Kengo Kuma is known for structural designs that achieve harmony with nature. The Japanese architect’s trademark organic style is expressed in projects large and small, from the Portland Japanese Garden expansion to the underway National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and has made him the perfect collaborator for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first satellite institution on the waterfront in Dundee, Scotland, which aimed to reconnect the city center with the River Tay. Kuma’s winning design required the museum to be built out over and into the water; its prow evokes the city’s shipbuilding heritage.
Inspired by the country’s awesome granite cliffs, Kuma’s design required a temporary cofferdam made from more than 12,500 tons of stone to reclaim part of the river bed. As intricate as an origami paper cut but realized in 2,429 pre-cast concrete panels, the building consists of two intersecting and inverted pyramids which separate at ground level and then twist to reconnect at the upper galleries floor. This creates an open archway through the heart of the museum that Kuma likens to the tori gates of Japanese temples, providing shelter and inviting people to come inside.
Kuma’s desire to create a “living room for the city” is realized inside with the restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room, a teahouse built in 1909 in Glasgow for the prolific Miss Cranston, which was demolished in 1970 and kept in more than 600 pieces in the Glasgow City Council offices. There are studios, as well as a restaurant overlooking Scott and Shackleton’s ship Discovery from their expedition to the Antarctic moored alongside a terrace and galleries.
Opening the museum’s temporary exhibition hall is “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” which was transplanted from the V&A in London. The show celebrates the age of liners crossing the Atlantic in the early 20th century as well as shipbuilding on the Clyde when Scottish shipyards built one-fifth of the world’s ships. Wreckage from the Titanic, which sank in 1912, includes one of four surviving deck chairs and a piece of paneling from the first-class lounge to which Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet clung in James Cameron’s 1987 film Titanic.
The permanent exhibition on Scottish design celebrates the nation’s inventiveness in many fields, from fashion and costume design to engineering. On display: models wearing Vivienne Westwood’s mannish suit in Harris Tweed and Christopher Kane’s erotic ‘Love’ lace gown. Alexander McQueen’s last show is screened beside the story of the shawl woven in paisley, its famous mango pip emblem borrowed in the 19th century from Kashmiri shawls. Furniture features the historic Scottish Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, with beaten-bronze mirrors, pewter fireplace surrounds, and ladder-backed chairs in small room sets. Still sold today, and made in the Orkney Isles, the curvaceous high-backed Orkney chair woven in cane and rushes stands alone.
With the resources of the V&A to draw upon, the sister institution promises to be a consummate cultural success. The V&A Dundee anticipates 500,000 visitors in its first year, then 350,000 annually after that. The influx of tourism dollars is expected to help regenerate the waterfront area. Already the Dundonians refer to their new museum as the “V and Tay.”
You interpreted in a very dramatic way the competition brief to use Scotland’s first design museum to reconnect the city center with the river Tay. What was your inspiration?
“I have visited Scotland many times and I’m truly in love with the Scottish landscape and nature. This building is sitting between nature and the city. When we began thinking about the project, one of my colleagues showed me a picture of the cliffs of northeastern Scotland. I attempted to translate the geographical uniqueness into the building by creating an artificial cliff with patterns of shadows that change with the weather and the time of day.”
The museum, which houses world-class collections, is in a precarious position on the waterfront. How do you protect the contents?
“Usually I work with wood and louvered light, but the very hard climate on-site, vulnerable to seawater and wind, meant we had to use a more durable material with a special texture. We clad the building with horizontal lines of pre-cast concrete running around curving walls. And we controlled apertures, both entrances and windows, without losing the view. We twisted the building to protect it from the wind, so [its shape] is not against the wind but respects the flow of the tides and the wind.”
How does the building reflect Dundee’s maritime history?
“Before submitting our design we studied the city’s history. The Discovery anchored nearby—which sailed to Antarctica in 1904 with Shackleton and Scott—and the jute trade to Asia made us aware that it was a place that looked outward to exchange ideas. There was a sense of adventure. The 20th-century warehouses on the waterfront blocked that vision so our main resolution with the new design was to reconnect Dundee to the water. The facade shows the relationship between nature and the city by reflecting the two main axes of the city—Union Street and Discovery—and then to coordinate them in a spiraling motion.”
You refer to your design as a living room for the city. What role does Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s restored tearoom, unseen for 50 years, play in that description?
“In part, the living room is a nod to the Macintosh. I first saw Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art when I was a student. I recognized the quality, the sensitivity existing in his design and well as the relationship with Japanese aesthetics. The restoration has in some ways the same details as my interiors in wood, and light, the same quality of workmanship and materials and detailing as Mackintosh. It’s an example of that kind of exchange between East and West.”
How prevalent are Japanese influences in the design?
“I have used references to Japanese buildings if they have a function here. The idea of that archway gate that splits the museum in two is inspired by the architecture of the Japanese shrine which always has that tori gate. In both, they have the same important function, the gate draws people to the building. These portals in temples are important for us. The cantilevered section offers a welcoming space beneath to give comfort and shelter to people.
“And light and shade, especially for the striations of the facade. Shadows are a very important part of architectural design. I found Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows,” written in the 1930s, very influential in my work. Le Corbusier saw the importance of light just as Tanazaki found the beauty of shadows because it adds calmness and quietness to a building—hence the gaps, the striations in the concrete.”
Was sustainability a focus?
“The heating is helped by 100 geothermal boreholes situated below ground to one side, not beneath the building. Sourcing the energy is a pump on the roof. All the spaces are naturally ventilated, which is uncommon in museums. But it’s not only about sustainability but also well-being. You feel better. Ceiling sun pipes in the main hall beam natural light. There are six skylights in light-sensitive regions and some windows in every gallery have these panels so, depending on the exhibition, the curator chooses to change the environment of the gallery.”
What references form the foundation of your style, which is often described as organic and natural?
“I often reference biology. The 1960s movement called Metabolism referenced the human body in terms of structure and function related to Modernism. I don’t want structure to be cell and flow, bone and organ. Instead we use the word particle. It’s a different language and different philosophy to bring to a building purpose, circulation, clarity.”
The plan for Dundee’s V&A projects 500,000 visitors in the first year and 350,000 annually after that. Do you see a kinship between the museum and institutions such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao—a cultural showpiece that spurs a regenerative effect for a city?
“Bilbao is different from Dundee. The Guggenheim is a big shining monument. With this project we had to draw people to the river and reconnect nature with the city. Both the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the V&A in Dundee are big cultural projects but the approach to the site is very different.
“It’s also an appreciation of the way 21st-century museums have changed from those huge, white-walled vertical cubes. No longer repositories of collections, museums are vibrant places for people to enjoy, socialize, and be informed. In the 20th century, architects wanted to build higher and higher. Today, horizontality is important and [is] a feature of many of my designs. The total volume is not small but it is very different from being a monumental building.”