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Fashion Gallery 40, V&A, London, England

Issue 69 Oct / Nov 2012 : Retail : Museum

Architect: 6A Lighting Design: BDP

BDP has created a fashionable lighting scheme using custom made elements for an exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Fashion Gallery 40 is the latest exhibition space within London’s Victoria & Albert museum, which re-opened as part of the museum’s ‘FuturePlan’ scheme after undergoing major refurbishment works. The ten month closure saw the spectacular space restored, ensuring it was ready to house the ‘Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950’ exhibition which will reside there until January 2013.

The V&A’s wider renovation ‘FuturePlan’ programme is designed to transform the museum, revitalising visitor facilities and redisplaying the collections. By using the best architects and designers, the V&A’s aim is to restore modern design and innovation to the heart of the museum. Many of the galleries have already been renovated since the programme began back in 2001 bringing the facilities in to the 21st century including new mechanical and electrical services, lighting plus improved access and disabled facilities.

The gallery is split over two levels; the permanent display fixtures are located on the more intimate ground floor with the visiting exhibitions afforded the mezzanine space. From here the spectacular domed roof can be seen from all angles providing a fitting backdrop for the iconic fashion creations currently residing here. Uplighting to the eight columns renders them in silhouette subtly reinforcing the architectural lines without detracting from the exhibition.

The lighting of the roof posed one of the first challenges for the design team to overcome; how to provide enough even illumination to do it justice without competing with the overall architecture of the space. Mark Ridler, Lighting Director at BDP who provided the architectural lighting design on the project said, “We heard that regular visitors were not even aware that a dome existed. Our task was to give the architecture back to the public whilst maintaining an appropriate visual balance with the displays”.

Working collaboratively, the project architects 6A and BDP designed three glass fibre reinforced plastic (GFRP) light rings, each over nine metres in diameter to house all the equipment needed. The rings not only gave the large space a statement piece, but provided a platform for all the spotlighting to exhibits on the mezzanine level. The sectional profile of the rings was carefully engineered to ensure the linear fluorescent uplighters are not visible from any point in the gallery and the custom curved ERCO track is recessed up into the body of the rings for a cleaner aesthetic.

“The technical and aesthetic challenge was to make any physical intervention as minimal as possible. This was achieved through meticulous detailing and respecting the fundamental geometries of the space,” said Ridler.

The sheer weight of the rings provided its own set of challenges. The structure of the domed roof could take the load, but providing clean, perfectly straight suspensions meant the electrical contractor, SI Electrical, had to feed the structural and electrical cables through steel tubing for structural rigidity. This was then encased in expandable fibrous sheath for a flawless, straight finish. Grommets were used at the opening of the plaster to protect the finish of the suspensions from any imperfections. This clean, neutral aesthetic runs throughout the space and was the product of many design workshops and on-site mock-ups working through how finishes sat against one and other under the lighting.

The gallery is located adjacent to John Madjeski Garden where daylight is abundant, therefore managing the wide range of light levels within the space has been done carefully to ensure the transition between the varying conditions is eased. The small retail space is located at the brightest point in the gallery where custom LED pendants light the lower floor with a small contribution from display case lighting. As visitors ascend to the mezzanine, the ambient drops to the required level provided solely from reflected light off the roof. The ambient levels on the mezzanine were designed to reach no more than 50lux for reasons of conservation. The whole transition is managed gently to allow the visitor’s eye to adjust.

The lux/hour limits on many of the exhibits meant commissioning was a careful process of fine-tuning the lighting. The V&A in-house design team was responsible for the focussing on the mezzanine and BDP designed multiple levels of dimming into the scheme to provide maximum flexibility for Ballgowns as well as future exhibitions. Each element of the architectural lighting was individually controllable and preset scenes were programmed to provide a range of lighting conditions. Finetuning to the levels was done on site; the work-horse of the scheme was the fluorescent uplighting which was dimmed visually to allow the spotlighting to the exhibits to sing through. Each ERCO spotlight has an integral potentiometer to allow for precise tuning of levels on individual pieces.

There were many people on site at the commission stage all with a particular interest in the project, so finding a visual balance to suit everyone was a challenge. “I will judge this project a success if visitors leave wowed by the exhibits and architecture without really noticing the lighting,” said Ridler.

The ballgowns exhibition opened in the new gallery in May 2012 with a star-studded opening party with guests including Hollywood A-listers as well as the celebrated designers of some of the creations on display.



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