• Chris Rogers

Face/Off

Today the National Gallery published its chosen architect’s initial proposals to remodel the building’s Sainsbury Wing entrance and a small part of Trafalgar Square, almost exactly a year after first announcing the project. Since my reaction then is now a lost post, a revisit seemed sensible to compare my predictions to what has actually been put out for public consultation. Let’s see how I did…


16 February 2021: 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.


The plan is indeed to remove part of the western-most dwarf wall and lawn to expose a ground floor door in the original Wilkins building and allow level access to what will be a new research centre and members’ room within. I’m not keen at all on the new suggestion of mature trees being planted on the lawned areas – you can’t and mustn’t ‘green’ everywhere, because the architecture of façades needs space to do its job too. Slightly further out, the pedestrianised alley that runs between the two blocks at ground level and below the bridge that connects them higher up is also to be reconsidered to improve north-south links to Leicester Square, though that might be tricky given the actual topography and conditions.


16 February 2021: The Sainsbury Wing, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in 1991, is 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). In the brief there is 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 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.

And yes, Selldorf Architects are now planning to bring more natural light into the Sainsbury Wing and improve views out to Trafalgar Square by “potentially” replacing areas of dark glass, although the Gallery itself appears more definitive. There is the usual disingenuity around the justification – Annabelle Selldorf herself is quoted in one press article today as saying “There are some drawings that Venturi Scott Brown did [in the late 1980s] that show visitors going up the stairs and seeing the activity outside [but] in reality that doesn’t happen”, which isn’t true in my experience – though given what I pointed out a year ago it’s unnecessary.


16 February 2021: The lobby is just a space between the shop, the main stair rising to the right and another tucked away ahead that leads down to the main temporary exhibition space. 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.


The lobby – now described as cramped – is to be opened up, with an image showing removal of some of the ceiling structure. The aim is to allow more visitors to be accommodated so that queueing outside can be significantly reduced; the metal gates and railings, original to the 1991 scheme but which are currently used to control that very function, are also to go. There are hints of “accessibility” improvements to the scala regia main stair, but a chairlift or similar would be crass so that might be one for more thought.


16 February 2021: 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. I do not expect it 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.


Right again; press reports state that a change of location and size for the main bookshop are likely, part of those lobby works. It seems as though the restaurant on the first floor might also be for the, er, chop, though this fairly major move is hidden amidst rather simplistic feedback questions that gauge opinion on various options for that area. Beyond the lobby there will be a new connection driven through at basement level, meant to permit an easier two-way flow of visitors between the Wing (which is now the main entrance) and the original building (whose own entrance is now closed).


So I was pretty bang on. In answer to my query to the development team today over the paucity of information available for this round, I was told that “we are at an evolving stage in the project and today we are launching a first consultation on the early design concepts”. In addition to a website and a Zoom event, the materials themselves will remain on display from 2 March to 18 March for anyone visiting the Gallery to read and there are in-person drop-in sessions (albeit open for barely 10 hours in total) to meet members of the project team and representatives from the architects. The filing of a planning application is scheduled for the summer.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture