V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter

Stirling Prize-winner Amanda Levete has given London an enticing new outdoor space as part of her transformation of the V&A – the largest intervention at the museum for over 100 years.

Access to the Sackler Courtyard was created by getting rid of a wall on Exhibition Road, or at least removing the brickwork between historical columns on what is known as the Aston Webb Screen. The voids between the columns equate to 11 new entrances.

V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter
The Sackler Courtyard, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A ©Hufton+Crow

‘The Aston Webb Screen is now a colonnade, making it very easy for people to drift in off the street,’ says Levete of AL_A, who describes the 1,200sqm Sackler Courtyard as ‘an extended threshold’.

Interestingly, the courtyard and the AL_A-designed café standing in it will be open to the public outside museum hours, from 8.30am to 9pm.

The hope is that this arrangement will lure non-museum-goers onto the premises – an increasingly popular wheeze among cultural institutions keen to boost their coffers and broaden their audience. Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Switch House restaurant – which also has its own front door and opening times – is another example of this trend.

This sense of a welcome for everyone was important to AL_A, the practice behind Lisbon’s MAAT, which opened last year. ‘We were inspired to see the Exhibition Road Quarter not just as a cultural project but as an urban project,’ Levete adds.

V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter
The Henry Cole Wing and café, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. Photography: Hufton+Crow

The brief insisted on a small café – it seats just 30 with seating for another 45 outside – so as not to draw traffic away from the museum’s other eateries. Its furniture, designed by AL_A for Moroso, has diagonal cut-outs, hinting at the stripes on courtyard’s much-trumpeted 11,000 handmade porcelain tiles. The holes also make it lighter and hence easier to manoeuvre.

Amanda Levete‘s team is good at this sort of detail. The whole scheme displays well-considered touches, from the rounded edges of one side of the steps down into the museum, to the dusty pink colour scheme for the loos – both male and female.

V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter
The Blavatnik Hall, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. Photography: Hufton+Crow

Despite their strong impact, the courtyard and cafe are mere entrées to AL_A’s main course below. At the bottom of the steps, three bay windows of the Western Range building have been cut away and replaced with glass doorways into the museum.

From there, visitors turn left down an elegant new staircase into the pièce de résistance: the 1,100msq column-free Sainsbury Gallery, where temporary shows will now be housed.

V&A Exhibition Road Quarter
The Sainsbury Gallery, The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. Photography: Hufton+Crow

Along with a setting-up area below the gallery, AL_A has magicked a total new space of 6,400sqm out of 2,200sqm of underused V&A floor space.

To celebrate the public opening of the V&A’s £54.5m Exhibition Road Quarter on 30 June, senior curator Catherine Ince is putting on a week-long free festival.

V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter
View of Sgraffito Wall from the staircase, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. Photography: Hufton+Crow

REVEAL’s highlights include artist Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene: air-filled sculptures activated by the heat of the sun. And after dark, V&A-inspired drawings by Ron Arad, Zandra Rhodes, Jonathan Barnbrook, Greenaway & Greenaway, Toru Ishii and Leyla Reynolds will be projected onto the courtyard’s facades.

‘It’s been interesting to work with such a diverse range of practitioners, and see how they respond to the V&A and its collections,’ says Ince, ‘because it’s so eclectic here.’

V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter
The Oculus, V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A. Photography: Hufton+Crow

Meanwhile Jonathan Olivares’ 12m-long Aluminium Bench – the only artefact that Ince commissioned – will become part of the collection.

These treats will surely draw Albertropolis’s crowds to the V&A’s Exhibition Road Quarter, and if they are tempted to linger in the environment – or better still, return to it – then AL_A’s efforts will have paid off.

Read next: New museums opening in 2017

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