The Sainsbury Wing redesign: spare us the art-world good taste | Architecture

London’s National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, tucked into a corner of Trafalgar Square, which opened in 1991, is a building like no other. The galleries on its upper level, containing 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. Its exterior wears multiple guises: classical stonework, modernist steel and glass, utilitarian brickwork. Its interior runs a gamut of different spaces.

Designed by the Philadelphia-based partnership of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, it delights in playing architectural styles off each other. It celebrates what Venturi called, in the title of a famous book of his, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It also has some bum notes, in part because Venturi and Scott Brown had some rows with the gallery and the project’s donors, and it wasn’t realised quite as they proposed.

London’s National Gallery
London’s National Gallery was designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s. Photograph: The National Gallery

Now Finaldi wants to remodel the Sainsbury Wing. The original design can’t cope with the six million visitors who now visit the gallery every year, especially as it now functions as the main entrance to the whole building, which was not originally intended. Increased security demands add a further complication. Venturi and Scott Brown’s design, he says, is too unfriendly for modern visitors. The collection, he says, is “excellent” and the “entry needs to be excellent too.” The revised wing is also part of more extensive improvements to the gallery, including a new research centre, timed to coincide with its 200th anniversary in 2024.

A design competition has been held, won by the 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 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.

The Sainsbury Wing was born in controversy. It came about because Prince Charles, in his first foray into architectural criticism, had called a previous proposal for extending the gallery onto this site “a monstrous carbuncle 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 National Gallery’s main building, designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s, as well as the wider context of Trafalgar Square. So Venturi and Scott Brown reproduced the pilasters and capitals and cornices of the original’s façade. They then played with them, bunching them in rhythms and bending the wall through angles that would have been beyond Wilkins’s ken. They cut openings of un-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 progression from shadow to light inspired by the entry to an ancient church – first a low, crypt-like foyer, then a grand staircase, then the resplendent galleries. The stair is walled in glass but it is darkened, so that the paintings in the exhibition spaces shine more brightly by contrast. Scott Brown would later recall that people asked if the paintings had been cleaned. They hadn’t: they just looked more dazzling.

It is the gloomier part of this sequence, what Finaldi calls the “heavy grey architecture”, that he and Selldorf want to change. They want to make openings in the crypt-like ceiling, replace the darkened glass with something clearer, and thin out what Finaldi calls a “forest” of thick pillars. They propose to remove a shop and cloakroom currently occupying part of the entry level. They also plan 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 that corner of Trafalgar Square less cluttered and more open.

These changes, says Selldorf, will create a “more casual seating area, where visitors can spend time and watch people come by, a free space where everyone is welcome.” She aims to make spaces that “have a centre of gravity, have proportion and feel comfortable.” Much of which is good and reasonable and will be capably done. The problem is that the proposed new work is something else altogether to Venturi and Scott Brown’s playfulness and personality. It has curving glass balustrades, white walls and oak-clad pillars, and expanses of plain paving outside. It is an architecture of near-emptiness, the default style of international art-world good taste.

The exterior of the Sainsbury Wing today.
The exterior of the Sainsbury Wing today. Photograph: Angelo Hornak/Alamy

It is, you might say, an over-smooth facelift on the visage of an old friend. Not, to be sure, that Selldorf has an easy task. The entry to the Sainsbury Wing could certainly be improved for the reasons that she and Finaldi give, and you wouldn’t want her to cos-play Venturi Scott Brown. But there could be more rapport between the current and the proposed and more cleverness and wit. If, for example, the foyer is too grey, why not use some colour, which was something the original architects wanted? Venturi died in 2018, but Denise Scott B`rown, aged 90, is available for advice. I’m told that Selldorf is talking to her; I hope she listens well.

By refusing to align themselves with any one 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 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 in-between quality, what was later called “a bravura resolution of conflicting demands”, that is special. I only ask for the same from the remodelling.