The landscape of a country usually says more about it than its architecture. Every time architecture uses its surrounding landscape as inspiration for its form and texture, it is only an acknowledgement of that truth.
Ever since Scotland’s first design museum, the Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee, opened its doors in September 2018, it’s served as a prime example of landscape inspired architecture done right. To achieve this feat, a work of architecture must do three things: draw from the surrounding culture, become part of the physical landscape, and stand out while seamlessly blending in.
Taking design inspiration from a landscape requires a certain understanding of the area around it. In the case of V&A Dundee, the architects chose to celebrate the rocky cliffs on Northern Scotland’s Orkney Island. There, the rock randomly meets the water’s edge as the waves crash against it, causing the stratification that gives the cliff faces such orderly horizontal textures. In a similar fashion, the southern part of V&A Dundee rises and stretches out above the water, breaking the flat plane between land and sea with a jagged edge of its own.
When a building is made to look like a part of its surrounding landscape or draws inspiration from locations of topographical importance, it also has to do a good job of fitting the context. One cannot look at the forms of V&A Dundee, for instance, and not think that they resemble a ship. It looks like it’s supposed to be there — not like a foreign object that has descended from space. Even the texture of the concrete blends in with the color of the water, depending on the quality of the sunlight and the ripple of the waves on the River Tay. Yes, V&A Dundee looks like it has existed for decades, even though it’s less than a year old.
Finally, good landscape-inspired buildings are seen without being seen. This is similar to being part of the landscape but goes even further in the way of not looking out of place. Even inside the main hall where the café and shop are, the narrow and short ribbon windows make V&A Dundee seem like the inside of a ship. This gives the visitor a more natural feeling than the regular fenestration found on the building’s second level, where the permanent Scottish Design Galleries are. Where one feels like a ship next to a river, the other feels like a building next to the river. And while we may have become used to both experiences, the former feels much more real and appropriate in this context. To top it all off, the modesty of the building’s exterior allows it to recede into the surroundings and at times become unnoticeable.
Think of all the waterfront projects that go out of their way to make a bold statement with nonsensical, disproportionate forms and flashy materials. But not V&A Dundee. No, this museum shows how even the humility of a landscape can be transformed into architecture, continuing the story of the land in the most natural way possible.