tTucked into a corner of Trafalgar Square, opened in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London is a building like no other. The top-floor galleries, which house works by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca and other masters of the Italian Renaissance, achieve a widely admired combination of serenity, substance and character – “practically perfect,” says the gallery’s director. , Gabriele Finaldi . The exterior has several guises: classical masonry, modernist steel and glass, utilitarian masonry. The interior includes a range of different spaces.
Designed by the Philadelphia-based partnership of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, it loves to play off architectural styles with each other. It celebrates what Venturi called, in the title of a famous book of his, Complexity and contradiction in architecture† It also has a few comments, in part because Venturi and Scott Brown had some argument with the gallery and the project’s donors, and it didn’t materialize as they suggested.
Now Finaldi wants to renovate the Sainsbury Wing. The original design cannot cope with the six million visitors who now visit the gallery annually, mainly because it now acts as the main entrance to the entire building, which was not originally intended. Increased security requirements add a further complication. Venturi and Scott Brown’s design is, in his opinion, too unfriendly for modern visitors. The collection, he says, is “excellent” and the “submission must also be excellent.” The revised wing is also part of more extensive improvements to the gallery, including a new research center, to coincide with its 200th anniversary in 2024.
A design competition has been launched, won by New York-based Annabelle Selldorf, widely respected in the art world for her designs for private galleries such as Hauser & Wirth and for prestigious institutions such as the Frick Collection. Her approach is understated, refined, neutral. She suggests opening up, making space, bringing in light, and creating what she calls “a more generous and welcoming space.” However, neither she nor Finaldi show Venturi’s and Scott Brown’s clumsy genius all the love it deserves.
The Sainsbury Wing was born into controversy. It came about because, in his first attempt at architectural criticism, Prince Charles had called an earlier proposal to expand the gallery on this site “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a beloved and elegant friend.” Members of the Sainsbury family intervened, offering up enough of their supermarket assets to pay for a new project.
It was clear, given the Prince’s intervention, that the new building would have to be relocated to the main National Gallery building designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s, as well as to the wider context of Trafalgar Square. So Venturi and Scott Brown reproduced the pilasters, capitals and cornices of the original façade. Then they played with them, bundling into rhythms and bending the wall through corners Wilkins didn’t notice. They cut openings of non-classical width in the stone wall to accommodate the expected crowds. They added other elements – the steel and glass, the brick – in apparently incongruous styles.
Inside, they created a transition from shadow to light, inspired by the entrance to an old church – first a low, crypt-like foyer, then a grand staircase, then the glittering galleries. The staircase is walled with glass but is darkened so that the paintings in the exhibition spaces shine brighter through contrast. Scott Brown would later recall people asking if the paintings had been cleaned. They didn’t: they just looked dazzling.
It’s the bleak part of this series, what Finaldi calls ‘heavy gray architecture’, that he and Selldorf want to change. They want to make openings in the crypt-like ceiling, replace the darkened glass with something brighter, and thin out what Finaldi calls a ‘forest’ of thick pillars. They propose to remove a shop and cloakroom that currently occupy part of the entry level. They also plan to create a new underground connection from the wing to the main house and to remove a small fenced yard (not part of Venturi Scott Brown’s design) in front of the Wilkins building, around that corner. from Trafalgar Square less cluttered and more open.
These changes, Selldorf says, will create a “more casual seating area, where visitors can spend time and watch people pass by, a free space where everyone is welcome.” She wants to create spaces that “have a center of gravity, have proportions and feel comfortable”. Much of it is good and reasonable and will be done skillfully. The problem is that the proposed new work is something very different from the playfulness and personality of Venturi and Scott Brown. It has curved glass balustrades, white walls and oak-clad pillars and expansive solid pavement outside. It is an architecture of almost emptiness, the standard style of good taste of the international art world.
It’s, you might say, a too-smooth facelift on an old friend’s face. Certainly not, that Selldorf has an easy task. Access to the Sainsbury Wing can certainly be improved for the reasons she and Finaldi give, and you wouldn’t want her to play Venturi Scott Brown cos-play. But there could be more rapport between the current and the proposed and more cleverness and humor. For example, if the foyer is too gray, why not use some color, which the original architects wanted? Venturi passed away in 2018, but Denise Scott B`rown, 90, is available for advice. I’m told Selldorf talks to her; I hope she listens carefully.
Refusing to join any architectural camp, traditionalist or modernist, Venturi and Scott Brown won too few friends for the Sainsbury Wing when it was new. A young critic (me), overly enraged at the prince’s arrogant meddling, scolded a “dermatological exercise,” and I wasn’t alone. But I was wrong. It is precisely this intermediate quality, which was later called “a bravura solution of conflicting requirements”, that is special. I only ask for the same from the remodel.