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What the Opening of the V&A Dundee Says About Home, City and National Pride

If the new V&A is Dundee’s public face to the world, it underscores the motto of the city’s famous resident: ‘think global act local’

In his diagram ‘Social Life’, the Scottish sociologist and town planner Patrick Geddes listed essential components of a city, among them schools, offices, clubs and churches. ‘All these are Groups of people in the first place and Buildings after’ he writes, emphatically, alongside.

Born in 1854, Geddes was instrumental in the regeneration of Edinburgh’s New Town in the 1880s, and was chair of botany at the University of Dundee between 1888 and 1919. It is he who coined the motto ‘think global act local’ that now guides much urban regeneration.

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Paul Noble, Egg Carton Technique Actual, 2004, pencil on paper. Courtesy: the artist 

Paul Noble, Egg Carton Technique Actual, 2004, pencil on paper. Courtesy: the artist 

Opening concurrently with the Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee this weekend, Geddes’s profoundly human vision of civic design is recalled in a modest way at the exhibition ‘Politics of Small Places’ at the city’s Cooper Gallery, alongside works by Paul Noble. The urban sprawl of Noble’s ‘Nobson Newtown’ (1996–ongoing) drawing series here reaches a bleak Modernist apogee – housing units reimagined as bulk egg boxes. For both Geddes and Noble, urban spaces are forms of communication: things to be read. With civic literacy comes the understanding of the place you live, and by extension your place in the world.

Dundee is deep in such thoughts. In conception, at least, the new V&A exemplifies Geddes’s famous maxim. Its form was inspired both by weatherbeaten coastal grottoes in the north of Scotland and the shelter offered by the cantilevered roofs of Japanese temples. Perched on the city’s harbourfront, it is Dundee’s public face to the world. Its unveiling was conducted to great international fanfare, to be followed, it is dearly hoped, by a spike in tourism.

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Courtesy: V&A Dundee; photograph: © Hufton + Crow

Don’t be fooled by the heroic press shots of Kuma’s boatish building looming massive in the Dundonian twilight, however: from the city it is near invisible until you are upon it. Even then it appears dwarfed by the masts of Captain Scott’s ship Discovery, docked alongside. Within, the building feels huge. You enter to soaring oak-lined public spaces – a meteorologically adjusted version of the open piazzas thought to lure the museum-shy in less chill climes. The temporary exhibition gallery shares dimensions with the V&A’s new subterranean hangar at South Kensington. Its ‘Ocean Liners’ exhibition is handsomely accommodated, and the plan is for the space to host both V&A and touring shows. Kuma has produced an eye catching but not overbearing building that delivers more space than it promises.

The Scottish Design Galleries house a curious hodgepodge of Scottish-ish objects from the V&A’s archive and beyond. There are surprises, among them an ornate huqqa pipe entwined in silver waterlilies made by Scottish goldsmiths working in India in 1867. Underlying a number of exhibits is a tale of decades of neglect meted out by former custodians. Among these are the plans of Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s abandoned Brutalist seminary at Cardross, and the salvaged remains of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Oak Room from the Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow, demolished in 1971. 

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Scottish Design Galleries, V&A Dundee. Courtesy: V&A Dundee; photograph: © Hufton + Crow

Thinking of Geddes’s assertion that people should be served by their institutions and infrastructure, rather than vice versa, perhaps the greatest strength of the Scottish Design Galleries is not the exotic but the overwhelmingly familiar. From the Glasgow Style to The Beano, the Lemmings computer game to Star Wars costumes, Pringle sweaters, Ray Petrie’s fashion styling and the dark and fantastical comic books of Grant Morrison, this is Scotland’s day to day. It’s your childhood reading; your auntie’s kitchen dresser; your Speedo-branded swimwear. To place this in a museum and flag up its importance as that mythic stuff – ‘design’ – is empowering in a city throwing itself full throttle at regeneration.

Speaking at the press conference, John Alexander, the dynamic young SNP Leader of the City Council said that he already sensed ‘a pride in the belly of ordinary Dundonians that wasn’t there ten years ago.’ At GBP£80.11 million, the V&A Dundee is only part of a GBP£1 billion waterfront construction scheme.

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Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead, 2012, an Artangel commission. Courtesy: Dudee Contemporary Arts

Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead, 2012, an Artangel commission. Courtesy: Dundee Contemporary Arts

Five minutes up the road at Dundee Contemporary Arts – a gallery with a large and thriving print studio attached – two exhibitions offer rather different ideas on home, city and national pride. Three films follow Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead (2010–11) – a replica of his single-storey childhood home, loaded onto a flatbed truck – as it is driven along Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Travelling west, from downtown to Westland, the satellite town he grew up in, Kelley’s journey echoes the ‘white flight’ to Detroit’s suburbs in the mid 1960s. This road trip reads the city’s troubled social history in the stratifications of its urban geography.

Santiago Sierra’s Black Flag (2016) documents the artist planting the black flag of the anarchist movement at both the North and South Poles: a riposte to the proprietorial sense of nationhood that usually accompanies such gestures and the vast human effort that accompanies them. In these moments of assumed civic and national pride – the unveiling of a monumental new city gallery, for example – Black Flag is a stark assertion, as Geddes might have put it, that we are groups of people in the first place and countries after.

V&A Dundee opens to the public on 15 September.
‘Politics of Small Places: Paul Noble + Patrick Geddes’, runs at the Cooper Gallery, 14 September – 6 October
‘Santiago Sierra: Black Flag’ and ‘Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead’, both run at Dundee Contemporary Arts, 8 September – 25 November

Main image: The V&A Dundee, designed by Kengo Kuma, 2018. Courtesy: V&A Dundee; photograph: © Hufton + Crow

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London.

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