It is obvious from the get-go that the new Victoria and Albert Museum is here to rescue Dundee. It could not be more obvious had the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma draped a gigantic Superman cape around the building. As my train winds into Dundee’s “riverside esplanade,” the low sky presses down on to the Firth of Tay like one slab of concrete laid on to another. The cityscape looks like a dark, incidental water stain running along the join.
The design museum is planted next to the HMS Discovery visitor attraction, as though two kindred souls have struck up a friendship at a funeral. Even so, these two are not enough to brighten up the esplanade. The problem is the waterfront’s peculiarly out-of-town, ring-road ambiance; the way in which its layout fawns over the motor car and sweeps its few lost pedestrians off to the sidelines. There are mini dual carriageways, torrents of rushing traffic, and a sparse population of buildings that are all like strangers who are not talking to each other. It will take a far bigger and more concerted reorganisation of the esplanade to banish this desolation.
With everything around it being so depleted, the new V&A looks alert, quirky, and improbable. It is almost like a cry of “wake up!” Nonetheless, this building is far dumpier and more compact than it has typically appeared in its media profiles. For a cultural centrepiece, you cannot understand why it could not be more commanding or have more oomph. It could pour out unobstructed in every direction. I have the feeling that Basil Spence, the great brutalist maestro, would have regarded this building as being somewhat prim.
I begin by walking gingerly around the V&A, in doing so getting drenched by some of the city’s aggressive drizzle. Where modern buildings normally have plastic cladding, this one is configured with over two thousand stone beams that are each shaped vaguely like a speed bump. Peering up at them, I don’t fancy what I see. These beams are each held in place with metal screws. Given this country’s litany of recent disasters involving architectural materials, the inevitable is surely waiting in plain sight like a discarded banana skin in a 1920s movie. One of these beams is bound to loosen at some point and plummet on to a coach party of luckless pensioners. This whole building is knitted together from Swords of Damocles.
The museum stands in a pair of those miniature lakes that are familiar from outside the Scottish parliament. Presumably, these are here to deter roguish members of the public from banging on the sides of the building or from unfixing the stone beams to carry home as souvenirs.
If this building is essentially two buttocks, you can walk where they are conjoined, underneath the crotch, and out onto what in any other part of the world would be a spectacular riverside panorama. Here in Dundee, however, unvarying grey stretches to the far shore, like a monstrous empty car park. A single gannet bobs in the water – a lone speck on this vast sheet of grey.
I head inside. After a weekend of prolific media coverage, the V&A is today teeming with curious visitors. They swarm over every available surface, like an ants’ nest on the day of nuptial flight. The interior is still a magnificent eyeful from any angle that you find yourself in. The stone beams outside are answered in here with sloping wooden plates, which fall disjointedly, like the scales on the outer surface of a pineapple, from the upper level to the floor. This gives the illusion of an amphitheatre (you cannot sit on any but the lowermost plates), with the same openness and breadth. An isolated white elevator shaft serves as a pillar. A staircase travels on a meandering climb up around the slopes.
Where the slopes are at their steepest, in the descent from the foyer of the exhibition halls to the open-plan gift shop, you could feasibly ski down them. Maybe the V&A should be given over to schoolchildren in the evenings as an indoor winter sports facility.
The queue for the Scottish Design Galleries is alarmingly long. My instinct is to come back for a second try later in the afternoon. As I leave, crowds are roaming about and rampaging disruptively into every corner. Everybody looks lost and deeply frustrated. There is an atmosphere of claustrophobia and near hysteria.
So I instead embark on a circuit of Dundee. I remember this city as being bleak and visibly lawless, but they seem to have made a fairer go of it since my previous visit. There is a trail of fun public art, with statues of Desperate Dan (the popular comic The Dandy was published by the Dundonian outfit D.C. Thomson), a parade of penguins, some lemmings, a dragon, and a cheeky capering monkey all to be picked out along the way. The essence of this city’s unexpectedly cheerful, multifaceted personality is stored in the McManus Galleries. These boast the complete skeleton of a humpback whale and a collection of beautifully murderous-looking harpoons; an exhibition of storyboards from The Dandy and The Beano; an early X-ray tube that was used in this city in the 1890s; and a stunning Rossetti that depicts Dante dreaming. If this is the competition, things look faintly ominous for the V&A.
When I return the queue is shorter and it has more of a throb. It turns out that the gallery-goers are being let in in batches, rather than snaking around the entire exhibition locked in a queue formation.
The Scottish Design Galleries are, incidentally, free. There is also a visiting paid exhibition, “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” which fails to lure me in. The free exhibition is a fat treasure house, the carefully selected elite of Scottish gorgeousness in garments, jewellery, furniture, interiors, the theatre, buildings and bridges. Preliminary draughts of the new Scottish banknotes, illustrated Victorian tiles of scenes from Shakespeare, and a disembodied oak interior by Charles Rennie Mackintosh all sparkled the most brilliantly for me.
I end up on a slim terrace that looks down on to the river. Most of this building seems to be brooding over the passing water. To the surprise of the whole world, the sun has come out and the river is now a muddy grey rather than a totally grey one. From here, the stone beams suddenly appear more lithe and sinuous and even mysterious. Perhaps with this new mystery, I can begin to understand them. Kuma had meant his building to resemble a cliff face, but it is not really knobbly or crumbling enough. The regimented stonework instead evokes the modest waves of the river, rolling and lulling in peaks of grey, but too soft to break with any whitecaps.