Dundee is not the first city to take a cultural path to regeneration, but the newly opened V&A museum may change Dundee's profile beyond all recognition. Just as the Guggenheim Museum has become an icon of Bilbao, and the Opera House an icon of Sydney, Kengo Kuma's new museum may take on a similar role for Scotland's fourth city. Perhaps a globally-recognised icon is what the planners were hoping for – American Vogue is already of the view that 'Dundee is one of Scotland's most exciting places to be.' Aye, weel, maybe.
The museum itself is certainly exciting, as well as architecturally ambitious. Perched on the banks of the Tay, just next to HMS Discovery, it seems to act as a pyramid of optimism for the city and its hard-to-impress citizenry. Last week, during the tattie holidays, scores of Dundonians, of all shapes and sizes, were queuing round the block for a chance to visit the much vaunted museum. Walking into the entrance hall does take you into another world. The slanted wooden layers rising from the floor right up to the ceiling echo the concrete furrows on the exterior of the building.
There is no panoramic view of the Tay, but in the midst of the wooden layers there are small but and ben-sized windows which give tantalising glimpses of the river as you climb the stairs to the design galleries. You are given the chance to discover the Tay from a variety of unusual angles. The entrance area has a compelling impact that draws visitors in and invites them to leave the noisy world of everyday life behind.
The design section contains a mass of artefacts from the worlds of engineering, fashion, furniture and healthcare, as well as artworks from DC Thomson's Beano and more recent computer games. There are so many of them that the area has a slightly cluttered feel to it – in contrast with the elegant simplicity of a room created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Oak Room was part of the Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow and, after being in storage for over 40 years, was re-constructed for the V&A. On the same floor is a space where people can come along with their sandwiches and connect to their electronic devices with no questions asked; similar in some ways to the social functions of a public library.
Despite the fact that the opening of the V&A has enabled media folk around the world to 'discover' Dundee, the museum is only the latest chapter in a process of regeneration that has been going on for some 20 years. Since the departure of the jute and marmalade industries, as well as the closure of the Timex factory, the city has been hard-pressed economically and its population has fallen from a peak of 180,000 in 1971 to 150,000 today.
The two universities have been major drivers in the efforts to reconstruct the city anew. Dundee University has become a world class leader in the field of bio-technology, and its Drug Discovery Unit has been involved in the development of drugs to combat a multiplicity of diseases. Abertay University has taken a leading role in computer game design and is probably best known for spawning 'Grand Theft Auto.' There are now many more employment opportunities to keep young Dundonians in the city and to attract others to move there. Dundee Contemporary Arts and the refurbished McManus Galleries have joined the Dundee Rep and the thriving music scene in Lochee to generate more space for cultural activities and creative dialogue.
While the opening of the V&A is a significant achievement, it is far from being the end of the story; it is just one part of an innovative development that will seek to enhance the place of the Tay in the life of the city. With funding from the likes of the Cities Development Fund and Scottish Enterprise, the next 10 years will see the emergence of a thoughtfully designed Waterfront project with the V&A at its core. A hotel is already partially built; there will also be retail units and housing for people with a variety of income levels.
There are often problems about the unintended consequences of such major developments. The Project for Public Spaces is very critical of the relationship between the Guggenheim and the rest of Bilbao. While the museum has enhanced tourist numbers to the city, they see the building as an interruption on the landscape which also degrades the civic and cultural life which pre-dated it. The seven-year-old Turner Gallery in Margate has succeeded in bringing more visitors to the town, but that focus has been criticised for failing to engage with local artists and thus undermining the sustainability of the project.
Dundee Council and the regeneration team have, from the beginning, been clear that they did not want there to be a dislocation between the museum area and the older parts of the city. Given the high levels of poverty in the city, concerns were expressed about the decision to dedicate £80m of funding to one building rather than improvements in the daily lives of Dundonians. With this in mind, there was a commitment on the part of the council both to prioritise local employment and suppliers and to ensure that any contractors paid the Scottish enhanced living wage. They wanted the relationship between the V&A and the rest of the city to be a friendly one. Dundee's existing cultural life was acknowledged and community choirs, such as Loadsaweeminsinging, featured prominently in the opening ceremonies. There were to be no barriers, physical or cultural, in the emerging new Dundee.
Although I was born in Dundee, I never lived there, but I knew it well enough to be aware of the seemingly never-ending cycle of demolitions and subsequent urban developments. I am too young to remember the pillars of the old Dundee Town House, but I can recall the opening of the Angus Hotel as well as its demise. How safe is any building in the city from the hammer of the demolition squad?
Having visited the V&A and understood the aspirations for the Waterfront, I feel optimistic that this project has the potential to transform the whole of Dundee for the better in the long-term. But it will still be some time before we can be sure that the roots of the project are strong enough to enable Dundee to flourish.