John McLellan: I've seen inside Dundee's V&A - and it looks incredible

The main hall of the Dundee V&A is like the set of a sci-fi blockbuster and the gallery is an exhibit itself, writes John McLellan.
The V&As jagged exterior has already become nearly as iconic for Dundee as Oor Wullie  and his palsThe V&As jagged exterior has already become nearly as iconic for Dundee as Oor Wullie  and his pals
The V&As jagged exterior has already become nearly as iconic for Dundee as Oor Wullie and his pals

Bathed in sunlight, the oak veneer slats cascading down the 45 degree slopes are just begging to be slid down. Welcome to Scotland’s new playground of design, the Dundee V&A.

The jagged exterior climbing out of the dockside has already become the symbol of the Tayside resurrection, a motif of Dundee’s determination not to roll over and accept the diagnosis of terminal decay, and instead invest in a new vision of the future led by a celebration of creativity. Independence City is becoming Confidence City.

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While the exterior has become almost as well-known as Oor Wullie and Desperate Dan, the interior has been a closely guarded secret and is still being fitted out in advance of its 15 September opening. On a sneak preview tour this week, the instructions are clear; no photographs of the inside to preserve the grand reveal on opening night and, on entering, it’s not difficult to see why. A building whose gravity-defying, thrusting angles on the outside must have the same reflexes inside and so it proves, the main difference being that Japanese architect Kengo Kuma wisely abandoned the idea of replicating the cast-stone exterior in favour of warmer wood panelling.

With not a straight line to be found, construction experts would not be surprised the bill shot up from £45m to £81m, and leaked reports say it needs more to get over the finishing line, but gallery’s director Philip Long’s enthusiasm for the project he has led since 2011 is undimmed.

For a man of control and poise, it would be unfair to describe him as drooling with excitement as he extolls the virtues of its light and space, the merging of land and water, the drama of its engineering challenges, but his boyish wonderment is understandably infectious.

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The café boasts spectacular views back up the estuary, the expansive main exhibition spaces feel airy without being overpowering and the main hall is like the set for the finale of a sci-fi blockbuster, the protagonists battling it out with light sabres on the grand staircase. The gallery is itself an exhibit.

Its promise of showcasing Scotland’s contribution to the world of design both past and present is one thing (the estimated wider economic impact for Dundee is £11.5 million a year), but just as important is the impact the museum is already having on perceptions of the city and the impetus it has given to the overall £1 billion waterfront regeneration and its welcoming new parkland.

If there is a downside it’s that it shows up much of what surrounds it. The dockland heavy-lifting towers, on which Forth Ports spent £10m two years ago don’t contrast well, although the city was hardly in a position to turn down the investment.

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The new railway hotel curving around and above the new station entrance looks positively Milton Keynes and the Discovery Centre next door more like a garden centre than a museum, but if a rising tide floats all boats then the design inspiration should spread as more projects spring up, as has happened in Bilbao since the Guggenheim was built.

If one new building has given Dundonians a new sense of aspiration and civic pride, it’s in marked contrast to the impact the plethora of new buildings in Edinburgh have made. The National Museum of Scotland was probably the last time a new building matched up unanimous critical acclaim with public affection and that was 20 years ago, while the Scottish Parliament, every bit as innovative as the V&A, is widely loathed.

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Since then, there has been a procession of projects all said to be imaginative and innovative by their promoters and all met with suspicion and scepticism: New Waverley, Haymarket, St James, the Royal High, the Ross Bandstand and the next is the Impact concert hall on St Andrew’s Square. All used top architects, all ripped to bits.

The obvious issue is context. Siting anything like the V&A in or around Edinburgh city centre would cause uproar, but put it on the sea front in Granton and it might have a similar effect as it’s having in Dundee. The good news is that the National Museum, the National Gallery and the city council all have plans for Granton, so maybe Edinburgh council might benefit from a conversation with Philip Long, Edinburgh-born and a National Galleries veteran, and Kengo Kuma about how Edinburgh can create its own V&A on the Forth. As long as it doesn’t involve a gasometer.

Helping those with no home...

Among the many decisions taken during Thursday’s marathon Edinburgh council housing and economy committee meeting was the unanimous approval of the Rapid Access Accommodation plan for rough sleepers. It’s not often I have cause to grumble about headlines in the Edinburgh Evening News, but badging the initiative as the council encouraging rough sleepers to beg was pushing it a bit. The report recognised that curfews often made it difficult for those who beg to access accommodation, and that the reason most people beg is because they don’t have the right support to access their benefit entitlements. So if they can’t get into accommodation, they can’t get support and they continue to beg.

Making it easier for street beggars to access accommodation and 24-hour help is the first step to removing the need to beg, so far from an encouragement it’s a means to make it unnecessary.

... Hurting those with several

At the other end of the scale is the issue of second homes, with a Green Party report claiming that 100,000 homes in Scotland were either empty or underused and citing Elie and Earlsferry in Fife as places where nearly half of all properties are second homes.

As many Scotsman readers will know, the East Neuk has long been a bolt-hole for well-to-do Edinburgh types, and the Green plan to impose tax and planning restrictions on second homes is not straightforward when owners divide their time equally between town and country.

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It’s unquestionably unacceptable for some people to have no home at all when others have a selection, but as the reports this week have shown the reasons for absolute homelessness are complex. But something is going badly wrong when a place like Toryglen in Glasgow – I was brought up nearby and it was far from the worst estate in the city – has the highest number of empty homes of any Scottish neighbourhood. Emergency bed & breakfast in Edinburgh and empty homes in Glasgow estates will not be solved by punishing Morningside people for owning an old fisherman’s cottage in Anstruther.