The Duchess of Cambridge opened it last Friday, a new gateway to a new courtyard to a new entrance to some new rooms. It faces Exhibition Road, almost immediately opposite the back entrance to the Natural History Museum. Don't come via the subway from the tube station or you'll miss it, or if you do, come up one staircase early.
This was originally the boiler house, shielded from view by a masonry screen, then in the 1970s the machinery was removed and the space filled in with staff accommodation blocks. This wasn't the most productive use of valuable land, so the V&A decided to build more gallery space instead. In 1998 architect Daniel Libeskind came up with 'the Spiral', a radical design resembling a stack of crumpled boxes, which divided public opinion, failed to raise sufficient funding and was eventually axed. Over a decade later its somewhat less ambitious replacement is now open to the public... and is mostly empty space.
The original Edwardian masonry screen remains, now opened up so you can walk through the arches, but capable of being sealed off by perforated aluminium gates when the museum's closed. Beyond this, in the quadrangle where you might have thought they'd have built something, is a large courtyard with a sliver of a cafe along one edge. It's an arrestingly impressive space. Everything looks very white because this is "the world's first all-porcelain public courtyard", a peculiar concept intended to reflect the V&A's magnificent collection of ceramics. The tiles are ridged with parallel stripes and other geometric patterns, are hopefully non-slip, and already don't look as white as they presumably started out.
There are two routes to the main entrance, either straight ahead and down some steps, or branching off down a ramp to the side. Between the two is an angled wedge which swiftly morphs from "quite safe to walk on" to "a bit treacherous", because the off-white colour conceals the gradient. Beyond this is a mirrored opening which acts as a lightwell to the basement space below, and also flashes with a triangular pattern resembling alligator teeth, as if begging to have its photo taken. Other than this oculus (and the cafe I mentioned) there's not much here... but it will be a lovely space for the V&A to scatter with temporary sculptures, or to seal off for a coffer-filling cocktail party. Officially this is the Sackler Courtyard, paid for out of the same philanthropic bucket as the Sackler Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy, the Sackler Library at the Bodleian, the Sackler Library at the Design Museum, the Sackler Library at the City & Guilds, the Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens, the Sackler Hall at the Museum of London, the Sackler Octagon at Tate Britain and the Sackler Institute for Translational Neurodevelopment at King's College.
The new entrance hall is the ground floor of one wing of the original building, an offshoot of the main galleries, but has been stripped out to create a mostly-empty circulation space. Here V&A staff hover to meet, greet and check bags, while the job of selling tickets has been automated by what's described as a "unique self-service ticketing experience". I had a go at using the giant touch screens to see if I could book a ticket to the Pink Floyd exhibition, purely to try the system out, and three minutes later was still trapped in subroutine hell trying to get the glass to respond to my fingers. A nice man came over and showed me how to press properly, then walked away and left me to it, but I still couldn't advance to the final screen, so I walked away and saved £20. Officially this is the Blatnavik Hall, paid for out of the same philanthropic bucket as the Blatnavik Building (formerly Switch House) at Tate Modern and the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford.
Turn right and you enter familiar parts of the museum, specifically the very-long Sculpture gallery, whereas all the new stuff is to the left, mostly downwards. A new shop has been squeezed in, plus a coat check, plus a new suite of toilets (the gents is decorated in a stereotype-smashing shade of pastel pink, I can report), plus an attractive pair of entwined wooden staircases. These are here to lead down to the unexpected extra gallery below the courtyard, a vast room with no supporting pillars, deftly excavated during the construction period. Officially this is the Sainsbury Gallery, paid for out of the same philanthropic bucket as the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, the Sainsbury Galleries at the British Museum, the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia and the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at UCL.
The new gallery is very empty. For opening week a sonic exhibit called 'Partials' is booming out from a set of speakers, a light show called 'Shade' is filtering ambient light through the skylight, plus there's an aluminium bench called 'Aluminium Bench'. The combination is shamelessly minimalist, more the kind of barren void you'd expect at Tate Modern, but it'll make a nice Instagram post. Ultimately the V&A intend to use their 1100 square metre basement for the display of temporary exhibitions, presumably the kinds of blockbuster they're currently charging £20 for elsewhere, plus it'll be ideal for drinks receptions, project launches and catwalk shows.
I love the V&A because it's crammed with so much gorgeous "stuff", but Exhibition Road Quarter hasn't been developed to display stuff, it's been developed to generate income. A courtyard with event potential, an additional cafe, an additional shop, and a gallery space targeted at paid-for exhibitions and private hire - that's all we're getting here. The architecture's photogenic, so visitors will find much to fill their social media feeds. But those who truly love design will want to be elsewhere, exploring the Albertopolis warren for the real treasures.