In 1996, Studio Libeskind won the competition for the proposed extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. What followed was a protracted eight-year saga that underscored the challenges faced in building groundbreaking architecture and saw one of the most stunning designs of the 20th century fall by the wayside.
Known as the “Spiral,” Daniel Libeskind’s design—in concert with Ove Arup’s Cecil Balmond—pushed the boundaries of engineering and architectural theory. The building was to be an upward spiral of intersecting planes, creating a jagged vortex inserted between three Grade I listed buildings. The building is derived from an extruded section of a fractal pattern: a geometric pattern relating to the Golden Section. The extruded line was then wrapped upon itself to create the unique shape of the non-axial spiral. The system of continuous, interlocking wall elements required no supporting beams, thus creating unencumbered, free flowing interior spaces that mirror the movement in the façade.
The Spiral was much an exhibit as it was a container for art, redefining the relationship of curation and the curated. The interior spaces marked a departure from traditional museum galleries and were designed for the broad programmatic needs of the 21st-century museum. The intention was to create dialectic spaces that fulfilled the museum’s creative and educational mission, while also serving a diverse, international public endemic to the modern metropolis. The interior spaces would have included galleries, auditoriums, educational studios, a resource center, a restaurant, a café, shops, and an observatory at the apex. The spaces were designed to operate independently or together, and Libeskind envisioned fashion shows, school events, design showcases, and other distinctive programming opportunities utilizing the unique spaces.
Despite endorsements from English Heritage, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the Spiral was met with immense criticism and funding challenges. The project survived multiple local council votes to stop it, brought by individuals dismayed with the break from neo-Classical and Victorian architecture. Ultimately, the project’s downfall would be a funding shortfall. While Studio Libeskind and the V&A were able to raise significant funds—and execute a redesign that shaved $50 million off the cost—a lack of additional funding saw the project die in the Summer of 2004.