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July 13, 2012 7:47 pm
On a rare sunny day in South Kensington, the director’s office of the Victoria and Albert museum is generating its own reasons to be cheerful. Martin Roth, 10 months into one of the most prestigious cultural jobs on the planet, has had some good news: the previous night, planning permission was granted for the next stage of the museum’s overhaul, which began at the turn of the millennium.
The next phase of “FuturePlan” will see the creation of a new underground gallery and of a new courtyard space and entrance from the recently redesigned Exhibition Road, on the museum’s west side. Roth is relieved and visibly cheered by the news. He surely wasn’t expecting any unpleasant surprises, I ask? “There was a debate about it. A lot of tension.”
The most controversial part of the plan was the revision of the famous 1909 screen by architect Sir Aston Webb, originally devised to hide a boiler house yard and pock-marked by bomb damage. But the museum planners won the argument. “Webb’s original idea was to have a much more open space,” says Roth. “We can’t exactly say that we are returning to his original idea, but it is closer to it than what there is right now.”
In any case, he welcomes the heat generated by his antagonists during the discussions. “They are our neighbours. And I don’t think of them as difficult – they are just engaged. The process would be even more difficult if people were not interested.” There were some rude comments about a surfeit of coffee shops in the museum. “It seems there are too many lattes in the city,” he notes drily.
These are fast-changing times for the V&A. The museum has raised £120m over the past decade to transform its galleries, resulting in a three-fold rise in visitors. Now it has already raised £25m out of the £41m needed for the next phase. How has Roth found it, plunging into such rapid change?
“It’s a boring answer,” he says, “but if you take over a new institution, it’s always the same. The spirit of an institution, the excitement, the aura – that comes later. My business is running it. It’s about decision-making structures, reporting lines, financial issues. That’s the core business. My colleagues have made it very easy for me to cope with it.”
Lest that sound overly technocratic, a quick glimpse around Roth’s office reveals an instant feel for his eclectic new surroundings. There are objects all around that reflect current or future exhibitions: a metallic Thomas Heatherwick bench that looks like an inflated car bumper; contemporary photographs from the Middle East; a rare picture sleeve copy of The Sex Pistols’ single “Who Killed Bambi?” (“just because I like it,” says Roth).
Most prominent of all is a poster from the landmark 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, boldly proclaiming: “This is Tomorrow”. It is a combination of mission statement and aide-memoire. “We should do more about tomorrow,” says Roth. “Not forgetting the past but thinking about future strategies, and looking at what is on the market right now. I think there is a tendency at the V&A, when there is a new object around, they look at it for quite a while, and then finally they decide to bring it in, and then it goes into storage where it exists for 30 years, until someone has the idea of bringing it back. Why not do it immediately?”
To reflect that sense of urgency, Roth is establishing a new department at the museum, devoted to architecture, product design and the digital world. All three are core concerns of the museum, he says, and he points to three small model ships on a window-sill. “It is not because I sit here playing with them. They are produced by printers: 3D printers. Sooner or later we will print out our own products. What will that mean? In remote areas, for example?”
Roth, 57, born in Stuttgart, arrived at the V&A after 10 years as director-general of the Dresden State Art Collections, overseeing 12 museums and galleries. He says he was called by a firm of headhunters about the job and he gave them three names. “They said, ‘But we want to talk to you,’” he says. “And I said, ‘But I am German.’ They said that was fine, and then I said, ‘I have to talk to my wife.’ She grew up in London. And here I am.”
His new job, he says, requires experience, balance and patience, “to deal with the small catastrophes and the amazing amount of great ideas. If there is a good idea around, it comes to the V&A.” That sounds exciting, I say. “It is like jumping on a bullet train.” He confesses that after introducing Annie Lennox to sing at the opening of the museum’s show on postmodernism, he felt tears well up in his eyes. “It was an emotional moment. London is the city that changed the world in terms of fashion and style and music.”
The planning process for the V&A’s refurbishment has, I point out, proceeded smoothly compared with the drama that surrounded the proposal (and eventual cancellation) of its “Spiral” project, which envisioned the opening of an aggressively modern Daniel Libeskind extension. While avoiding comment on that particular episode, he broadens the theme: “If you look at museum buildings in the 1990s, they were concerned with showcasing the fact that they were contemporary. It was a lot to do with the end of the cold war and China opening up – they were asking, ‘What is our new identity, and what are we doing?’”
