Material marvels: Scotland’s Finest - V&A Dundee

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2019
V&A Dundee. Credit: Hufton + Crow

V&A Dundee opened last year, celebrating the country, the local area and its rich design history. Ceri Jones takes a tour of the building.   

Scotland’s new design museum opened in September 2018, inviting the public to see creative works from the 1400s to modern day, spanning industries from textiles to technology and engineering. V&A Dundee sits on the bracing Firth of Tay, the river running from the sea into the mainland – the location is loaded with history, still bearing the signs of the city’s maritime heritage. For instance, sitting right outside the museum is the RRS Discovery, the ship that explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton rode on their first voyage to Antarctica in 1901-1904.

Back at home, Dundee was famous for jute – a coarse vegetable fibre used to make fabrics – and in days gone by the material was shipped from India to the docks, feeding a thriving textile industry. As such, for nearly 200 years Dundee was the world’s biggest jute manufacturer and its ports were bustling with trade. This, in turn, filtered into other sectors such as design and fashion, resulting in the formation of what it is today, a small creative hub – all stemmed from shipping. It’s no coincidence that the first major exhibition was the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style.

The £80m project was part of the larger £1bln scheme to reconnect people with the splendour of the waterfront. It was a project of many firsts – the first design museum in Scotland, the first non-London V&A, and the first UK project undertaken by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
Building the building

Architecture firm Kengo Kuma & Associates won the design competition in November 2010, following a public consultation, and work started on preparing the site. Although inspired by cliffs of the local landscape, the building somehow manages to evoke many aspects of the region’s history, being compared to a ship’s prow, a pair of sails, and even the angular nature of its name.  
The ship comparison is particularly apt though, as the very front curves outwards and extends over the water’s edge, as if it is almost ready to set sail. This is because the site itself was reclaimed from the river using a cofferdam, which when removed left part of the building foundations within the water. You can take a river tour on the Tay and, as I did, float right up to the building itself and almost touch it.

Hoisting and securing the stone cladding panels into place took seven months. Credit: Ross Fraser McLeanThe first stage was to set the site. ‘With the installation of the foundation, two separate cores could be built. From these cores, interior walls reaching out to the perimeter of the building – designed to support the outward leaning exterior walls – were erected,’ V&A Dundee said. ‘Next came the process of pouring the concrete exterior walls. To do this, a huge web of temporary structure was created. This was needed to form the walls, then hold up the exterior walls until the roof steelwork was complete.

‘This structure comprised of formwork, acting as a mould in which the poured concrete could dry and harden, and falsework which supported the emerging building. As further layers of concrete were poured more falsework was added, both to the lower levels of the building as the forces increased, and the higher levels as the new formwork was constructed.

‘The formwork was cut by digitally controlled machines, using information from the 3D model. A design team of 20 people worked on this temporary structure, which was manufactured in five different locations. Off-site, more than 50 joiners were involved in its fabrication, while another 30 were located on-site.’
Cladding never looked so good

Real stone cladding is a popular design choice, but in contrast with typically sleek facades, V&A Dundee has a striking staccato arrangement. The exterior has 2,429 pre-cast concrete bricks, each varying in size and length but weighing around 2t and measuring around 4m, which were attached by brackets into channels cast in the exterior. They are placed horizontally and extend outwards. They add a sense of dynamism, so as you walk around the building and through the central archway, the changes in light, direction and space produce a rippling effect of the surface.

To realise those attention-seeking angles required a huge effort on the part of the main contractor BAM Construct UK, engineer Arup and project manager Turner & Townsend. Initially proposed as a clunky 60cm-thick skeleton, digital design software helped the parties trial several options that would slim it down by half and exploit strength from reinforced steel bars and its own shape.

Imagine it as two V shapes that rise separately and intertwine at the top, to form a joined up W. This division enables a separation of public access and staff zones with a walk-through alley, while keeping intact, sweeping galleries above. Achieving the bowing curves and strength was of fundamental importance, considering that the top sections extend well beyond the base width, with the widest point reaching 19.8m further than the foundation.

