Causing a scene at the museum

Tonight, the V&A will either approve or reject Daniel Libeskind's proposal for The Spiral, a pounds 75m extension to the museum. The argument over his daring design has already polarised architectural opinion.

At seven o'clock this evening, 14 councillors will gather in Committee Room 1 of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall for a routine meeting of the planning committee. The agenda includes conservation grants for the Brighten- up-the-Borough fund, performance monitoring of the planning services department, and guidelines for a London Electricity Board site in Victoria Gardens. Oh yes, and the councillors must also take a decision which could have an impact on architecture in this country for years to come.

They will either give the thumbs-up or pronounce a death sentence on Daniel Libeskind's proposed pounds 75m extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is generally agreed that The Spiral, on the site of the museum's former boilerhouse, will be the most remarkable building that London has seen for many years. And that is part of the problem. Kensington's planning officers have submitted their recommendations for tonight's meeting - that the answer should be a flat no. The assembled councillors must now decide whether to heed that advice, or to take an un-British walk on the wild side.

Either way, the decision is historic. Libeskind's quirkily angular building - a kind of architectural sculpture - beat off competition by Sir Norman Foster and others to be chosen for the site on Exhibition Road. The V&A was thrilled with the proposals, arguing that the building will be "an icon for London". Alan Borg, the museum's director, argues that the failure to approve The Spiral ("a key which unlocks this very complex site") would send a disastrous message. "I can't believe that we - London or the country - can let slip an opportunity to do something as important or exciting as this. If it doesn't happen, it will be a serious indictment of our engagement with modern art and architecture."

There has been support from what might seem to be unlikely quarters. English Heritage (self-described "reactionary old fuddy- duddies") took out advertisements praising this "superb design of outstanding innovation" and the "powerful sculptural qualities which would add interest and drama to the variety of historic buildings in Exhibition Road". The Royal Fine Art Commission supported the "daring and innovative structure", and pointed out that the V&A was founded with a strong emphasis on contemporary art and design. "The Commission therefore considers that it is appropriate that a new building there should be an expression of its own time."

Local groups have, however, been up in arms from the start about the plans for The Spiral. The Knightsbridge Association complained that the Libeskind building is "a classic example of architectural bad manners". Elsewhere, too, there have been loud catcalls. The Evening Standard's Brian Sewell fulminated against this "unsuitable", "grotesque", "appalling", "beastly" building. And so on, in a steady stream.

All this venting of British spleen against the architecturally different has a history, of course. It was in 1984 that the Prince of Wales launched his dramatic broadside on modern architecture, with his description of the proposed National Gallery extension as a "monstrous carbuncle" . "That's one decision I won't have to make," as the then environment secretary Patrick Jenkin remarked that night. The Prince's own taste is for architectural pastiche.

It is, however, unclear whether such princely disdain for the different is unchallenged in 1998 Britain. Sneers about monstrous carbuncles no longer strike such a powerful chord as in 1984, when Britain still felt deeply alienated by the who-cares-about-the-public attitudes of urban planning in previous decades.

Libeskind himself - a Polish-born American who studied in London and now lives in Berlin - is dismayed, but not surprised, that the Kensington Fourteen are being advised to say no. "[The planners] didn't have the courage - bureaucrats often don't - to see this as a challenge and a hope for Britain of the future." At the same time, he believes that the concept of The Spiral returns to first principles. "It erases the 20th-century division between engineering and architecture. Arts, crafts and science go forward as a unity. It is an articulated space and part of the process of inspiring people." He talks of this as a "wholly unprecedented building", but argues: "I think times have changed, people have moved on."

Paradoxically, even the planners acknowledge the power of The Spiral: "The building is clearly of a very high quality of design, and if built, would become a national landmark." In effect, the nub of the argument for refusal is that The Spiral would draw too much attention to itself (the same argument which was used against Wren's design for St Paul's).

Whichever way tonight's decision goes, the V&A hopes that the tide of history is with them. If Kensington says no, the case will go to appeal, when John Prescott will have the last word. Borg argues: "Buildings have their moments. And this is absolutely the moment... It's the final chord of the symphony."

Previous form suggests some hidden reasons for optimism. Many of the project's critics are keen to praise modern buildings elsewhere, including the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the pyramid at the Louvre, and Libeskind's own best-known project, the jaggedly astonishing Jewish Museum in Berlin. Each of these buildings is now acknowledged to have been enormously successful. But it was not always thus. There was no shortage of critics of Frank Gehry's Bilbao project in the early stages. The museum was accused, too, of ludicrously inflated expectations when it suggested that it might attract 400,000 visitors in the first year; in the event, more than three times that number came.

IM Pei's Louvre pyramid ran into endless difficulties with the Paris planners, who (like the Kensington planners, with regard to The Spiral) believed that the design was too big for the site. The architects had to build a full-scale model of the pyramid and winch it into place by crane to persuade the doubters to change their minds. Berlin politicians, too, initially voted against Libeskind's project. One of the recent prizes that the building has won comes from the city of Berlin itself.

By contrast, it would be nice to think that London might get it right first time. The architectural terror instilled by the not-quite King Charles III (off with their modernist heads!) means that almost no buildings of any interest, let alone international renown, have gone up in London in recent years. If we are lucky, that could all be about to change. The councillors in Committee Room 1 hold the key.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried