For a project tackled in partnership with Charles Taylor Woodwork, Smith & Garratt have been visiting the ground-breaking, nautically-themed V&A at Dundee all this year, and have seen it develop from a curvaceous dark grey hulk – not unlike a nuclear sub – to towering cliffs with a thousand bespoke concrete ledges wrapping its uneven contours. The building is designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, whose designs include the twisting Rolex tower in Dallas, with gardens at each cleverly mis-fitting layer; and the Daiwa Ubiquitous Computing Research Building in Tokyo, which has a skirt clad in cedar ‘scales’ modestly covering its splayed steel legs. Not our usual fare of traditional and historic buildings, I hear you remark, but our purpose is true to form … we have been installing Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room as the centrepiece of the Scottish Design Gallery. Our room is big. Its outer frame was erected in January, so the gallery could be shaped around it; the restored interior was reconstructed in June, so the big stuff was out of the way before more delicate exhibits began to arrive.
During three days of private views and press events leading up to the V&A’s opening today, I found Mr Kuma immensely calm, assured and impeccably polite. I thought him distant until we got talking about seascapes and the cliffs that inspired his V&A design. He spoke of different rock formations, and of gulls wheeling and crying against the noise of the crashing sea during a hectic nesting season.
The Oak Room appears comfortable in its new home. Mackintosh was an artist-architect who drew his inspiration from nature and Kuma is obviously from the same mould, albeit a century later … with all the technology and materials of the last 100 years to be harnessed. When Mackintosh unveiled his dark, rhythmic, strangely soothing space, picked-out with coloured glass and innovative electric lighting that played geometric patterns across its oak faces, it was radical – nothing like it had been seen before. Even today, we notice people slow down upon entering, pausing to drink it in.
A by-product of the research necessary to tackle the restoration of a serious Mackintosh piece is an impression of the designer as a person, and I get the impression of a complex and difficult man. He was uncompromising and probably moody – impatient with those who didn’t ‘get’ his ideas … which, as they were novel, must have been many. His place in the history of design is as an original thinker and innovator. As a student Kuma says he “greatly admired” Mackintosh, “it is fitting to have the Oak Room at the heart of the gallery”.
The new V&A on Dundee’s waterfront is also strangely soothing. It manages to be both vast and comfortably accommodating – a refuge from the thundering traffic and the city beyond. When I point out the lack of seagulls at this time of year and present Kengo with an inflatable one, he breaks into a genuine, warm, transparently scrutable smile.