Cities from Baltimore to Bilbao have discovered how culture and iconic architecture can be at the heart of urban renewal. Perhaps no other city in Scotland has need of renewal more than Dundee. In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel trilogy Sunset Song the grim and grimy Dundon was based partly on Dundee. Famously, its jam (the Keiller marmalade factory), jute and journalism (the once staunchly anti-trade union publishing empire of DC Thomson, the people who brought you the Beano) helped make the city. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, it was in desperate need of reinvention.
The city was never one of the UK’s bonniest. Blighted with bad housing and poverty, its waterfront was once long dominated by a dilapidated swimming pool. Now it’s been demolished and a brand-new V&A has taken shape, an outcrop of the famed London museum dedicated to art, design and decorative arts. Much is riding on V&A Dundee to renew the city’s fortunes, if not its psyche as a whole.
Approaching Dundee by train across the Tay Bridge you’d be forgiven for expecting to see a giant behemoth dominating the city’s otherwise uninspiring skyline. But this is not Bilbao, though judging by the hype (on press day the TV crews jostle like dodgems while Primal Scream are doing the opening fanfare concert) the building should be an enormous presence. It’s not… until you get up close (and inside). Its dramatic ziggurat design – inspired by Scottish cliffs and shipbuilding both – juts into the river. In case you are in any doubt the tall-masted Discovery, fluttering with nautical bunting, is berthed right next door.
Inside the new V&A, the ship-like theme is echoed. There is a vast and vertiginous hall of wooden slats and a wide black staircase leading up to the gallery spaces and cafe. A low-level window reveals a tantalizing glimpse of the shining Tay.
The London V&A was founded in 1852 and is now renowned for its “ace cafe”, gift shop full of gorgeous things and its stonking, blockbuster exhibitions like David Bowie Is and Hollywood Costume. Dundee opens with Ocean Liners: Speed and Style which was in London last spring and which takes an overview of British shipbuilding in the 20th century (an industry where Scotland led the way). Spectacularly and theatrically mounted, the exhibition covers everything from engines to crockery, bathing suits to the Duke of Windsor’s matching luggage, a suit from Marlene Dietrich and a 1985 poster advertising the trip of lifetime on the QE2 across the Atlantic and taking Concorde back from only £995. Bargain! There is even a ship’s menu card (chicken or beef?) for pampered dogs and a deckchair from the Titanic (who rearranged that?)
The opening exhibition is a hearty tribute to the age of the grand dames of the sea. Scotland has a proud tradition (now long eclipsed, alas) of shipbuilding. The exhibition is fantastic and larger than the original.
The permanent gallery is half the size of the main space (550m²) and offers a round robin of Scottish design that encompasses Dennis the Menace, an example of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s Widows of Culloden collection, Fair Isle, lino, a pop-up set of John Byrne’s 7:84 theatre’s pioneering The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil from 1973, the Falkirk Wheel, Maggie’s Centre, the snap40 hospital monitor and Hunter wellies. Other attractions include the work of Scottish costume designer Trisha Biggar whose gown from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is intricately embroidered with Paisley patterns. Worn by Natalie Portman’s character Padmé Amidala, it features an ornate copper plated headdress and burgundy silk coat. Biggar, from Glasgow, was involved in the design of everything from Jedi robes to CGI clothing for characters such as Jar Jar Binks.
“Everything for every planet and culture was being created anew,” she says. “We used references and drew on a multitude of influences from all over the world… mixing them up to shape new fashions. By reinterpreting ideas and drawing on history the audience would – albeit subliminally – recognize and identify with the myriad of Star Wars styles.” The Star Wars gown is being loaned to V&A Dundee for six months from the long-awaited Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, currently under construction in Los Angeles.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is well represented with his Oak Room from Miss Cranston’s art nouveau Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow taking pride of place. Not seen for 50 years it has been meticulously restored. It was designed prior to the Glasgow School of Art and is a plangent reminder of the recently-lost school’s library with which it bears many similarities.
All this is a timely reminder of the nation’s pre-eminence with absolutely no room for the “Scottish Cringe”. V&A Dundee is Scotland’s first design museum, an international centre for design and a place of inspiration, discovery and learning. Alongside a programme of events, lectures and changing exhibitions, the museum will showcase the talent, inventiveness and entrepreneurship of Scottish design past and present.
V&A Dundee can’t possibly be compared to its mothership, that Kensington warehouse of wonders, and after being hyped to the rafters there may be a tiny feeling of anti-climax. That said, it’s a stupendously exciting building – created by celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma – outside and in, a very welcome addition to Scotland’s rich and diverse architectural heritage.
Is the £80m of mostly public money that’s been spent on the project worthwhile? There is much riding on this new venture, and a new railway station/hotel and nearby office/luxury apartments complex bear witness to the hopes that the presence of the V&A brand will revitalize Dundee. Some 9,000 new jobs have been promised. It remains to be seen whether this will come to pass and how quickly signs of economic revival might take, but the opening signs are positive.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style runs until Sun 24 Feb 2019