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Scottish Sensibilities

Dundee is enjoying a new perspective with a £1-billion waterfront redevelopment crowned by a community-focused V&A museum.

Kengo Kuma outside of the V&A Dundee

In 2018 the city of Dundee was brought into the international spotlight with the opening of the V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum, the vision of Japanese starchitect Kengo Kuma.

Stretching out over the River Tay, the V&A Dundee points towards the hills of Fife beyond, like some futuristic otherworldly vessel. It comprises 2,500 pre-cast rough stone slabs, seeming to float on top of one another in two pyramidal structures.

Inside, a voluminous cathedral of overlapping wooden plates, it evokes a calm sanctuary. Kuma says his inspiration for the exterior came from the lines hewn by wind and wave in the jagged Scottish cliffs.

“The beauty of the cliff is coming from the long, long dial between earth and water,” says Kuma. “I want to translate that beauty into contemporary architecture,” he adds, in an interview for the V&A Dundee.

Simultaneously juggling the designs for the Tokyo Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, Kuma is very much the architect of the moment. And in more ways than one the museum itself was ground-breaking, as the first V&A outside of London, the first Kengo Kuma-designed building in the UK and really the first international cultural beacon for the city of Dundee, a city long dogged by high unemployment and a major drugs problem. But its new designs (including an upcoming Eden Project, set to be built in the former gasworks, close to the V&A) have earned it accolades such as Best Place to Live in Scotland 2020 (by The Times), “coolest little city”, (GQ 2015) and Lonely Planet’s top 10 destinations in Europe in 2018.

Director of the V&A Dundee Leonie Bell (c) Julie Howden

But then the pandemic struck and, after just a year of operation, the £80-million venue had to shutter its doors. According to Dundee-born Leonie Bell, who took on the role as director of V&A Dundee last October as her “her dream job”, it was a hard time. “The paint had just dried and we had to close. It was tough.” Even in the visitor hotspots of London, Paris and New York the cultural sector struggled. Along with the tourism industry, the OECD identified arts, entertainment and recreation as among the sectors most at risk due to the impact of containment measures.

It re-opened in May with a bang; and is now celebrating its third birthday in full party mode with an exhibition called ‘Night Fever’, looking at the design and culture of nightclubs from New York’s Studio 54 and Electric Circus in the 1960s and 1970s through to B018 in Beirut, which is still thriving today. On the day of the re-opening, people burst into the exhibition looking for fun; by five minutes past 10, the silent disco floor was already full of visitors bopping joyfully away to the rhythms in their headphones.

Despacio Sound System, New Century Hall, Manchester International Festival part of Night Fever at V&A Dundee

“Because we’re young and the pandemic has shaken the cultural sector, we’ve used the opportunity to think about our value and how we generate value,” Bell says, pointing to the areas of the V&A inside and out where free family and community programmes take place, including an architecture treasure trail; a specially commissioned piece of classical music that plays twice daily; and a joyful, colourful outdoor mural co-designed by a local skater community. Here, a vintage van sells Prosecco and French fries to punters; nearby a community-designed V&A Dundee garden invites visitors to stretch their legs and take a moment to reflect. “It’s more like a series of civic squares. That’s where we start, that’s our footprint,” says Bell. “The pandemic has been bumpy but it has made me even clearer that we need to offer something positive, and that design is so central to how we work our way through this. We want to inspire through design; it can be a catalyst for change across society.”

The aim, she says, is to bring in 1.5-million visitors a year. Already, between September 2018 and February 2020, one million visitors were welcomed. For a city with a population of under 150,000 it’s very respectable and looks towards Kuma’s wish for “the museum [to] change the city and become its centre of gravity”.

Legendary master distiller of The Dalmore, Richard Paterson, who personally bottled all the The Dalmore Decades dating back to 1951 (c) Grant Anderson

Key to the ability to build community programmes is private donor support, and V&A Dundee is celebrating a new sponsorship and partnership with Scotch single-malt whisky maker The Dalmore, based in the Scottish Highlands. The Dalmore traces the roots of its distillery back to 1839 and is today the fastest-growing single-malt whisky worldwide, according to the International Wines and Spirits Record (IWSR) report 2021.

Its legendary master distiller Richard Paterson has worked at The Dalmore for six decades. When asked what the greatest The Dalmore whisky he has ever made is, Paterson answers, “we haven’t made it yet”.

In the Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn auctions on 8 October 2021, The Dalmore will bring to the block its The Dalmore Decades No.6 Collection, six milestone releases from 1951, 1967, 1979, 1980, 1995 and 2000, with an estimate in excess of US$500,000 (£350,000). Fifteen percent of the auction hammer price will be donated to V&A Dundee (an estimate of US$75,000), as part of a four-year partnership between the arts institution and The Dalmore.

The partnership between V&A Dundee and The Dalmore

Back at the V&A Dundee, consummate host Paterson is describing the synergies between great whisky and timeless architecture, like that created at the V&A by Kengo Kuma; both, he says, have much in common, not least their relationship with wood. “To make great architecture it takes time and patience, just like making great whisky.”

To celebrate the partnership, a short film was created, Decades in the Making, illuminating the journeys of two world-renowned masters from childhood to today: Richard Paterson and Kengo Kuma.