What the V&A can show us

The Courier & Advertiser (Dundee Edition) - - NEWS - He­len Brown

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.

Pic­ture: Alan Richard­son.

V&A Dundee pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to im­prove the city in many ways.

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