Museum extension ... ... spirals into controversy

The Victoria and Albert Museum is vigorously for it. But Mrs. Ethne Rudd is totally against it.

"It" is "the spiral."

The spiral is a proposed new extension to the V&A, Britain's major 19th-century decorative arts museum. Mrs. Rudd, secretary of the Kensington Society, calls it "inappropriate."

The spiral is an highly original design by Daniel Libeskind whose Jewish Museum extension to the Berlin Museum has recently brought him into great prominence.

Still at the stage of models and plans, the spiral will likely bring Mr. Libeskind additional fame - or notoriety - when built in the new millennium.

This building is not deferential to history. It makes little attempt to accommodate itself visually to its setting.

But it is what the V&A has been campaigning for since 1996, when Libeskind won an international competition for the project against a formidable array of big-name architects.

On the surface, the spiral seems a radical departure from the Victorian and Edwardian architecture of the complex mini-city the museum is. Such architectural "rudeness" is not often permitted in today's conservation-conscious Britain.

So it was to the astonishment of many and to the shock of the local residential societies in the Boroughs of Kensington, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge where the V&A resides, that the extension has now been granted official Planning Permission. This partly resulted from exhaustive public relations by the V&A.

"I don't think anyone really thought they would pass it," says Mrs. Rudd. "In retrospect I think more effort should have been made to oppose it."

"I do actually like modern things," she says. "My husband used to collect modern pictures. And we know quite a lot of architects. So we are not really the average anti-modernists. But the position of this glass box is inappropriate."

Retired career diplomat and company director Sir Ronald Arculus, also a council member of the Kensington Society, is more scathing: He considers "this horror" to be far more suited to "a vacant lot on the South Bank."

He accuses Libeskind and the V&A's director Alan Borg of indulging in an "ego-trip." He points out that the building is a "fill-in job" and as such "totally unsuitable." It is to be built on the last available space on the site (where the boiler house is housed) but will open prominently and directly onto Exhibition Road, a wide straight thoroughfare on one side of the V&A.

"It hasn't got a straight line in it anywhere," Sir Ronald complains. "It's all angles. It doesn't conform to the lines of any of the existing buildings at all."

He points to two other London buildings, both museum extensions, and both "fill-ins" that are in postmodernist vein: American architect Robert Venturi's National Gallery wing on Trafalgar Square and James Stirling's addition at the Tate Gallery, housing the Turner Collection.

These "do not," he says, "imitate what's there, but they don't outrage what's there either. They fit in, but you can tell they are modern. And they are modern inside."

Intriguingly, one organization that chose not to oppose the V&A Spiral was The Victorian Society. Richard Holder, senior architectural adviser to the society, says "we found the proposal sufficiently interesting not to oppose it." (Though they did question some details.)

He points out that museums today "have moved slightly from the scholastic to entertainment" (which this striking new building clearly represents).

So what do the architect and his client have to say in defense of their project?

Gwyn Miles, the V&A's head of major projects, says: "Daniel actually filled the brief better than any other architect. The British architects [in the competition] were all quite obviously thinking, 'We'll not be allowed to do anything too major.' "

This is a measure of the climate for architecture in Britain. Architects have almost come to accept that the country is like an old museum, unwilling to be disturbed.

"But," says Ms. Miles, "we actually wanted a very visible building that was saying: 'We're interesting, come in and look at us.' "

Libeskind calls his building "unashamedly contemporary. I'm not trying to pretend it's another time, another era," he says. "The Spiral is not monocentric. It opens along different trajectories. It opens the museum to different views, and to different spaces. These are not just gallery spaces, but cafes, restaurants, and public spaces for gathering and education. The public has access to the entire building."

The building is not a conventional spiral, he says. "It unfolds because of a geometry that is virtually endless. You could continue it on and on. 'Spiral' is more an emblematic word."

But it is definitely not like the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, widening at the bottom. If anything, this new Spiral seems to grow as it climbs and arches over, giving views of the museum complex below. This fulfills one objective: to orient visitors, giving them some overall concept of the V&A's layout.

He insists his building forges "a connection between the dynamic and the meditative. Actually the internal spaces are very calm. I didn't form these shapes arbitrarily. They were molded to make connections between static objects that are monuments of history and art, and interactive spaces where people can watch videos, laser shows, movies...."

One thing is sure. Whatever the opposition, the spiral is hardly a building people will refuse to visit. It is bound to stimulate great curiosity.

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