New on the Block – V&A Sackler Courtyard

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The V&A’s £55m new courtyard: ‘Like a Marbella beach bar airlifted to South Ken.’

That’s the view of the Guardian!

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The V & A Aston Webb screen and entrance to the Sackler Courtyard.

I didnt think anything of the sort I thought it was actually a normal sort of British cultural thing, its a bit like the British Museum centre courtyard, a way of shouting over the rooftops without actually doing so 🙂

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In fact the Sackler Courtyard was a nice refreshing change from the remainder of the museum. Do people want another imposing front facade cloned here or what? The problem with this part of Exhibition Road is that so many design influences have been used, take the Natural History Museum, the V&A itself (including its imposing Henry Cole wing), the Science Museum and Imperial College with its new glass fronted facade, do people want more of the same or is it just that Amanda Levete’s porcelain piazza somehow stands out from everything else that’s already here?

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In my view it fits in quite well, in fact it gives the V&A a bit more fizz. The porcelain piazza is refreshing, different, and uses Aston Webb’s screen in an innovative way. What did people want? Gardens with a tacky old cafe?

“Our aim was to bring the city into the museum and take the museum out on to the street, We saw it as an urban project as much as a cultural project.” says Levete.

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They’ve certainly done that. It has echoes of the Louvre. You know, that big pyramid thing that sticks out of the ground at Paris’ most famous museum? We’ve got that oblong, not quite pyramid, thing (its actually an oculus) which sticks out of the ground, and it gels the space between Exhibition Road and the rest of the museum.

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Different views of the oculus, or skylight that stands above the Sainsbury Gallery.

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There’s a ramp at one side, and steps at the other, so its fully accessible too. That’s something that had to be considered. It was either that or some lift lobby like at Trafalgar Square, a bit ugly to look at. Amanda Levete got round that by cleverly designing this oculus into the works, which doubles as a skylight to the Sainsbury Gallery below with a nice gentle ramp down one side of the  oculus. Thus she maintains the sense of this being a square by avoiding what would have otherwise become a void in one corner.

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Appearances are deceptive. The sudden change in level doesnt look so bad from a distance. I noticed how the white’s reflectiveness (the albedo) increased on brighter days which makes the change of level harder to discern.

Despite the disability access which is required by law, there is one problem. The use of porcelain makes everything white and means the start of the ramp is not easy to see. Further there’s no protection so people could trip and fall down what is a considerable drop, possibly sustaining severe injuries. This is a bad oversight and no doubt someone may meet with a mishap sooner or later.

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A rather nasty drop if anyone were to slip down here.

This is also a problem with the steps leading down to the V&A entrance, things may not be so obvious to those with sight problems, but will be made worse when the porcelain’s albedo increases on very bright days. I do imagine that at some point the V&A will have to introduce subtle changes to both the ramp area and the steps.

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The white porcelain suffers albedo issues making it difficult to see demarcations between different levels.

One aspect of the new courtyard is it extends the enhanced public space on Exhibition Road right into the museum area itself. It now means people can traverse between three of London’s most famous museums in a safe and timely fashion (apart from the issues I have highlighted) without having to walk along busy roads. The 19th Century concept of Albertopolis, a place where one could walk everywhere in safety, is a concept that has not only been re-used but quite imaginatively too.

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View from the new Sainsbury wing to the courtyard area.

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