V&A: From a kitchen table drawing to a waterfront reality

The full story behind the city of Dundee landing its world-class new museum.

The V&A opens to the public on Saturday. <strong>Hufton+Crow</strong>
The V&A opens to the public on Saturday. Hufton+Crow

It started as a plan to transform Dundee’s waterfront, to reconnect the city with the River Tay and revitalise the local economy.

Now, at the heart of the £1bn development, on the site of an old public swimming pool, stands Scotland’s new cultural crown jewel – the V&A Museum of Design.

It will officially open to the public on Saturday.

But how did Dundee persuade the V&A to branch out from London to a small north-east coastal city?

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The journey began almost 20 years ago when Mike Galloway, Dundee City Council’s executive director of city development, was working on proposals for the waterfront regeneration.

“Essentially I drew that final option on my kitchen table,” he said.

“However, we recognised that to really, really be successful this plan required a spark and what was the thing that would bring this whole plan to life?”

Around this time, Dundee University was looking at what the city needed to become more attractive to staff and students.

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By recruiting the most talented people there was more scope for research work and crucially, the accompanying funding and kudos. Culture was seen as key.

David Duncan was the university’s secretary and an acquaintance of Sir Mark Jones, then director of the V&A in London.

In 2006, Duncan had an idea which would provide the waterfront plan’s missing spark.

“I suggested maybe we could get in touch with Mark and see if he was interested in setting up a V&A in Dundee, a bit along the lines of the Tate Gallery in Liverpool,” he explained.

“A colleague of mine, Joan Concannon, who was director of external relations, went to London to meet with him and she managed to persuade Mark and the chair of the V&A, Paula Ridley, to come up to Dundee.

“We had lunch at the principal’s house, then jumped in a car and went for a look around. They said they were interested, but they had two conditions.

“Firstly, it had to be on the waterfront and secondly the V&A wouldn’t pay for the construction of the building.”

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The council offered the Olympia swimming pool site, the Scottish Government backed the idea and a steering group was formed.

Funding would come from a mix of public and private donations and a world-wide competition was launched to find a designer for the museum.

In November 2010, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s daring concrete structure was announced as the winner.

His design, inspired by the cliffs along Scotland’s north-east coast, would jut out into the River Tay, providing the essential connection between the city and the waterfront.

The budget was set at £45m with a completion date of 2014.

But the complexity of the curved panel construction proved costly, and the building’s reach into the river had to be scaled back as the full extent of the design’s engineering work became clear.

“I was there when the tenders were opened and I was gobsmacked,” recalled Galloway.

In January 2015 it was announced that the budget had almost doubled, to £80.1m.

“It was a tough point but we felt OK, we’ve got to deliver this,” Galloway added.

BAM Construction began work in March 2015. The first major challenge was the building of a cofferdam to hold back the river to allow work on the protruding part of the museum.

Then in August 2015 came a damning report into the early handling of the project. It identified a series of financial management failings and concluded that the process used to assess the original cost estimates wasn’t “robust” enough to cope with the technical demands of the building’s design.

The project team said lessons had been learned and pressed ahead. Over the next three years, the first V&A museum outside London took shape.

The finishing touches were made in January 2018 as the last of the 2466 cast stone panels which give the building its cliff face appearance were put in place.

“I think it is my greatest achievement,” said Kuma. “I believe this building can change the city and can change the life of the community.”

Galloway, who retires two weeks after the museum opens on Saturday, concluded: “I think it will stand the test of time. I think in 50 or 60 years from now people will be saying what a fantastic building.

“And it’s going to have a huge effect on Dundee in terms of our marketability, our image in the rest of the country and the world and will therefore help the waterfront, and the whole of the city, to realise its potential.”


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