Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect of V&A Dundee

Jam, Jute, journalism, Japanese design

There is a lot more to see and enjoy in Dundee than London reviewers suggested

On Architecture

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Many years ago, I was invited to be on the jury to choose an architect to design the museum in Wakefield which became Hepworth Wakefield. From what I remember of this process, we were confronted by a vast number of proposals by architectural practices from all over the world (designing a new museum from scratch is what every architect wants to do).

By the time the jury arrived, entries had already been sifted into categories of those we were encouraged to pay close attention to and those we could ignore. Being naturally contrary, I started looking through the rejects.

I came across some pictures of a long, low museum in a rural part of northern Japan constructed entirely of wood. I showed it to Edward Jones, also on the jury, and we decided that there was something interesting about it — it was so pure and austere in the way that it was designed. We invited the architect to interview.

He was called Kengo Kuma. At the time, neither of us had heard of him, although he was already reasonably well established in Japan, trained at the University of Tokyo and then at Columbia University in New York, before setting up in practice, designing small-scale projects, mostly in his early days in rural areas outside Tokyo.

He arrived at the interview from an overnight flight and made a presentation totally different in style and character from his original submission. The commission went to David Chipperfield.

Some years later, I was invited by the Japan Foundation to visit Japan and, inspired by the image of Kuma’s rural museum, I said that I would be interested in visiting museums outside Tokyo. I wrote to Kengo Kuma asking for suggestions as to what to see. He suggested only buildings that he had designed.

So, we spent three weeks visiting the then complete works of Kengo Kuma, including his Stone Museum and the Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum, the building which had originally attracted my attention.

As a result of this experience, I regard myself as something of an expert on his architecture, but until recently I had never seen by far his best-known work in this country, the V&A Dundee, designed as a result of an international competition held in 2010 and opened in 2018. Before Christmas, I booked myself on an overnight trip.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The V&A Dundee had a mixed reception on its opening, maybe because the so-called “Bilbao effect”, whereby cities have tried to regenerate themselves through big, ostentatious landmark buildings, has been going out of fashion; or because Kengo Kuma doesn’t have a fan club amongst the architectural critics in the UK; or because it was known to have cost nearly double its original estimate (not that cost increases are unusual amongst big lottery projects).

V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum in Dundee, Scotland

I was much more impressed than I had expected, partly because the building is smaller and less aggressive, much more small-scale and sculptural, than it appears in photographs (architectural photography is such a treacherous medium).

Its surface is modelled on a photograph of the cliffs of Noup Head in Orkney, and this gives its slatted and curvilinear exterior shell an interesting complexity, like a monumental armadillo or the remains of a forgotten Viking ship — elaborately chunky, constantly changing in the light, split into two separate segments with a route through to the Tay estuary between.

Then, equally surprisingly, the inside is much grander and more spacious than I had imagined from the descriptions I read beforehand. There is a big ground floor foyer, admirably generous, containing a shop, but also, at the moment, a small exhibition about the design of the building.

A formal staircase leads visitors up and round to an exhibition gallery, the biggest in Scotland, which, when I visited, was showing a wonderful exhibition about the history of tartan. There are the so-called Scottish Design Galleries, beautifully displayed, with exhibition cases designed by ZMMA architects, who were responsible for the European galleries 1600–1815 at the V&A. These galleries contain Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room, saved from Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tearooms. Each section of the original is marked up as when it was originally dismantled. It brought tears to the eyes of Kengo Kuma, who, like many Japanese, is keen on Mackintosh as well as golf.

In other words, there is a lot more to see and enjoy than I had been led to expect by the London reviewers who had managed to suggest that it was not much more than an over-ambitious symbol of a once-great city on a voyage of cultural reinvention.

Indeed, if one is looking for a model of the Bilbao effect, then one could probably do worse than examine the trajectory of Dundee which, through its university and city council, has made a consistently determined effort to replace its economy, traditionally dependent on jute, jam and journalism with new cultural industries, including tourism, leisure and video games.

And at £80.1 million, the V&A Dundee doesn’t seem so expensive if you compare it to Amanda Levete’s Sackler Courtyard at the V&A (£54.5 million), the renovations of the Sainsbury Wing by Annabelle Selldorf, currently expected to cost £95 million, or the £260 million spent on the Blavatnik Building at Tate Modern.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover