The last time the Victoria and Albert Museum tried to build an extension, the design was likened to an exploding cardboard box and sparked an eight-year battle for approval and funding which ended in a resounding no.
The episode must have left a bad taste in the mouth as, once Daniel Libeskind's Spiral design crashed and burned spectacularly after being denied Heritage Lottery funding, the extension was never mentioned again.
Until now. The museum's project and design director, Moira Gemmill, has revealed that the V&A will hold a design competition this autumn for a major extension on the very site where the bitterly controversial £70m Spiral was intended to go. But there seems little chance that the V&A will risk anything that is architecturally radical; the Spiral may be history, but it still casts a long and very dark shadow.
That eight-year nightmare ended on 16 September 2004 when the V&A's director, Mark Jones, was forced to concede that the Spiral odyssey had turned into the architectural equivalent of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch. The scheme was to have been built on the V&A's Boilerhouse Yard site, a shambles of offices and plant rooms that lies behind the classical screen along Exhibition Road, designed by Aston Webb in 1891.
The Spiral seemed cursed from the start: the startlingly adventurous geometry of its design, in which Libeskind was closely supported by Cecil Balmond, alarmed influential architectural traditionalists in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and duly became London's greatest cultural battleground, a schizoid scheme perceived as an avant garde cause celebre by London's trendier modernists, but as a carbuncular hate object for legions of the neo-Victorian or Duchy Originals persuasion.
The first cracks in the scheme appeared in 2000 when the Millennium Commission and the Arts Council refused to consider major grants for the Spiral. Finally, and despite having been given planning permission bravely by the Royal Borough, Lottery funding was withdrawn on the grounds that the Spiral would not have delivered "major heritage benefits".
It was a painful and high-profile blow to the institution, despite the fact that other major projects in the V&A's £150m phase one strategy went ahead. Once savagely bitten, twice very shy. So much so that the V&A was only prepared to describe the eight ideas for the Boilerhouse Yard in its new exhibition as "helpful" design studies, rather than as schemes or potential proposals – even though most of them are likely to be in the running when the design competition is launched.
The V&A now wants the polar opposite of the upwardly exploding, five-storey Spiral – a flat piazza on the same level as Exhibition Road, with 1500 square metres of new exhibition space beneath it. Costing £30m at most, it will carry less than half the Spiral's price-tag and, much more significantly, will unlock the second 10-year phase of the V&A's FuturePlan development strategy.
"We want to create a new semi-public space," said Ms Gemmill. "The new piazza needs to be absolutely beautifully designed. It can be a place for temporary art, or all sorts of activity."
Ms Gemmill said it was crucial that the scheme did not fail because without it, other projects in the V&A's £150m phase two redevelopment – new galleries for fashion and textiles, photography, Asian art, theatre and performance, and 19th century exhibition spaces – could not go ahead.
Are the Boilerhouse Yard design studies, currently exhibited at the V&A, any good? Well, five of the eight are architecturally deferential. The designs submitted by Tony Fretton Architects, Sutherland Hussey Architects, and the Norwegian practice Snohetta, are the least disruptive, visually and spatially. Their schemes create significant courtyard areas. These would tie in with a separate scheme by Dixon Jones Architects for the planned transformation of Exhibition Road as a pedestrian-priority surface whose decoratively paved surface would be planted with trees.
Two other schemes, by Jamie Fobert and Francisco Mangado, blur the line between the groundplane and the basement zone without too much drama – though Mangado's description of his scheme as "a carefully carved jewel" is hilariously fatuous. The design offered by the Dutch practice OMA seems a deliberately "difficult" architectural montage.
The only two faintly risque design studies are by Amanda Levete Architects and the Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects. The Levete scheme resembles a coiled, Alien-like form partly embedded in Boilerhouse Yard. The Dubliners' design is the most adventurous on show, and would create an intriguingly skewed rotunda in the upper part of its underground segment.
Ms Gemmill confirmed that the V&A would hold an open international design competition, and one hopes that the jury will be international, too, so that talented smaller practices will not be scared off by a "usual suspects" vibe, or the threat of a royal intervention. But the bottom line is that the V&A must know that the winning design will work, not least to placate public and private funders, some of whom will have been sucked into the Spiral fiasco. "We need to be utterly convinced that the scheme we choose can be built within a particular time-frame, and to a particular budget," said Ms Gemmill.
The eight contenders by Jay Merrick
Norway's hottest designers envisage a theatrical piazza-cum-stage stage whose surface compensates for the 2m slope across the site and leads visitors, without much more architectural ado, into an underground exhibition space daylit by punctures in the coffered surface. But there's no hint of real formal or material beauty.
Heneghan Peng Architects
This is a design of intelligence and brio. Based on the concept of spherical volumes, it dares to create a vivid 21st century ambience while establishing new links between Exhibition Road and the V&A's central John Madejski Garden.
This resembles a more ambitious cross between the Fobert and Levete schemes because of its angular trajectory and range of materials. A corridor-like structure made of glass encases the north, west and south edges of the site, and the floor of the central courtyard is tiled with geometric mosaics.
Jamie Fobert Architects
Reveals the original rear facade and claims that the interior presents a poetic vertical volume "reminiscent of the V&A's existing domes and vaults". Alas, key images suggest a rather vague relationship between form and space.
Levete is renowned for her svelte geometric treatment of surfaces and articulations and her response to the Boilerhouse Yard is to create a cantilevered walkway that eventually takes visitors into a "vast" column-free exhibition zone. A fusion of the blingtastic and empty space.
A canny scheme, the only one that creates a two-storey loggia segment along the eastern edge of the Boilerhouse Yard. This would produce a raised café that would overlook the courtyard, and give glimpses into Exhibition Road. Like the Fretton scheme, it looks easily buildable.
Office for Metropolitan Architecture
Creates a new east-west axis, opens up historic basements and, like the Heneghan Peng scheme, forms a new link to the John Madejski Garden. The design gives no sense of atmosphere, but ticks the obvious boxes relating to movement, semi-public space and exhibition area.
This scheme is a simple and elegantly colonnaded courtyard that is, in effect, an extension of the forthcoming pedestrian-prioritised makeover of Exhibition Road. It would contain a south-facing outdoor café and a covered entrance to the museum and the Sackler Centre. Safe, and easy to build.