The Victoria and Albert Museum: Exhibition Road Quarter

Estere Kajema

In Summer 2017, London art-lovers celebrated the opening of the brand-new extension of the Victoria and Albert Museum located in South Kensington. 

“The most important thing was to see the museum not just as a cultural project, but as an urban project.” [1]

Since 2013, visitors have been passing the construction walls built on Exhibition Road and peeking in, trying to guess what the new museum wing will look like. The Victoria and Albert Museum, initially known as the Museum of Manufactures, preserves the world’s largest collection of decorative art and design pieces. Founded 165 years ago, it is one of several cultural institutions either named after Prince Albert or linked to him, all of which are located in a London neighborhood that is unofficially called Albertopolis.

The building is a synthesis of different architectural styles – onlookers can spot Renaissance motives and features of the late Gothic style, but also marble staircases and redesigned Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Islamic Middle Eastern rooms. Amanda Levete Architects were confronted with the difficult task of creating a new wing that would not distract visitors or overshadow the already existing spectacular architecture, and that would also make the building more accessible and, in a certain way, more contemporary, too.

Visualisation of the V&A Museum Sackler Courtyard


The extension, named Exhibition Road Quarter, was designed by Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A).  Exhibition Road Quarter truly brings a breath of fresh air to the V&A Museum. Whilst going through the Exhibition Road entrance towards the new Sackler Courtyard, visitors walk underneath 19th-century arches designed by Sir Aston Webb – the arches were actually disassembled and put into storage before construction of the new extension began, so that the 1909 colonnade would not be harmed. 

The new Courtyard – the Sackler Courtyard – is the world’s first porcelain public courtyard. It is paved with 11,000 handmade tiles, all referring to a rich collection of ceramics at the V&A. The Courtyard will be home to various performances and family activities, large-scale sculptures, and a brand-new café. It must be said that the new Courtyard is very different from the one located inside the V&A – the John Madejski Garden, which seems rather limited and inaccessible. The Sackler Courtyard, on the other hand, is much less formal, is located right next to the entrance, and is welcoming for both art connoisseurs and bon vivants. 

The Sackler Courtyard at V&A. Photo: © AL_A

The new extension opens up the issue of accessibility. Museums, especially such old and traditional museums as the V&A, have always been distanced from passers-by. Even though entrance to the V&A has always been free of charge, taking a walk inside the museum may be challenging because of the amount of information that can be found inside. Once inside, the visitor is surrounded by heavy pieces of art, design, architecture, as well as examples of different crafts. The Sackler Courtyard, on the other hand, is very light. It is open for engagement and truly welcomes urban life into one of the most important museums in London.

Blavatnik Hall, named after one of the most influential British philanthropists, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, is another entry point into the Victoria and Albert Museum. This, indeed, will be a major improvement to the V&A visitor experience since it will free visitors from the endless queues at the South Kensington tube station tunnel or at Cromwell Road. A new, much more compact shop is located inside Blavatnik Hall; designed by Mark Pinney Architects, it is already, just less than a month after its opening, filled with customers.

Sainsbury Gallery at V&A Museum. Photo: © AL_A


Arguably, what happens underneath the museum is even more important than what happens above its ground floor. Here you’ll find the museum’s archives, curator offices, and conservation studios. Over the last decade, there’s been a noticeable tendency of turning underground spaces into new, more experimental exhibition spaces. Take, for instance, the new underground block that can be seen at the Latvian National Museum of Art, or Tanks at Tate Modern – both institutions are taking the space that they have underground and are using it to expand the possibilities of a museum, as well as using it to work with more experimental and non-binding curatorial methods. 

The new underground exhibition space, called The Sainsbury Gallery (not to be confused with The Sainsbury Wing, located just a few tube stops away, at The National Gallery), is 18 meters deep and could, theoretically, fit ten Olympic-sized swimming pools. One could consider the Sackler Courtyard as being the roof of the Sainsbury Gallery since you can actually see the exhibition space through a vitrine-like construction located on the right side of the Courtyard. 

The gallery space is very much different from the rest of the museum. The V&A is usually associated with gigantic columns, majestic staircases, and hidden rooms. Yet the strikingly-red steel columns, shining wooden floors, bright white walls, and origami-folded ceilings of the Sainsbury Gallery make the visitor easily forget the history and nature of the institution that they are visiting, and subconsciously prepares the visitor to appreciate the works of art with a tabula rasa. 

Whilst the V&A has always been reminiscent of a colossal and perpetual cabinet of curiosities, the new extension is much more of a white cube that will be capable of accommodating different kinds of exhibited materials. It is, however, yet to be filled with temporary exhibitions. Most definitely it will be an open space for discussions, education, and interpretation – something that, arguably, has always been lacking at the V&A.

Photo: © AL_A


Amanda Levete says: “... our first move, unlocking the potential to bring the new audiences, is to create a relationship between the museum and the street that does not exist today.”[2]

This quote makes even more sense if one thinks of the Serpentine Gallery, located just ten minutes away from the V&A. The Serpentine, too, has been building a relationship between the city, architecture, and art institutions – and for years now. A relationship between the museum and the street does, indeed, already exist today, as it has always existed; perhaps not at the V&A, but most definitely at many other institutions. It will be very interesting to see how the V&A will tackle the question of how important an art institution is in terms of being part of the city landscape. How crucial is it for the V&A to become a museum without walls? And, more importantly, is this even possible? Located in the heart of busy Kensington, the V&A already is one of the most recognizable of London’s sightseeing spots. The fusion of AL_A’s Exhibition Road Quarter and the massive stone colonnade is, indeed, spectacular, but visitors and curious museum cynics will have to wait until the end of September to observe the real success of the new extension, which is when the first exhibition, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, will open. 

Many might say that the new Sainsbury Gallery reminds them of an underground car park; there have already been written reviews on how the porcelain tiles of the Sackler Courtyard are already filthy, uneven, slippery, and do not go well with the “original” V&A. In my humble opinion, however, the new extension is truly mesmerizing. Not only are the new Courtyard and the gallery downstairs astonishingly beautiful, but they are also spaces that will open up completely different conversations.

New Exhibition hall. © Photo: AL_A

Whilst the V&A has always been a mecca of conservation – a space dedicated to history – the Exhibition Road Quarter is a much more user-friendly space that is prepared to embrace a new audience –  people strolling around the city, curious passers-by, flâneurs. The project is truly transformational for the V&A – much more than in the case of the Tate Modern a year ago. The Exhibition Road Quarter has the potential to make the traditional V&A embody what is known as relational aesthetics, a philosophy that is already being widely practiced down the road at the Serpentine.  

The Courtyard, the café, the bookshop, and the new entrance through Blavatnik Hall (via Exhibition Road) are already open to visitors. On Saturday, 30 September 2017, Sainsbury Gallery will hold its first ever exhibition – Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which will be an exploration of the story of opera.

[1] Amanda Levete, for Design Week

[2] Amanda Levete, for the V&A