Can a single building transform the fortunes of a city? Bilbao, in northern Spain, would argue that it can. The fabulous Guggenheim Museum, designed by the American architect Frank Gehry, put Bilbao in the international spotlight, and transformed a fading industrial city into a tourist magnet. Today, 18 years on from its foundation, it continues to energize the city.
Now Dundee, 60 miles to the north of Edinburgh on the Scottish east coast, and another city with an industrial past, is bidding to do the same. It has commissioned a futuristic building which is to be the northern outpost of London’s celebrated Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and has been designed by the Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma. Already it has attracted criticism, because its projected cost has swelled from an initial estimate of $69 million to more than $123 million. Originally planned to jut out into the sea, it has been brought back on land. The foundations have been laid and it is aimed for completion in 2018.
There are several differences between it and the Bilbao project. The V&A is not investing itself in the project, so the risk is entirely Dundee’s. But on the plus side, the city is already engaged in an ambitious regeneration strategy which will run alongside it. Its two universities are at the forefront of scientific research, principally in the life sciences, where Dundee is a world leader. It is the center of the booming video games industry – the highly successful Grand Theft Auto series, now in its fifth incarnation, was invented there. It has already made a major investment in cultural expansion, by funding the Dundee Contemporary Arts Center, one of the biggest art spaces in Scotland. It has a thriving theatre, a youthful population – and a savvy and energetic city leadership.
Mike Galloway, director of development in Dundee, says the V&A building will be the “spark” that creates a city boom. “We have a budget of just over $123 million. Even since we started, we have knocked off a lot of the construction risks which would be factored into a project like this. That’s the way I intend to continue: to manage risk. I aim to bring it in under $123 million. Is it going to be built? Of course it is.”
Envisaged as a museum of design, it will stage exhibitions of work, borrowing heavily from the parent museum in London. It will operate on a unique business model. Staff will be employed by Design Dundee Limited, the company originally established to deliver the project whose board members include senior representatives of the city council, Dundee’s two universities, Scottish Enterprise and the V&A itself.
Once operational, the museum will require subsidies of $5.37 million a year. The council has already approved $767,000 annually for the first ten years of the museum’s life, and the other public bodies and universities are expected to follow suit.
In a previous era, the city depended on its staple industries of jam, jute and journalism. The first two of these have gone. Now, it seems, culture is to take their place.