On Saturday, one of the most important buildings built in Scotland for generations – the V&A Dundee – opened its doors. It is a building at the heart of a regeneration process being used to turn around a city, its image, and fortunes. The V&A Dundee opens with galleries packed with design pieces brought north from London. Its main feature will be the incredible Oak Room by Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Not seen in public for 50 years, it was saved from demolition in the 70’s and has been stored away ever since.
The building, expected to welcome half a million visitors in the first year, is the first in the UK by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and is inspired by Scotland’s coastline. It sits proudly on the regenerated waterfront, jutting out as if placed there temporarily. Kuma’s idea was to create a new, living, room for the city and although the budget has doubled since its conception, the city believes it is getting value for money and that the V&A is the key piece of work on a regeneration project that began in 1999 with the opening of the Dundee Contemporary Arts.
Dundee was a city in a downward spiral. Years of under investment and closures of important employment centres in the city had taken its toll. But because the world’s most important art and design museum has decided to open an outpost in Dundee, people are already seeing the rewards and there is a buzz in the air. The city is becoming a design destination and that should bring rewards on all fronts. Dundee is trying to recreate the shift in perceptions and fortunes along the lines of a city in a very similar situation. I would be very surprised if the words ‘Bilbao effect’ were not used in their planning meetings.
Twenty years, ago a titanium-clad Guggenheim gallery landed in the little known Spanish town of Bilbao to incredible effect. Frank Gehry created what is now regarded as one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century. Bilbao’s image was transformed – a down-on-its-luck city by the sea became an international destination of choice. Bilboa is now on travel wish lists around the world. And Dundee wants a piece of that.
Other cities have tried or have plans to recreate the incredible phenomenon seen in Bilbao.
Margate’s revival has been a stop, start affair. Regeneration started on the seafront, on a site where Turner stayed when visiting the town. The Turner Contemporary was to be an art space and catalyst for regeneration. Designed by David Chipperfield, it was described as alien, brutal and bleak. It opened in 2011 costing £17.5 million and greeted 14,000 visitors its first weekend. It has now seen 1.5 million visitors but critics complain that it has failed to embrace local artists and nurture their talents. Margate was also chosen as one of the ‘Portas Pilot’ areas given a £1.2 million pot of cash to rejuvenate its High Street. It featured in a BBC tv show in which she opened two shops in the town renowned for having the second highest proportion of empty shops in England. She worked with shop owners and also negotiated a £10 out of season return rail ticket to and from London to help turn around the town’s fortunes. Over the other side of the seafront Dreamland, once in the top 10 of UK visitor attractions before being left to decay, reopened in 2015 with a wealth of new and rejuvenated features. The aim was to redefine ‘a day out at the seaside’. British Designer Wayne Hemmingway had taken control of the project. Low visitor numbers and other issues led to Dreamland being re-launched again in 2017 with better food offerings, new rides, and a 1,500-people venue. The hope is it will operate all year and it is already hosting the sold out “Demon Days” Festival headlined by Gorillaz.
The Eden Project is currently eying up Morecambe on the UK’s North West coast. It has made no secret of its plans to expand and worldwide has looked at sites in China and Australia. The original Eden Project, housed in a disused china clay pit in St Austell, opened in 2001 and has become one of the jewels in the nation’s crown. Opening at a cost of £141 million, it boasts the largest rainforest in captivity. Cornwall, however, has never really fallen out of fashion. As Dave Buonaguidi says – Cornwall is always a ‘good idea’ with better weather, great beaches and picturesque seaside towns.
Eden North as the north-west venture has been titled is currently seeking funding for its plan to reimagine a 21st-century seaside resort in a once-booming coastal area. The focus would be on the sea, rather than the rainforest, making it a localised attraction designed to educate and entertain. Described as a game changer, it’s another step in the town’s regeneration and follows imaginative work at the art deco Midland Hotel masterpiece, once a favorite haunt of Coco Channel, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Noel Coward. It opened to great success in 2008. The Midland Hotel first had welcomed its first guests in 1933. Designed by Oliver Hill with interiors by Eric Gill, it shut in 1998 and was allowed to slowly decay. Urban Splash took it on and created an incredible hotel, restoring and adding to it to make a building fit for the 21st Century. It became a statement of intent that the resort was not dead and was looking to the future.
On a smaller scale in Littlehampton, Jane Wood and Sophie Murray commissioned designer Thomas Heatherwick to create The East Beach Cafe, an iconic building for the seaside town in 2005. Fabricated locally, it has received worldwide praise from the architectural and food world. Also in the town is the longest bench on a UK seafront. The 1,000ft bench weaves and winds along the seafront and opened in July 2010. It was funded by Arun District Council and CABE’s ‘Sea Change’ capital grants programme for cultural and creative regeneration in seaside resorts. You can even sponsor a slat on the bench.
Hastings has also been in the headlines after looking to re-invent the seaside pier. The original closed in 2008 after years of decline and then was virtually destroyed by fire in 2010. The new pier hailed as a new era, opened in 2016. Designed by dRMM Architects, it was sustainable and flexible. The pier won the biggest award in British architecture: the RIBA Stirling Prize. But it failed to pay for itself and was sold in 2018 to Abid Gulzar, owner of Eastbourne Pier. It remains open with locals nervous as to what will become of it.
The UK’s city of culture in 2017 and the butt of endless jokes for decades, Hull turned around peoples’ perceptions with a year of fantastic events attracting a total audience of 5.3 million. They attended over 2,800 events, cultural activities, installations, and exhibitions which created nearly 800 jobs in the city. Suddenly, Hull was a joke no more with 75% of residents saying they were proud to call it home. The city had already redeveloped its waterfront with an imposing new aquarium dominating the skyline. But 2017 dramatically changed perceptions and made people aware that the new city was worth a visit.
It seems a big name, attention-grabbing ‘starchitect’ designed project puts a town or city in the eyes of the public. The launch gets massive coverage but when that dies down, the city and its inhabitants need to respond. The big focus of the scheme needs to include and nurture local talent and be accessible. Transport has to play its part and be reliable and affordable. Its all well and good having an incredible facility, but if nobody can get there, what’s the point?
It does seem as though Dundee is on the up. It hosts a world-class design course and is a centre for computer gaming in the UK. Home to the Beano comic, statues of characters already adorn the city. There will be a section of Beano artwork in the new V&A celebrating its location. We wish the V&A Dundee and the city as a whole all the best. They have made a great start, but there is a long journey ahead and they will need to keep up the momentum.