What the V&A can show us
It must have been about eight years ago, I think, when the husband and I wandered into the airy confines of Abertay University to take a dekko at the shortlisted designs for the proposed V&A Dundee. It was a fascinating experience, especially for the kind of person (me, I speak for myself alone) who lacks the visualisation skills necessary to see beyond a prototype to a finished and thoroughly three-dimensional masterwork.
Kengo Kuma’s proposal was, I will admit, my second choice (I can’t even recall what the first one was) but it was Himself’s first option. He being a Dundonian born and bred and a man who, over many years, has championed and defended his home town against a great deal of smug and sneering (and, usually, seriously uninformed) criticism, I bowed to his superior knowledge and foresight. It’s pretty obvious now that he (and the other interested parties, with a bit more vision than yours truly, who cast their votes) picked a winner.
Now that it’s there, finished and about to open its doors to the waiting world (and if the coverage and international interest in the run-up to this weekend is anything to go by, the world is indeed holding its breath) I can’t, I have to say, imagine anything looking better or more striking. Whether it’s likened to the prow of a ship pushing out into the great tidal river or the cliff formations at Arbroath or is just a tribute to the imagination of a man who saw certain inalienable and yet ever-changing geographical features and did them justice in a design very much geared to a location, it doesn’t really matter. It’s specific to its site; and its site is, quite specifically, one of the most amazing riverside outlooks in the world.
Having been wowed, in the range of wonderful weather conditions and light effects that we have enjoyed this summer, by the look and the location of this stunning new building as it emerged from its foundations and reflected itself in the waters beneath, I thoroughly envy those who will be able to be inside it and see inside it this weekend. And like many others, a huge number of them from furth of this city and this country, I am looking forward with anticipation to seeing it for the first time for myself and discovering what it says about us all, past and present, here and now and into the future. And, of course, the waterfront project continues. Already, a major design festival is being mooted for 2022. Nothing is every truly completed. Nothing ever stands absolutely still for long.
Yes, it cost more and took longer. I always remember my late father saying, when I bought my first flat and was eagerly planning what to do with it: “Remember, Nell, it will take longer and cost more.” And it did.
Scale that up more than somewhat and you’ve got the V&A. It is further inland than was planned – for sound and very understandable financial reasons. I can’t say the office/block/ hotel/whatever over the road towards town fills me with belief in every element of aesthetic judgment made during this long (and continuing) process of regeneration. Even rock legend Chrissie Hynde, never at the back of the queue when attitude was being given out, has put in her fourpence-worth after playing in Dundee last week, which she is perfectly entitled to do.
And there are, of course, social problems of poverty, addiction and deprivation in the city which many would like to see more directly addressed and solved, or even just tackled on a daily basis, believing that the V&A detracts from that and distracts attention from the difficulties and harsh realities of everyday living in a 21st Century urban environment that is a product of both its history and of its current context.
You could see it as a money pit. But it’s also the practical and very visible symbol of huge opportunity. It’s vital that we all use what it gives us, whether in cash money into the local economy, or in recognition within the city and outside it that there is much more to celebrate here or in the realisation that spreading confidence and prosperity across the city, across boundaries, is something that must be central to public life.
Well, while it’s impressive, iconic (overused though that word is) and inspirational, it’s not the answer to life. It doesn’t aspire to be. But the point of good design is that, even if it doesn’t actually change your life, it can change the way you live. And the very creation of this design hub in this part of Scotland answers a lot of questions about the city’s mood, its outlook and its aspirations. For the future, and in that context, we would all be the poorer if this place and the project of which it forms the centrepiece didn’t exist.
There’s always been more to Dundee than the well-worn, simplistic, easilytrotted out mantra of jute, jam and journalism. And there is much, much more to Dundee than the V&A. But the V&A might just help many, many more people to discover that for themselves.
V&A Dundee provides an opportunity to improve the city in many ways.