Huge steel beams were used to join the exterior walls to a central core point. Also, the museum said, ‘The roof, walls and flooring all work together to make the building stable. While the twists and folds of the walls might have been seen as presenting a problem, the engineers considered how these complexities could help strengthen the building, in the same way origami relies on paper becoming more rigid when folded.’ 

From the outside, you can see the moving, ever-changing structure with windows giving a slight glimpse of the people within. And inside, the beautiful décor is interspersed with pockets of peaks at the River Tay.
Visitors can walk through the restored Oak Room by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. (Hufton + Crow)The experience

Kuma is famous for his passion for natural and traditional materials, and this can be seen throughout the museum. When visitors walk through the entrance into the foyer, they are greeted with the usual facilities, information desk and milling areas. This main hall interior has walls lined with oak veneer panel strips that echo the outside aesthetic and if you care to look down, you see that the flooring is Carlow Irish Blue limestone, with the fossils of sea creatures still visible.

Again with the detail, the ground floor café is constructed using white concrete mixed with freshwater pearl mussel shells, which have been cast and then polished to highlight the colours of the bivalves. The museum notes that these are sustainably sourced, being the waste product of the local fishing and dining industries. There’s also a bamboo-floored mezzanine serving as a picnic area for school parties in the week, but families are welcome to relax there at weekends.

Heading to the second level, where the building unites, the interior is more sumptuous with the hall and galleries all laid with European oak. Here you find the interactive spaces, including the Thomson Learning Centre, where the public can engage with designers in residence, join educational workshops, or attend seminars at the auditorium. The Michelin Design Gallery displays the works of the museum’s innovation programme.

The Tatha Bar and Kitchen restaurant also features the white concrete and mussel shell material, with floor-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor terrace to maximise views along the river.
The Scottish Design Galleries display works by local designers from many industries.Scottish Design Galleries

Oak as the material for the upper level interiors is no light decision. It references the restored Oak Room situated in the Scottish Design Galleries, being a pinnacle of design and taste – a key element of Scotland’s heritage.

The Oak Room was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1907 for the Ingram Tearooms in Glasgow. Bought, sold and updated many times since, the interior was saved from damage in 1971 when it was packed away in storage.

While the majority of furnishings have been lost, almost all of the wood panels remain, as well as some of the coloured blown glass inserts. Recovering it and displaying the tea room in its intended condition required a major joined effort to first determine the precise layout of the room before its disassembly, and then to piece it back together, while discovering the correct positioning and method on the job.

The 700 wood panels had been decorated through the years. Paint posed a problem, but also a solution, as it made it easier to understand how the sullied panels fitted together, and the museum said, a 1950s light switch helped to reveal the original oak colour. Following analysis of the wood and its composition, what’s thought to be the true dark-stained warm colour was recreated and applied.  

The main hall was designed to make the museum a public destination, offering spaces for people to relax and socialise. (Hufton + Crow)The Oak Room included glass inserts for warmth and character, of which 80% have been recovered so the remaining ones had to be replicated. To do this, the Rainbow Glass Studio in Prestwick studied the composition of the glass inserts, which were mouth-blown and had used gold to get the desired colour hue. These and the leaded glass from the one remaining light fitting helped a team produce replicas that simulated Mackintosh’s choice of lighting, including its quality, tone and placement within the room.

Using black and white photographs of the room, drawings and an instructional schematic from the disassembly, it has been fully restored. Visitors can experience the warmth and elegance of the room, and appreciate not only the craftsmanship, but the effect of the spatial and colour choices that elevate standard materials to pleasing, timeless designs.

The project was governed by Design Dundee Limited charity, a partnership between Dundee City Council, the University of Dundee, Abertay University, Scottish Enterprise and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. More information about funding and governance can be found on the website: