V&A Diary: Coming up for air

Designing a building is a long and difficult process.

The Victoria & Albert Museum. Photograph: Getty Images

Work on my practice’s scheme at the Victoria and Albert Museum has begun. It’s not an avalanche of work, because that’s not the speed at which public projects progress, but some small traces are visible already. The doors to one entrance are closed and the gates have been locked. We have dug up two trees (we’ll atone for this by planting four more) and removed a Gilbert Scott red telephone box, too (though it will be put back in exactly the same place once the project is finished). Like the V&A’s buildings, the phone box is listed, so its temporary departure has been the subject of considerable debate with English Heritage, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and BT.

For now, the work is confined to the bowels of the earth. The V&A and the Natural History Museum have been invisibly linked by an umbilical cord of steel for nearly a century – they share a heating system. This cord has to be severed before hollowing out 15 metres below ground – quite a feat of structural engineering – can begin. Extensive excavation is required to create the walls of the subterranean gallery that will be the centrepiece of this project.

It presents a paradox: how do you make the invisible visible? In an attempt to resolve this, the structural form and geometry of the new gallery’s ceiling is designed to seep through to the paving pattern of the courtyard above, giving a subtle but palpable expression of the exhibition space by making the visitor conscious of the energy and rhythm of the space beneath their feet.

Spanning 30 metres, the folded plate of the ceiling is derived entirely from its function. Its articulated form, following in the neo-Gothic and neoclassical museological tradition of ornate ceilings, alludes to the didactic role the V&A has played in promoting the art and craft of manufacture. With the conceptual work done, the detailed design continues. Each beam has to be sized, the number of bolts calculated, all to be seamlessly integrated into a space that balances the conflicting demands of integrity, function and beauty.

I was reminded recently of this tension by a small exhibition on the life and work of one of the great engineers of our time, the late Peter Rice.Rice was a director of Arup, the engineers with whom we are working on this project. Many years ago, he gave a lecture in which he talked about an essay by W H Auden on Shakespeare’s Othello. Auden argued that that Iago is the prototype for scientific man. Rice went on to describe the dangers that architects and engineers face: by being merely pragmatic, using only rational thought, desperate to know whether what we want to do is right – by being Iagos, in other words – we destroy the very basis upon which the good or noble things in our life exist.

Rice’s claim is both poetic and true. Pushing the limits of what is possible is what drives us as designers. But to do this when your client is a public body is far from straightforward. The constraints are real and sometimes surreal. Decision-making structures at the V&A are slow and Byzantine in their complexity, a characteristic shared by many other organisations. It takes time to assure the myriad stakeholders that the risks in a scheme are noble and therefore worth taking. But time on a project is not infinite. And we have to have an unshakeable belief that, collectively, we have the ability to solve problems that we do not yet know exist.

In line with the founding principles of the V&A, we want the construction of the project to demonstrate and promote world-class British craftsmanship and also to extend the V&A’s didactic heritage into the 21st century. This is a rare opportunity to pair design excellence with industry-led regeneration, linking the V&A and the ceramics industry in Stokeon- Trent. The highly visible courtyard is the perfect canvas to showcase this but to achieve what we have imagined requires a degree of research. And research requires faith, because the result is not yet known.

It is difficult to say to a publicly funded body such as the V&A: “Trust me.” But that’s what we’ve done. The outcome of this research will be the subject of a future column, when I will be able to report, with confidence, the fruits of our endeavours.

There will always be frustrations in a project like this. But dealing with BT’s red phone box, grappling with the challenge of making visible the invisible and using our powers of persuasion to advance the debate through research is all part of the complex process of design. This is what gives me a sense of purpose as an architect.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A