Thomas Bywater visits Scotland's long anticipated branch of the world-famous design museum
This city on the Tay might be home to the most critical design failure in Scottish history.
On a not untypical grey day looking out from the waterfront, the Tay Rail Bridge disappears into the mist. It is there, out in the abyss, that in 1879 a trainload of 75 passengers were killed when a section of the 3km bridge gave way. What became known as the great Tay Bridge disaster was a crisis for the proud nation of engineers.
This disaster arguably changed the face of Scotland. Sacked on the spot, the disgraced Thomas Bouch's plans for a rail bridge across the Edinburgh Firth of Forth were scrapped. In their stead the giant, instantly recognisable red iron girders were erected and with it a new era for Scotland's design, arts and engineering.
It seems ironically fitting then that V&A's new museum of the north should be based in the old Dundee docklands, jutting out over the water between the Tay road and rail bridge.
Scotland's reputation was redesigned here on the Tay. The museum is a welcome addition to the city with something to prove.
Architect Kengo Kuma's building is a stark departure from the V&A of London.
It looks like two upended pyramids. Next to the tall masts of the RSS Discovery — the ship that ferried Scott and Shackleton on their fateful voyage between New Zealand and Antarctica — it looms like giant concrete iceberg.
But once inside the giant stone scales, it's another matter entirely.
Kiwis familiar with the London V&A are in for a shock. Kensington's design museum, the parent of this latest Dundee branch, is one of the most recognisable museums in the world — with its meticulous collections in art deco tiled halls bear some of the most famous names in design.
The new V&A has none of that. In fact the Dundee gallery's cavernous atrium is nigh on empty.
Still it's an inspirational space. Less than a year after opening it still has plenty of room for re-imagining itself.
Like the building that houses them, the Dundee gallery's collections are newer, bolder in their direction than the southern counterpart's.
"It's about how design is important in all of our lives," explains Philip Long, the new museum's director, "how design fits into all aspects of our wellbeing."
Long is passionate about his exhibits' Scottish design pedigree, but it's the forwards thinking and contemporary inclusions that are most striking.
The coming year promises exhibitions around AI, robotics, and video games. Dundee's blocky, Victorian streets were the unlikely birthplace of gaming franchises Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and now a whole exhibition on virtual reality.
"Video games are played by over 2 billion people worldwide and this exhibition explores how video games create complete worlds and are sensitive to different sorts of human concerns," says Long on this nod to Dundee's digital design story.
His museum's mission is to look "into how design is going to continue to affect our future and is making difference to peoples' lives already."
The exhibitions on computing and the virtual world will go on to join a long line of world-class exhibitions such as the V&A's award-winning shows such David Bowie Is ... and, in time, will be making their own way round the international circuit.
What's on show is already impressive, if brief.
The permanent exhibition — the Scottish Design Galleries — and the temporary Ocean Liners: Speed & Style were memorable, but I rushed through in just over an hour.
It's not yet the mazy collection of the original V&A that one can both figuratively and literally get lost in, but then again its 19th century parent museum has a head start. Give it another 166 years, and then we'll see.
Perhaps the strongest statement about what might come out of Dundee's stone edifice is the appointment of the first designer in residence.
Story designer Simon Meeks has worked in television, game design and virtual reality — pulling all of the strands together into a discipline that is normally stored in bits and bites rather than museum display space. However, Meeks is delighted to see story and digital design on an equal footing to the traditional art and design trappings.
"From an international perspective we tend to fall back on things like tartan and Tunnocks tea cakes," says Meeks, sitting in a space that is part computer lab, part artist's studio.
"Not to say those things aren't important, but the gallery tells something that is far more contemporary, with digital design technologies as having equal weight as the traditional stuff."
Meeks' previous work has drawn from such varied influences as Scottish adventure novel The 39 Steps to Avant Garde theatre. Now he is to develop a project with the museum that is uniquely Dundee.
It might at first seem to be at odds with the rest of the exhibits — but then "Story Design" is at the heart of the city and its ambitious cultural redevelopment.
From an industrial shipbuilding port through to the centre of the virtual gaming world, Dundee has reinvented its story many times. Having been recognised by publications such as Lonely Planet as a one of Europe's most exciting cities, the waterfront museum is at the centre of its latest retelling.
The new V&A might as well be named Dundee's museum of redesign.
Three designer destinations near Dundee
The medieval castle is the site of Shakespeare's Macbeth's bloody opening act. The turreted Scottish castle and grounds just outside Dundee, is typical of a border castle-turned-palace. It is now home to the Lyons, and birthplace of the Queen Mother. A hodgepodge design marvel that shows 600 years of constant re-development.
Adult admission to Castle and grounds, £12.50 ($23); gardens, £7.50 ($14)
The steel-hulled, three mast ship returned to Dundee after carrying Scott and Shackleton to Antarctica and New Zealand. Now a museum, visitors can marvel at the remarkably advanced scientific developments and rudimentary living quarters. Experience first-hand the cramped conditions in which Kiwi explorers Clarence Hare and Louis Potaka travelled to the frozen south.
Adult tickets, £11.25 ($21)
St Andrews Links
Impossible to mention in the same breath without its moniker "home of golf" — so-called because here is where the modern game was invented. Links come in all shapes and sizes, but its 18-hole Old Course green is the one to which all others owe their design. Don't expect to get a game in. The green is booked years in advance, though they do provide some tee-offs by ballot 48 hours in advance. Non-golfers might instead amuse themselves on West Sands beach, humming the tune to Chariots of Fire where the 1981 film was shot.
Tee off on the Old Course, £180 ($330). Canter on the sands, free
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