Picture Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

What next for the Sainsbury Wing?

Selldorf Architects’ revised plans for the National Gallery are elegant and sympathetic

Artillery Row

I have been drawn willy-nilly into the discussions and debates surrounding the proposed redevelopment of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing, not least because I am a great admirer of its architects, who were nearly the only people who welcomed my appointment as Director of the National Gallery in 2002 and took an early opportunity to walk me through the building and describe its characteristics from top to bottom.

Exterior of Sainsbury Wing. Picture Credit: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is a building of exceptional quality because it exemplifies in pure form their interest in the ways in which buildings can, and should, contain layers of historical reference, a deep sense of connectedness to the history of architecture, not just a problem-solving machine for the movement of people within.  Its top floor particularly is one of the most beautiful set of gallery spaces in the world, designed with extraordinary intelligence and thoughtfulness about the display of works of art and how they might relate to their surroundings, a hyper-sophisticated use of the language of classicism to provide a calm, meditative and well-proportioned environment for looking at paintings.

Interior of The Sainsbury Wing. Picture Credit: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Wonderful and important as the Sainsbury Wing is, I have never been convinced that the National Gallery has looked after its entrance spaces well, including when I was its Director, because the building was designed to have a large bookshop to the left of its entrance which was repeatedly redesigned, never by Venturi and Scott Brown: it was often highly illuminated and distracted from the experience of the entrance, drawing the visitor sideways and making the experience of the rest of the entrance vestibule confusing. Desks were added and a superfluity of signage, which did not improve the experience of arrival, making the visitor feel that they were entering a labyrinth.  The final insult was when the machinery for bag searches was installed.

So, I was not at all surprised when the current Director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, announced that the entrance to the Sainsbury Wing was to be renovated to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Gallery’s foundation in 2024.

A competition was held which was won by Annabelle Selldorf, one of the best contemporary architects of museums, responsible for the brilliant installation of the Neue Galerie in New York, which opened in 2002.   She has been recruited to redesign the Frick Gallery which is in many ways an equivalent to the National Gallery in being a collection of great masterpieces, similarly loved by New Yorkers who have historically resisted any change to it.

Exterior of the celebrated Neue Galerie in New York, via Wikimedia Commons.

She was a good choice for the National Gallery because of the depth of her experience in gallery design and because of her sensitivity to, and interest in, issues of display, the detailing of internal spaces as well as the logic of exterior design.   It may have been thought, as it happens wrongly, that Denise Scott Brown would be sympathetic to her appointment. She started work a year or so ago.

In mid-June, the Observer published what was proposed, illustrated by a bland computer-generated image which exaggerated the radicalism of the redesign and made it look totally out of sympathy with the original character and monumentalism of Venturi and Scott Brown’s entrance spaces. The headline read “Spare us the art-world good taste”.

The CGI image of the redesign that started all the trouble , as shown in the Observer. Picture Credit: Selldorf Architects

The suggestion was that Selldorf, who has done a great deal of work on contemporary art galleries, was removing the complexities and contradictions of the work of Venturi and Scott Brown. Rowan Moore, author of the accompanying article, wrote that Selldorf’s “approach is understated, refined, neutral. She proposes opening up, making space, bringing in light, creating what she calls ‘a more generous and welcoming space’. Neither she nor Finaldi, though, are yet showing to the awkward brilliance of Venturi and Scott Brown all the love that it deserves”.

This article and the scheme itself have provoked a huge amount of sometimes ill-tempered, as well as passionate, criticism of both the National Gallery and Annabelle Selldorf on both sides of the Atlantic for their apparent insensitivity to the particular and, in some ways, unconventional architectural qualities of the Sainsbury Wing.  In particular, the Twentieth Century Society objected to what was proposed, arguing for the integrity of the original design of the Sainsbury Wing and that it should be respected, not neutered.

So, Selldorf and her historical advisors, including Purcell, the conservation architects, have gone back to the drawing board and have made revisions to what is proposed. Instead of treating the entrance spaces in a neutral way, they have been encouraged to adopt elements of the beaux arts vocabulary of the original scheme, including the playful Egyptian columns which originally marked the entrance to the bookshop.  One could say that the revisions are minor.

View of Sainsbury Wing ground floor looking northeast towards Grand Staircase. Picture Credit: Selldorf Architects

But they remove some of the discordance of what is proposed. The floorplate of the original mezzanine first floor where the restaurant used to be is still being cut back in two places to create an element of double-height space in the entrance.  Denise Scott Brown compares the design of the building to a double-decker sandwich, with a high-ceilinged top floor and a high-ceilinged basement with two low-ceilinged floors sandwiched in between.

View looking east from new double-height space along Whitcomb Street. Picture Credit: Selldorf Architects

But the changes have been made following the spirit of a drawing done by Robert Venturi which suggests an element of fluidity in the original design, so that the first floor now has a curvilinear balcony overlooking the bottom of the Grand Staircase.  The spaces of the entrance are, if anything, now a touch more complex than the original, juxtaposing low-ceilinged space with high, and they have been designed in such a way as to respect its architectural language, including bold rustication. The columns are no longer clad in wood, but pietra serena.

Robert Venturi’s Sketch of Sainsbury Wing gallery floor. Via Colin Amery, A Celebration of Art & Architecture: The National Gallery
Sainsbury Wing (London: National Gallery Publications Limited, 1991), 75.

The plans are now with the planners at Westminster City Council. Eight former Presidents of the RIBA have written to object to what is proposed as “an act of vandalism”. I would urge them to study the revised scheme in detail and, if possible, read the lecture which Selldorf gave recently at the RIBA which explained her thinking and that of the National Gallery in great and scrupulous detail.

In its current form, Selldorf’s scheme should be supported as a sympathetic modification to the original building in line with changed attitudes towards democratic public access. It will allow all visitors, including those in wheelchairs, to enter the building through the same entrance at street level, to meet up with friends in a generous public space, to check their coats on the floor below, before climbing the Grand Staircase or take a lift to see one of the greatest collections of paintings in the world.

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