By Chris Rogers, Feb 16 2021 05:13PM
The National Gallery in London wants to remodel its Sainsbury Wing entrance by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates from 1991 to give it greater presence on Trafalgar Square, improve the visitor experience once inside and better connect the Post-Modern extension in which it sits to the Victorian Wilkins building next door. The project is to be finished in time for the Gallery’s bicentenary in 2024.
Great controversy surrounded construction of the Wing almost a generation ago, although subsequent public acceptance, ongoing critical acclaim and award of the highest grade of heritage protection have all occurred since. Unfortunately, too, has the realisation that a quarter-century-old building no longer entirely works for today’s users, and so – a few years after Lloyd’s of London, who trod an identical path – another historic institution in the capital is faced with the need to alter an acclaimed, listed work by a ‘starchitect’.
Personally, today’s announcement comes as no real surprise. Although I’ve come to like the absurdly grand yet false perspective of the huge scala regia that gets you to the Wing’s upper floors (from whence the chronological sequence of galleries begins) whilst providing elevated views over the Square, the Wing entrance does fail in most respects. It’s in the wrong place in relation to the complex as a whole, far to the left of the main portico (which is after all on axis with Nelson’s Column), and is not actually in the Square at all. Already a storey lower than its traditional cousin and so lacking in presence, it’s additionally burdened with a kind of negative doorway, a vanishing void of black glass and steel unannounced by anything at all (intriguingly a model of the scheme before it was built is slightly more welcoming). Inside, I wonder whether the shop – a pale shadow, after two major redesigns, of the original and anyway replicated several times elsewhere in the building – is necessary any more. The lobby is just a space between that, the main stair rising to the right and another tucked away ahead that leads down to the main temporary exhibition space.
Pleasingly, if unexpectedly, the competition brief accepts all of this criticism and adds some more. The lobby is neither obvious nor visually connected with the main building, to which it is attached by a bridge link over the pedestrianised Jubilee Walk, cannot accommodate the necessary security screening facilities, fails to aid orientation and is uninviting and inflexible. Ways to address all of those points are keenly sought, therefore.
Beginning outside, I was pleased to see the brief confirm the Gallery’s ownership of the raised lawned areas immediately in front of the Wilkins building’s flanks, something I had doubts over when encountering slumbering individuals there the summer before last, and the strong suggestion that these elements might be modified and improved to help achieve that connection between the two blocks is to be welcomed. This would also tie together the ground level entrances either side of the Wilkins portico. There is also careful reference to the existing “black glass curtain wall that runs alongside the grand staircase” of the Wing, though perhaps ‘blank’ would be equally accurate as an initial descriptor since that is the unwelcome effect from the point of view of anyone looking from the Square. I would thus expect – as is now happening with many commercial PoMo buildings erected in London in the same era – removal of that glazing in favour of conventionally clear glass.
The same intervention is undoubtedly going to be applied at the entrance portal proper to mitigate what the brief bluntly refers to as its “fortress-like appearance, […] established by the gates and black-tinted glazing which prevent passers-by seeing in and create an off-putting impression”. Any more than that here would be difficult to pull off though given the very absence of trimmings is part of the architectural essence of the Venturi scheme. On the other hand, surely ADDING a pediment in a suitably contrasting material or style would be topping the joke…?
Inside I do not expect the shop to survive. It will be stripped out and the space used instead to solve some of those capacity problems – after all, the Louvre did the exact same thing beneath Pei’s pyramid, a contemporary of the Sainsbury, just a few years ago. What scope there is for altering room heights is unclear so anything more radical might not be possible, but some changes to the cloakroom and other spaces is probable; that much of the ‘structure’ visible in this area isn’t, in fact, but merely applied decoration is also pointed out, as is that Grade I listing being based on “the events surrounding the building’s commissioning and public debate” rather than its “actual architectural qualities”. Ouch.
Whatever happens the result will coincide with the rather more significant reorienting of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery under its own scheme of works. Should be interesting.