And they are more sensitive now? “We are much more concerned with history, reconstruction, what does it mean to bring new and old together? It is about having a feeling for the past and how we translate that for the future. We have learnt a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.”
He lauds the idea of a more organic relationship between the museum and its surroundings that was behind the concept of the “Albertopolis” master plan devised by Prince Albert in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. “The notion of Albertopolis is a bit strange but I love it, it is one of the best ideas ever for a city. [The Great Exhibition] was the first world fair. The reason we are both sitting here today is because they invented it. It’s like putting a brain in the middle of the city and it’s working, working away.”
Swapping biological similes, he says that the new-look Exhibition Road will be like a “spine”, and he draws a rudimentary nervous system on a piece of paper, showing the connections between the Serpentine Gallery to the north, the V&A at the south, and various cultural vertebrae in between. “This is a long-term master plan development. I have always tried to persuade politicians that we have to talk about the next 20 years, not two.”
Roth’s idealistic belief that culture can help foster international understanding was tested when he helped to devise an exhibition on “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which opened China’s new National Museum on, of all places, Tiananmen Square. He was heavily criticised in the German press for the juxtaposition: was it right to celebrate a concept that epitomised the hard-won freedoms of European society in a place that had so recently witnessed mass slaughter?
He says he didn’t expect the criticism, but would not have done anything differently. “I learned a lot. I was on a train reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and on the left side there was this article on the difficulties of this show and how we have to close it, and on the right was another article on the car show in Shanghai and how BMW had had the best numbers ever. It was ... ” He is silent for a moment and pulls a melancholy face. Hypocrisy? “Exactly. But I didn’t want to use that word.”
As for China, “I don’t know if they need enlightenment, but they need the discussion about the Enlightenment. It sounds brutal but it is dealing with the world now. And that is not only about trade and commerce, it is about philosophy and ideas. As [Jürgen] Habermas says, the Enlightenment is not a philosophy, it is an ongoing project.”
So is the V&A going to become more of a player on the global arts scene? “This is South Kensington. The V&A was made for South Kensington. We have a nice neighbourhood. In September a lady came in, she was 84 or 85, and said to me, ‘You are my fifth or sixth director. I just wanted to know who you are.’ She said she had been here every Sunday morning for 80 years. It is one of those moments you never forget. Fine to be a global player, but you have to be rooted somewhere. This is a great museum for a great city. Full stop.”
Architecture at the V&A: New twists to an Edwardian cabinet of curiosities
The V&A’s £41m courtyard design by Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) is a new phase in the museum’s decade-long remodelling, writes Edwin Heathcote. It is also the next logical step in the rejuvenation of Exhibition Road, reopened this year as a “shared space” in which cars and pedestrians (theoretically at least) co-exist. Despite being home to London’s free-to-all museum quarter, the street has remained remarkably dull until now.
A decade ago, this site looked destined to host Daniel Libeskind’s metal-clad £100m “Spiral”, which was abandoned in 2004 after incurring the wrath of well-heeled local residents.
Amanda Levete suggests that the age of the icon is over but says the site and the time do “feel right for an iconic public space”.
The new design will see the screen to Exhibition Road made permeable as another entrance to the institution. It envisages the new courtyard as an urban carpet, its blue tessellated surface defining a space in between streetscape and museum that, through a series of steps twists, also reveals a dramatic new exhibition space below.
The Victorian/ Edwardian institution has been busy enlisting contemporary architects in its makeover. Eva Jiricna designed minimal glass entrance doors; MUMA created its new huge Medieval & Renaissance Galleries; the John Madejski Garden opened up the heart of the building, and the Sackler Education Centre transformed the back-of-house public spaces. Most recently, the Ceramics Galleries have received the minimalist treatment, creating a new twist on the traditional cabinet of curiosities, while 6a’s subtle remodelling of the fashion galleries allows the gowns to sparkle. Next up will be the furniture collection – due to reopen, revivified (and they need it) later this year.
The V&A is the prototype for every decorative arts museum, but until recently its contents have been of more note than its architecture. Its main building was designed by Aston Webb in 1891, although not opened until 1906. Webb had a talent for making the large look lumpy, while never quite achieving grandeur, as he showed at Buckingham Palace, whose main facade he redesigned in 1913. Thus the V&A’s stolid structure belies the richness and variety of its wonderfully and increasingly diverse interiors. The new courtyard will open it up to the street and the public realm and become, Levete hopes, “London’s drawing room”.
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