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Geometric Figures of Light: Expansion to the V&A Museum in London

The solution consisted in letting in as much daylight as possible. First via the stairway, which leads visitors from the existing structure into the expansion, where the light changes from quite bright to quite soft, only to shine in full daylight at the foot of the stairs thanks to a skylight. A jagged skylight in the ceiling of the new Sainsbury Gallery projects geometric figures of light directly into the exhibition hall and, like a display case, presents the fourteen steel supports that hold up the courtyard and form a dramatically rugged ceilingscape.

The gallery was to be truss-free, so the architects spanned the courtyard, which is 38 m wide, with a steel support structure. “Usually, this is not a big problem,” admits Matt Wilkinson, a partner in AL_A and the architect responsible for this project. “However, the museum wanted to hang artworks and lighting inside, and receive large numbers of people in the courtyard upstairs, which meant a heavy additional load for the roof. The higher the supporting structure, the deeper you need to dig, and correspondingly the more expensive and difficult the project”, Wilkinson continues. By designing a folding roof, the architects were able to do without wide lower braces for the supports and open the roof between the deep sections, making the overall space seem more generous.

The surface of the courtyard is covered with 11,000 porcelain tiles, which makes it the first square to be completely covered in ceramic. This material is a direct reference to the museum itself, whose porcelain collection counts among the world’s finest. In order to adapt the material to the 21st century, the geometry of the tiles for the new exhibition hall was created digitally. To further ensure than the courtyard would not be misread as a grid pattern, the architects decided in favour of rhomboid tiles instead of rectangular ones. Moreover, the tiles were laid diagonally. 

The last aspect of the project, yet perhaps the most important one, is the opening of the stone screen by English architect Aston Webb, who also designed the main building of the museum. The screen suffered visible shrapnel damage in the Second World War and sheltered the courtyard from Exhibition Road, now a lively pedestrian zone. Over the course of the expansion, the breastworks between the columns were removed. Now the colonnade with the central archway has been opened up, for the 35-mm thick perforated metal gates are closed only at night. The perforation pattern echoes the original shrapnel marks, meaning the war damage will not be forgotten. During the day, people can walk in from the street and more freely than before stroll among the other museums and cultural institutions on Exhibition Road, such as the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

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