Jhe Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery, tucked away in a corner of Trafalgar Square, which opened in 1991, is a building like no other. Its upper level galleries, containing works by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca and other Italian Renaissance masters, achieve a widely admired combination of serenity, substance and character – “virtually perfect”, says gallery director Gabriele Finaldi. Its exterior has many faces: classical masonry, modernist steel and glass, utilitarian masonry. Its interior handles a range of different spaces.
Designed by the Philadelphia-based partnership of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, it delights in playing architectural styles against each other. It celebrates what Venturi called, in the title of one of his famous books, Complexity and contradiction in architecture. It also has some negative ratings, in part because Venturi and Scott Brown had arguments with the gallery and the project’s donors, and it wasn’t realized quite as they had proposed.
Now Finaldi wants to remodel the Sainsbury’s wing. The original design cannot cope with the six million visitors who now visit the gallery each year, especially since it now functions as the main entrance to the entire building, which was not intended at the origin. Increased security requirements add an additional complication. Venturi and Scott Brown’s design, he says, is too unfriendly for modern visitors. The collection, he says, is “excellent” and “the entry must also be excellent”. The revised wing is also part of larger gallery improvements, including a new research facility, timed to coincide with its 200th anniversary in 2024.
A design competition was held, 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. His approach is sober, refined, neutral. She proposes to open up, to make space, to bring light, to create what she calls “a more generous and welcoming space”. Neither she nor Finaldi, however, are yet showing the goofy brilliance of Venturi and Scott Brown all the love it deserves.
The Sainsbury’s Wing was born out of controversy. This is because Prince Charles, in his first foray into architectural criticism, had called a previous proposal for a gallery extension to this site “monstrous anthrax on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. “. Members of the Sainsbury family stepped in and offered enough of their supermarket-based wealth to pay for a new project.
It was clear, given the Prince’s intervention, that the new building would have to defer to the main National Gallery building, designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s, as well as the wider context of Trafalgar Square. Thus Venturi and Scott Brown reproduced the pilasters, capitals and cornices of the original facade. They then played with them, grouping them in rhythms and bending the wall at angles that would have been beyond Wilkins’ ken. They cut unconventionally wide openings in the stone wall, to accommodate the expected crowds. They added other elements – steel and glass, brick – in seemingly incongruous styles.
Inside, they created a progression from shadow to light inspired by the entrance to an ancient church – first a low crypt-like foyer, then a grand staircase, then the resplendent galleries. The staircase is glazed but darkened so that the paintings in the exhibition spaces shine more brightly in contrast. Scott Brown later recalled people asking if the paintings had been cleaned. They hadn’t: they just looked more dazzling.
It’s the darkest part of this streak, what Finaldi calls “heavy gray architecture,” that he and Selldorf want to change. They want to make crypt-like openings in the ceiling, replace the blackened glass with something clearer, and thin out what Finaldi calls a “forest” of thick pillars. They are proposing to remove a shop and cloakroom currently occupying part of the entry level. They are also planning to make a new underground connection from the wing to the main building and to remove a small fenced garden (not part of Venturi Scott Brown’s design) in front of the Wilkins Building, to make this corner of Trafalgar Square less cluttered and more open.
These changes, Selldorf says, will create a “more relaxed seating area, where visitors can hang out and people watch, a free space where everyone is welcome.” She aims to create spaces that “have a center of gravity, have proportions and feel comfortable”. Much of which is good and reasonable and will be done competently. The problem is that the proposed new work is something quite different from the playfulness and personality of Venturi and Scott Brown. It has curved glass balustrades, white walls and oak-clad pillars, and expanses of plain paving on the exterior. It is an architecture of quasi-emptiness, the default style of international good taste in the art world.
It’s, you might say, a too-smooth facelift on an old friend’s face. Not, of course, that Selldorf has an easy task. The entry into the Sainsbury’s wing could certainly be improved for the reasons she and Finaldi give, and you wouldn’t want her to co-play Venturi Scott Brown. But there could be more connection between the current and the proposed and more intelligence and spirit. If, for example, the fireplace is too grey, why not use color, which was what the original architects wanted? Venturi died in 2018, but 90-year-old Denise Scott B`rown is available for advice. I am told that Selldorf speaks to him; I hope she is listening well.
By refusing to align themselves with any architectural camp, traditionalist or modernist, Venturi and Scott Brown won too few friends for the Sainsbury’s Wing when it was new. A young critic (me), overly enraged by the prince’s arrogant interference, railed against a “dermatological exercise,” and I wasn’t the only one. But I was wrong. It is precisely this intermediate quality, what was later called “a brave resolution of conflicting demands“, it’s special. I only ask the same of the renovation.