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V&A Diary: Planning applications are always a trial

Our torturous planning system, as seen by an architect.

To be a spectator at a planning committee meeting is to see democracy in action. A debate between councillors can be parochial or engaged depending on the make-up of the panel, while the outcome can be down as much to the skill of the officer presenting the scheme in question or the committee’s chair as it is to the merits of the design.

In July, I attended a meeting at Kensington Town Hall at which the scheme put forward by my practice, AL_A, for the Victoria and Albert Museum was being considered. The meeting was spirited but the discussion was always broad-minded. There was a depth of historical knowledge around the table, as well as, refreshingly, a genuine appreciation of the social and political context of planning decision making and an understanding of the benefits of thoughtful and contemporary design.

The most important move proposed in the scheme was naturally the most controversial and the topic that inspired the lengthiest debate. It was controversial not for reasons of architectural form or aesthetics but because it raised questions about the sanctity of heritage, an issue that often centres on removal and what will be lost, as opposed to what one might gain.

The V&A is Grade I listed and the presumption when it comes to such buildings is that it’s better to resist material alterations. Our proposition hinges on the need to create a very different relationship between the museum and the street, one that does not exist today. This necessitates significant alteration to the building.

As it currently stands, the Aston Webb screen, erected in 1909, forms an opaque wall fronting on to Exhibition Road in the shape of a stone plinth. The screen was designed to hide the boiler house, a change to the original 1891 scheme required at the 11th hour to save money – not much change there, then – as accommodating the boilers underground proved too expensive.

What might once have been a permeable colonnade leading into a garden courtyard was reconfigured by Webb and made solidly impenetrable in order to hide the unsightly mechanical plant. Inevitably, over time, people came to love this screen and it was accepted as an essential part of the museum’s archi - tecture, familiarity breeding affection rather than contempt.

The boilers, however, have long since gone. The alteration of the screen to reflect its new purpose – to reveal, rather than to hide – became central to our argument. Our plan was to avoid compromise or fudge and to take a lead from Webb’s documented but unrealised intentions. Our scheme takes the V&A on to Exhibition Road and Exhibition Road into the V&A, encouraging people to drift in from the street. The altered screen is no longer a wall that separates spaces but one that frames a new outdoor space, revealing to the public for the first time three architecturally and historically significant façades.

It was a vision of an animated public space and a fresh engagement with the museum that lay at the heart of our application for permission to alter the screen. We could call this new courtyard South Kensington’s drawing room, bounded as it is on all four sides, with the floor an urban carpet of ceramics but a roof open to the sky. It will be a place of a very particular character that expresses the remit of the V&A, inspiring and educating as well as putting modern design and innovation back in the foreground.

At the end of the debate, planning consent was granted – an enormously significant milestone. Our argument, bolstered by support from English Heritage and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, swayed the committee, which accepted that the wider public benefits of the scheme in its totality could justify making changes to this historic building. As an architect, when a planning decision goes in your favour, democracy feels very sweet, as if the world had temporarily been put to rights. But if it goes against you, democracy feels broken.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A. She will be writing regularly about the progress of her practice’s scheme for the V&A - you can find all the instalments to date here

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?