When the Wall Street Journal identified Ten Hot Destinations in its “Where to Travel in 2018” piece, a curious outlier joined the likes of Shanghai, Montenegro, and Madagascar: the Scottish coastal city of Dundee.
A former industrial hub on the banks of the River Tay, Dundee may seem like an odd choice for jet setters and cultural tourists. However, it turns out that the country’s fourth-largest city has been cultivating quite the buzz in recent years, replacing its formers mills and shipbuilding warehouses with prospering video games studios. And today, Dundee has shed its former reputation for “jute, jam, and journalism” and is courting visitors with an ambitious £1.5 billion, 30-year urban revitalization program centered around the city’s waterfront.
At the heart of this renewal project (and central to the Wall Street Journal’s interest) is the V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum and the first outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. While the V &A Dundee’s collection of design artifacts will no doubt prove to be similarly world-class, it’s the building itself that is drawing the most interest.
Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma-who was selected in an international design contest that courted some of the world’s most talented firms for the three story, 8,000 square meter building has been described as a “living room for the city;’ intended to reconnect the urban center to its river.
The building’s connection to the waterfront is very real. Early construction required the creation of a massive cofferdam-a watertight structure built around the protruding section of the building-allowing part of the museum to extend into the river, partially submerged. The final effect is breathtaking, offering up striking reflections on the water’s surface. The V &A will is no doubt destined to become one of Scotland’s most -Instagrammed sites.
A mass of curving concrete and stone, the building’s form draws its direct inspiration from Scotland’s spectacular seaside cliffs. Without a single straight external wall, the building’s impression is at once organic and nautical, calling to mind a massive stone ship. The building juts and recedes dramatically and includes a large gap in the structure’s heart, offering direct pedestrian access to the river.
The V&A Dundee is designed to invite enthusiastic exploration, attracting visitors in the same way a beautiful cliff face might: “The beauty of the cliff comes from the long, long dialogue between the earth and water;’ explains Kuma. “I wanted to translate that beauty to a contemporary building. It’s very different from a concrete box. The inclination of the faade gives a different type of experience. If is it too vertical, the vertical void rejects the people. The building should invite people to the waterfront: “In line with the project’s democratic principles, the building will feature free-toenter galleries and a large foyer space at its heart, its interiors clad in soft (and locally-sourced) wood.”
The building’s exterior required an uncommon degree of precision in its engineering. The structure’s 21 wall sections are clad with 2,500 unique rough pre-cast stone panels, each weighing up to 3000kg. 3D modeling helped ensure that their complex forms interlocked perfectly. Together, they resemble their sloping, stepped angles resemble the striations of a cliff face.
Scheduled to open in September, the V&A Dundee gamble seems to have already paid off in pre-opening buzz alone. The museum’s first major exhibition will, fittingly, re-imagine the golden age of sea travel, including the opulent designs and interiors of the world’s great ocean liners. The museum’s permanent galleries will feature Scotland’s unique contributions to design. It’s estimated that half a million visitors will flock to the museum in its first year, spurring local hotels to add beds and inciting a large-scale renovation to the town’s train station.
Destination architecture is nothing new, but Dundee’s calculated bid for civic revival through a flagship building may spark a trend among cities of a certain size. Dundee has long been associated with design—it was designated as a UNESCO City of Design in 2014—but was unlikely to top many guidebooks’ must-visit lists. If press coverage is any indication, this is set to change.
With an estimated cost of £80 million, Dundee’s investment in its new flagship attraction is a significant one. However, if early reactions to the structure are any indication, the architectural gamble will likely pay dividends.
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