Architecture: A new twist in fashion

The V&A's new Spiral opens in 2004, and inside things will get even more warped.
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The Independent Culture
If Daniel Libeskind's proposed "Spiral" extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum is the most controversial building in Britain, its contents, when it opens in 2004, will be just as likely to provoke a storm.

Barely a wall away from Queen Victoria's wedding dress, Clive of India's sword and the ornately carved bed of Ware, will be an exhibition featuring body piercing, S & M hoods, tattooing, and strange fashions. "The Spiral", without a curve in it, is a suitably weird outfit to house "The Body", the first exhibition planned by the curators for the new museum extension.

Daniel Libeskind gets the world's most sensitive sites: the Jewish museum in Berlin; the Felix Nussbaum museum on the site of the former SS headquarters at Osnabruch - in memory of a Jewish painter who died at Auschwitz; and the V&A. Even when the buildings are completed, curators battle over the contents. Two years after his Jewish museum in Berlin was completed, curators cannot agree which of three collections should be housed there, so the museum hasn't opened.

With the V&A searching for donors and sponsors for pounds 75m to build the museum extension, the project director, Gwyn Miles, wants to keep "The Body" under wraps. And what wraps! - a Vivienne Westwood bustier, hunchbacked dresses from Rei Kawakubo, padded underwear with built-in bellies by Georgina Godley, Hussein Chalayan tubes that hold arms rigid in surgical splints, and Alexander McQueen's fishtails for mermaids. And that is just the fashion victims.

The exhibition divides into "Chameleon" and "Ergonomics". In the Seventies, ergonomics meant kitchen worktop surfaces at the right height. In the 21st century it will be translated as 18th century chairs with names like "duchesse", "bergere" and "Marquise" that demonstrate the link between decoration, gender and sensuality. Saarinen's hanging basket called "The Womb" will be there. The "Chameleon" will explore changing the body form through transexuality and prosthetics. Aids, with its impact on mens' image will be scruitnised along with ageing. Gwyn Miles admits to being "unsure".

Unlike the body which hasn't changed much since Neanderthal woman straightened up, building forms have changed completely. Daniel Libeskind is the forerunner of this evolution away from four walls supporting a pitched roof. His buildings deconstruct, which isn't another way of saying that they fall apart.

Libeskind's Jewish Museum is profoundly unsettling. Entrances and exits are skewered and floors sometimes intersect windows. The route is sometimes oppressively low, and then soars into airless vaults of grey concrete that he calls the Void. The Final Void, a dead end lit by a sliver of light 22 metres high is a powerful place. In the Garden of Exile and Emigration 49 pillars are planted in the soil, so vertiginously leaning that the museum beyond appears to topple. Even empty, it draws thousands of tourists a week.

Many find The Spiral dangerously futuristic, with its faceted face "fractiled" as the architect calls his randomly evolving computerised patterns for interlocking ceramic tiles on the outside, that is his homage to Arts and Crafts. But the critics do not move him: "If a dog pisses on Notre Dame it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the cathedral."

There certainly is nothing wrong with his immaculately conceived Spiral. Stretch out the paper cut model of the seven storied building (and Cecil Balmond, the engineer from Ove Arup who planned it with Daniel Libeskind, does it all the time like an origami artist), and the building emerges in one long continuous strip. Concertina it up again, and the walls bite into each other. Schisms and crags burst out in such a way that detractors said it looked like "imploding cardboard boxes". No wonder councillors from Kensington and Chelsea, who unexpectedly gave the go-ahead for the building, expected the floors to tilt. In fact, they are spirit level flat.

Of course the V & A will only use this showcase for contemporary exhibits, not most of their one million objects, many of them as old as 3,500 years. The museum will have to re-invent itself in the slip stream of The Spiral. Gwyn Miles and Daniel Libeskind are visiting museums to see if they can agree on how objects should be exhibited. So far they have only been to Frank Gehry's titanium Guggenheim at Bilbao which Gwyn Miles thought dwarfed the Richard Serra sculpture in the ground floor gallery.

"The epicentre of the Spiral is orientation, education and contemporary design," Gwyn Miles explains. Seven levels - basement storage, ground floor foyer for orientation to the rest of the museum with a computer print out of individual routes, three galleries and an education gallery fireproofed for hands-on work, and roof top glazed cafes with some of the best views over London.

"The walls that lean out," Gwyn Miles tilts her hand backwards like a Thai dancer, "need textiles and costumes - we have a remarkable fashion collection. Or chairs and products. Those that lean in will have video screens of designer makers. Catwalk fashion during London's fashion week, or furniture makers during shows. People like to discover how things are made.

Fewer showcases and more screen projections are planned inside the angular building. "Sure there are corners.What's wrong with corners ? We'll use them for interactive displays to let people find out how design works."

There is always a chance that the Spiral may never happen. pounds 75m is a lot of money. "It may be called the `Something Spiral'," Gwyn Miles admits, as in "Getty" or "Clore".

The Spiral has already been turned down by the Millennium Commission for lottery funding because the building was not distinctive enough. Heritage Commission also turned it down but now the V & A hope that the Arts Council will find pounds 15m. They haven't ruled out going back to the Millennium Commission for lottery funding, despite the fact that the project has passed its sell by date for the Millennium.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who doubles as Chairman of the Millennium Commission, is clearly impressed by Libeskind. He told The Independent on Sunday that he "adores the proposed extension to the V & A, and would like to see it emulated across the country." He has a chance to make his mark on modern architecture by underwriting Libeskind's pounds 30million Imperial War Museum of the North. The museum, designed like broken shards on a bleak site in an industrial park at Trafford outside Manchester, has been turned down for Heritage lottery funding. The doggedly determined Trafford Council have raised money from private sponsorship and the EU, but still need Treasury go-ahead.

The adjacent Lowry Centre, by Michael Wilford, in Trafford, which opens as a theatre in 2000, will be topped out by Chris Smith on December 3. The Lowry badly needs the Imperial War Museum of the North to be built across the canal; without it,the theatre will be marooned in industrial parks, office blocks and car parks.

It is another sensitive site for Libeskind. When the council launched its plan for a war museum in October 1997, it said it was fitting that its architect should be Jewish, born in Poland at the end of a World War which ravaged both his people and his country. His unorthodox coupling of history and philosophy to create his buildings is "daringly holistic", they said.

"Conflict has been a constant factor of the 20th century as the world fragmented," says Libeskind. So he imagined the globe broken into fragments and took the pieces to form the building - three shards - that represent conflict on land, in the air and on water." From their archives the Imperial War Museum will supply news footage, inventions, from the field telephone to Enigma and the Net, and vignettes with nurses, squaddies, and generals focusing on their experience of conflict and its impact.

What's more, the doors will open in 2002, beating the V & A by two years. Daniel Libeskind's logo on his letterhead, the medieval masons' sign for architecture, of two overlapping circles known as a rhomboid with an equilateral triangle in between, carries a strong message - his buildings do get built and he really cares that they are crafted.