The RIBA has joined forces with the V&A to produced the UK’s first permanent architecture gallery and a library of its prize drawings collection

One of the frustrating things for those undergoing architectural training is the slow realisation that an architect can’t go it alone. They have to work with clients, town planners, engineers, builders – even quantity surveyors. And all of them are intent on destroying the great architectural vision on their drawing board.

Over the past two decades, the RIBA itself has gone through its own version of this agony. In 1999 it produced a grand vision of a standalone architectural gallery linked to its unrivalled collection of architectural drawings, prints and manuscripts. It was to be in the Roundhouse, a huge circular former train shed in north London, and the conversion work was to be made possible by National Lottery funding.

This plan evaporated when the Heritage Lottery Fund heard the price tag – £23m – and showed the RIBA the door. Since then, the institution has swallowed its pride and teamed up with the Victoria & Albert Museum. The partnership has allowed the RIBA to achieve its ambition at long last, though not as a standalone building or even at E E the institute’s own home in Portland Place.

Next week, two major permanent architectural attractions will open within the V&A’s Edwardian complex in South Kensington, London. They are the UK’s first permanent architectural gallery, and a public library of a much enlarged collection of architectural drawings, prints and documents. The combined price tag is a mere £5.1m, of which £3.3m has come from the lottery and £2m from private donations. In addition, an educational programme has been set up to interest schoolchildren in architecture.

Architectural gallery
The gallery takes pride of place at the front of the V&A building on the top floor. It inhabits a long gallery hall that has been converted with a light modern touch by Gareth Hoskins Architects of Glasgow. Space has also been found for a temporary exhibition room, squeezed into a windowless space the size and shape of an extended railway carriage.

The theme of the gallery is architecture pure and simple. Not a particular aspect or subset of architecture, not even British architecture, but the architecture of the whole world throughout the ages, from an ancient Egyptian temple to Zaha Hadid’s as yet unfinished car museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. It is conceived as a permanent exhibition that unravels the meaning of architecture for the uninitiated. Predictably this includes styles of architecture, but it also explores the influence of function on design and the design process itself. The theme of the exhibition is explained in more detail in a new book entitled Exploring Architecture: Buildings, Meaning and Making by Eleanor Gawne and Michael Snodin.

Architecture was in fact one of the applied arts represented in the original museum in 1852, but the exhibition was discontinued in 1909. So here the V&A is once again in its true element. All those museum items that had been collected and squirrelled away by the Victorian institution when it was the lumber room of the British Empire have been unpacked, dusted down and lovingly displayed again. The 180 artefacts on display include a capital from the Pantheon in Rome, a medieval gothic column, an exquisitely carved alabaster model of the 14th-century arabesque Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain, and umpteen architects’ drawings – all originals.

More up-to-date are Bill Dunster’s model of his sustainable BedZed housing and workspaces in south London and a piece of ETFE membrane alongside a photo of the huge Eden Project bubbles in Cornwall.

Architectural study rooms
At the other end of the V&A labyrinth, the RIBA has found a home for its prize collection of architectural prints, drawings and manuscripts, which stretches back to medieval gothic designs. Here again, the V&A has offered considerably more than physical accommodation. It has effectively amalgamated the RIBA collection with its own to create a treasure-trove of more than 650,000 drawings and 750,000 manuscripts on architecture, interior decoration and furnishings.

The Henry Cole wing along Exhibition Road lends itself well to the task of housing this huge collection. As adapted by Wright & Wright Architects, parts of the classical Edwardian perimeter of the building now serve as a stately public library for historic architectural drawings and documents, as well as conservation studios. And in the core of the building, which was infilled in the 1970s as a robust, environmentally stable storage silo for the V&A’s drawing collection, two of the seven floors have been handed over to the RIBA for its collection.

So what the V&A has lost with the axeing of Daniel Libeskind’s astonishing spiral building it has partly gained with the new architectural gallery and drawings collection. And the Spiral still manages to live on at the V&A, if only in miniature – a model of the building appears as an exhibit in the new gallery.


Architecture Gallery
client V&A and RIBA
architect Gareth Hoskins Architects
structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners
services engineer V&A Property Services
quantity surveyor Scott Chandler Robinson
construction manager Bovis Lend Lease
general building contractor Benbow Interiors

Architectural study rooms
client V&A and RIBA
architect Wright & Wright Architects
structural engineer Alan Baxter Associates
services engineer Arup
quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
construction manager Bovis Lend Lease
general building contractor Pel Project Management