Going underground

In March, Amanda Levete Architects won a competition to design a new temporary exhibition space at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few months before submitting her entry to the V&A, Levete - who until 2008 was one half of Future Systems, with her first husband, the late Jan Kaplický - had had a rather less successful brush with a competition jury at the Louvre in Paris. "They hated [our entry]," she tells me when I meet her at the practice headquarters in Notting Hill.

The brief had been to rethink access to the Louvre. At present, visitors enter through I M Pei's 1989 glass pyramid and descend to an underground ticket hall, before ascending again to the galleries. "The pyramid was originally designed for visitor numbers of four million. They now get nine million," Levete says. Her solution was to create four new entrances at ground level, and to use the space beneath the pyramid for "contemplation and repose". "We made what I thought was a very brilliant presentation, but we were told we weren't 'playing the game'. I was furious."
However, the work Levete and her colleagues had done wasn't entirely in vain. She says the French competition informed their successful submission to the V&A. "The Louvre was an inspiration - the way they unified it all at subterranean level."

Here the challenge was to create a gallery space beneath Exhibition Road. Levete's scheme (less ostentatious though no less ambitious than Daniel Libeskind's proposed "Spiral" extension to the museum which was abandoned in 2004, after loud public protest) comprises a single gallery space and a public courtyard at ground level.

Skylights in the courtyard will allow natural light into the gallery. "At first, the V&A wanted a black box, but we challenged them," Levete says. For her, it was vital to "make visible the invisible," so, in addition to the skylights, the patterns on the surface of the courtyard will mimic the folding ceiling below.

The extension, which will be completed in 2014, is Levete's first public building in this country. One rather doubts that it will be her last.

More details: amandalevetearchitects.com

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan