the huge collection of decorative arts that the V∓A in London cannot show because it has no available space. But the reaction of visitors to the current display in Dundee suggests a miscellaneous collection of often unrelated items that is not helped by their being shown in a ‘black box’ in which light is concentrated on the items on display and the surrounding ambient light is very low.

Captions are not always closely related to the objects to which they refer and one visitor, using the book of enlarged captions available to those with poor eyesight, said that the ambient light was not strong enough for her to be able to read the enlarged captions easily.

Besides enabling London to offload exhibits it thinks people might like to see but cannot show itself, the permanent collection also makes an attempt to put design into a wide, cultural context. Thus there are some 300 items on display, including Mackintosh’s Oak Room salvaged from his Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow but showing – surprisingly – only its oak panelling walls. There is not a single piece of CRM furniture on view.

The collection includes fashion by Vivienne Westwood, Steve McQueen, Christopher Kane and others, pop-up books created for John McGrath’s play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, and work by the Scottish designers, Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, for the play, The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

There is also a good representation of contemporary graphic design, including work by Dundee-born Ray Petri for Face, i-D and Arena, and Glasgow-born David Bland, who designed record covers for Altered Images, Aztec Camera and Spandau Ballet. Designers of comic books such as Mark Millar, Alan Grant, Cam Kennedy and Grant Morrison are also represented.

However, if you want to see an exhibition devoted to the development of international design from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the present, then the place to go is design gallery in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Finally, one of the aims of the V∓A in Dundee is to turn the city into a tourist hub rather than just another destination. Thus, link-ups should be made to the Science Centre, DCA, Verdant Works (the history of jute) and the McManus Art Gallery & Museum – in its heyday, a rival to any similar establishment in London.

Plans for a comic museum to open in a former D.C. Thomson building where Oor Wullie and The Broon books were made have just been announced. The use of the building as a temporary design hub (see ArtWork 198) demonstrated the popularity of such a venture.

However, the mess made of the road layout along the Riverside, the tight complexity of the roads around the Verdant Works and the D.C. Thomson building, and the lack of easily assessible parking in the centre of the city make laying on, for example, scheduled free transport linking all these venues difficult. Somehow, if Dundee is to gain a reputation for having a diverse collection of visitor-attractions all within a short distance, these difficulties have to be overcome.

As it is, Dundee has already made life difficult by locating the V∓A Museum and a new office block too close to the RRS Discovery and Discovery Point – an own goal given all the space that remains between the museum and the Tay road bridge. The result – besides the road congestion – is to diminish in both apparent size and visual grandeur the ship that Dundee built and carried Scott to the Antarctic.

Richard Carr is a former Features Editor of Design magazine, Design Correspondent of The Guardian and Hon Professor of Design History, Theory and Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art.

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