After Libeskind, the V&A discovers the art of playing it safe

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New extension plans are less 'explosive' than a previous design, writes Jay Merrick

London's Victoria & Albert Museum, still smarting from the spectacular failure of its proposed 'Spiral' extension in 2004, unveiled seven potential alternatives yesterday.

With one exception, the shortlisted designs to replace an old boilerhouse on Exhibition Road are all safety-first concoctions. They will not trigger objections from the cultural nabobs who bridled with fear and loathing at Daniel Libeskind's "exploding box" proposal, and the architects shortlisted this time don't have Libeskind's reputation for highly complex architecture.

At about £30m, however, the new scheme will cost half the Spiral's budget. For that price, the V&A will get three important things: a big new public space just beyond the Aston Webb classical "screen" facing Exhibition Road; a new connection to the existing galleries in the western range buildings; and a new, below-ground, temporary exhibitions gallery.

The designs fall into three categories: quiet, stylish, and verging on the wahey. The quietists are Tony Fretton and Heneghan Peng. Their schemes seem intent on not upstaging the vividly graphic surface patterns of the soon-to-be-pedestrianised Exhibition Road. Perhaps, after the success of the V&A's redesigned courtyard garden, they are banking on the need for another big, calming space.

The schemes by Amanda Levete and Snohetta and Hoskins bring an effortless style to the table, and bold solutions to the two-metre drop in surface level across the site from east to west.

Michael Maltzan has gone for broke with a piazza that looks as though it has collapsed through a souflée of covered space along three edges of the site.

Jun Aoki's design is almost as zingy, and it does bring light into part of the sub-surface area. But its serpentine cut-outs seem a little forced.

Jamie Fobert's scheme will be admired by the Duchy Originals brigade.

Who'll win? The Levete scheme presents itself as the most acceptably vivid and sharply tailored face of contemporary architecture, and its gash of subterranean light is a great idea. But for pure drama, with by far the most straightforward link to the western range building and the temporary gallery, Snohetta's scheme seems the most "together" of the bunch. But the most important thing, of course, will be to avoid any controversy.

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