You can step on the tiles. They're custom-made, and owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, but these parallelograms of porcelain are fully meant to be walked upon: They define the ground of the Sackler Courtyard, which opened this summer along London's Exhibition Road.
Located in the heart of London's museum quarter (or "Albertopolis"), the £54.5-million ($87.4-million) project by Amanda Levete Architects signals a new spirit in museum design: This is an architecture of openness and inclusivity, a building that deliberately reaches out to embrace the city.
"For us," Amanda Levete says, "the idea behind the project was to see the museum not just as a cultural project, but as an urban one. It needs to be of the street."
We are standing in the café which caps the project, a pavilion that seems to slide in under a fold in the wavy surface of the courtyard. Inside, tourists nurse cappuccinos and munch bean salads; outside, as a rainstorm clears, the surface of the courtyard glimmers underfoot. A family on nearby Exhibition Road wanders in to the space, and then into the museum.
What's caught their eye is the surface of the courtyard. Levete has designed the tiles in a grid of parallelograms; they're all white, but glazed with irregular lines in red, yellow and blue. These patterns are abstracted from architectural drawings for what lies beneath: a massive, open gallery that adds a new type of space to the venerable museum.
Skylights in the courtyard peek down into this semi-hidden space. A broad stair and a ramp cross the expanse, linking the busy Exhibition Road with the heart of the museum.
The space is fronted by a 1909 stone screen – built originally to hide the museum's boilers, which then filled the courtyard. That screen has been pulled down and rebuilt to allow views into the space in its new use; the space between wings of this grand Victorian pile is now wide open.
This architectural use of ceramic is novel, and it's fitting that the V&A, one of the world's leading art and design museums, should be advancing the state of the art in architecture. (The underground gallery also involves an unorthodox structural-engineering strategy, and the consultancy Arup will be studying how the building holds up over time.) But the emphasis is on the public face. "You can now move easily in and out of the V&A and the other museums, so it's made it a really holistic experience," says Philippa Simpson, the museum's head of design and interior projects. "We wanted a place for people to explore, and feel very fluid."
Two projects in Canada provide interesting contrasts. The City of Vancouver recently opened part of its renovated North Plaza on West Georgia Street, adjacent to the Vancouver Art Gallery. This, one of Vancouver's most important public spaces, is much improved by a new hardscape designed by Nick Milkovich Architects, Hapa Collaborative and Matthew Soules Architecture. The gallery sometimes programs art installations on or in the square; in September, it will (together with the Burrard Arts Foundation) present its Façade Festival 2017, projecting works from 10 British Columbia-based artists on the façade facing the newly renovated plaza.
In Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario recently celebrated the reopening of Grange Park, a public space adjacent to (and owned by) the gallery. The AGO has taken advantage of the opportunity to engage with the public in what is already a busy space: It's created a new entrance facing the park, opening up what is a forbidding façade.
The fine landscape architecture, led by Greg Smallenberg of Vancouver's PFS Studio, makes several references to the visual arts; the playground structures resemble a set of art supplies. The gallery also has relocated a large Henry Moore sculpture, Large Two Forms, from an adjacent street corner to the centre of the park. This is, in one sense, a misguided move – the sculpture, in its previous position, formed a crucial part of how the gallery building related to the city, but it now sits in a place of pride, making a clear connection between the splash pad outside the institution and the sculptures within.
Of course, you will still have to pay admission to the AGO if you are not a member. The Victoria and Albert in London, as with most major British museums, is free to access; that value "is absolutely fundamental to us," Simpson says. And the fact that visitors can drift in and out changes their relationships to the museum and the institutions. The V&A's new courtyard "is encouraging people to drift in," Levete says. "You don't have to come to the museum. You can hang out in the courtyard. But the hope is, you'll be curious, and come into the museum – and it's free to come in, so why wouldn't you?"
That freedom, the lack of any barrier, financial or psychological, is powerful. Over a few days in London, I drifted in and out of the V&A and other museums for short and long visits. On Exhibition Road, many others – tourists and office workers – seemed to do the same. In that sense, Levete's architecture is as much a sign of the institution's values as a shaper of them: This is a place to learn and to be entertained, and it is for everyone. In that context, design can send a powerful message.
"It is the role of cultural buildings to feel incredibly welcoming, to engage with contemporary life," Levete says.
"And you do that by inviting people – by revealing something before you even get into the building. By revealing you entice, and people get curious." And they may walk right in.