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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Gallery, going

Richard Jolley’s cartoon, originally done for Private Eye, is fun but accurate: Britain’s national galleries of landscapes and portraits really are adjacent to each other, and one does indeed have a height advantage. Both are also in the middle of creating more space, albeit for visitors rather than pictures, and one is attracting some controversy in the process. As each institution did much the same thing twenty or so years ago, it’s worth looking beyond the fuss and asking why.

The first problem in Trafalgar Square is one of threshold management; cultural attractions have seen dramatic rises in visitor numbers over the last few decades, the pandemic aside, and this puts pressure on existing arrangements. The second is that expectations are now higher when it comes to the facilities expected inside – shop, café, restaurant, cloakrooms, toilets. The third looks to improve outreach and income – accommodating educational visits, the provision of an auditorium or event space and a smart members’ room. Staff benefit from studios, a library and laboratories as well as decent office space, whilst ways in, out and around must tie all this together efficiently, securely and in a manner that doesn’t discriminate.

The National Gallery last addressed this daunting list with its East Wing project of 2003-05. Designed by Dixon Jones Architects, this turned an internal courtyard into a glass-roofed, marble-lined circulation space that linked the main galleries to an existing but unused doorway opening onto the square and to new and existing spaces for retail and refreshments. Before that the Sainsbury Wing to the west of the original William Wilkins block, completed in 1991 by Venturi Scott Brown, provided rooms for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, a large shop, an auditorium, a restaurant and a digital exploration area, all accessed by an entrance intended to supplement Wilkins’s portico. The National Portrait Gallery’s principal issue at the turn of the last century was an unbalanced L-shaped layout that placed a constricted entrance in the short arm of that plan and most of the exhibits around a blind corner and several floors up a dark Victorian staircase. This was resolved by an ingenious deal done by the two galleries that saw some of the NPG’s rooms pass to the NG in return for the right to fill in an internal courtyard that sat between the two buildings. The work, also by Dixon Jones, created a basement lecture theatre, a café, a much larger lobby with an escalator that provided a short-cut to the paintings and a rooftop restaurant.

These schemes gave their respective organisations breathing space for a generation or so but today both are still struggling.

The National Gallery receives around six million visitors a year, which the Wilkins portico with its narrow and vertiginous steps can no longer support. The main entrance was shifted to the Sainsbury Wing a few years ago but has insufficient covered waiting areas or security controls for that purpose and is dark and visually detached from the rest of the gallery, to which it is connected only by a first-floor bridge. The restaurant and shop both closed during the pandemic and have not reopened, both being described as too large for current needs (the digital space disappeared even earlier). The National Portrait Gallery is still entered from a restricted pavement on a busy street through an awkward set of doors; an even tighter second entrance leads downstairs to the shop and café. Not all its galleries are well-visited, facilities are limited and interventions have been piecemeal and moved away from the ideas of the original architect, Ewan Christian.

The current burst of activity on the north side of the square is the response. Across the two buildings work is focussed on improving – or even relocating – the ‘front door’, managing queues and orientating people once they are inside, as well as providing or upgrading the various amenities. The similarities of approach are of interest, as are the differences. Which will serve audience and building best?

Last night the National Gallery was granted planning permission for Selldorf Architects to remodel the ground floor of the Sainsbury Wing by lightening the metal gates and railings, removing columns and walls, cutting back part of the first floor to make a mezzanine and swapping tinted for clear glass on the main stair. Outside, some of the existing walls and lawns around the Wilkins building will be taken away to make more space for seating, there will be excavations to link both blocks below ground and some rooms will be altered for other functions. Annabelle Selldorf explained more of her thinking at consultation webinars, where executives outlined their reasons for backing her. At one I attended in the summer we were told “The gallery is ideally suited for pictures, but we’re trying to improve it for people.” The key is felt to be a “more accessible and less formidable entrance” although – in answer to a question about materials – Selldorf said “Portland stone might find its way inside” along with Yorkstone flags “for certain”. The virtual audience was informed – with an admirably straight face – that the gallery will “Repurpose the retail experience elsewhere in the visitor journey” to feature “smaller pop-up retail moments,” and that the old restaurant (the National Dining Rooms) had apparently “not been working for us for many years” so is now used as corporate event space. Having the entrance beneath the earliest art in the gallery thought to have a compelling logic, allowing Wilkins’ portico to become “the grand exit” with “a real Instagram moment” overlooking the square “at the end of the visitor journey”. The works will close the Sainsbury Wing until 2024, the bicentenary of the NG.

The changes to the Sainsbury Wing have been roundly condemned by a slew of architects and critics, including Denise Scott Brown herself, who see them as a crass assault on a Post-Modernist masterpiece; last-minute design concessions did little to soften this stance. Personally, I find the level of opprobrium directed toward the Selldorf scheme baffling. The Sainsbury Wing may well be the supremely intellectual exercise in Mannerism that its Grade I listing suggests but I doubt one in thousand visitors understand that the gloomy, confusing and low-ceilinged lobby echoes a church crypt and is intended as a moment of compression, to be released by mounting the stairs to the airy gallery spaces above. Getting wet whilst awaiting that experience is also unlikely to be appreciated, whilst the replacement of the glazing simply reflects (sorry) current practice in relation to many buildings of the era, which are now felt to be unattractively and impractically glazed.

That said, no-one at the gallery will admit that cutting a new entrance at street level below the Wilkins portico a decade ago would have solved the problems this new scheme is designed to address at a stroke. It would have placed a large, fully accessible entrance in the centre of the gallery, where most people would expect to find it, and at the architectural cost of a few minor rooms. Since I am far from convinced that every visitor starts at the beginning of the collection anyway, the additional advantages for visitors uninterested in half of the paintings and for a building that no longer needs to have everyone traipsing through all of it appear evident. The elephant outside the building, arguably, is St Vincent House, across the road to the north and not part of the current plans – I have been told that any plans for it “will be considered as part of a future iteration of the Gallery’s wider masterplan.”

Next door, the National Portrait Gallery is closed. It is half-way through construction of Jamie Fobert Architects’ project to form a new main entrance that points north rather than east, reshape the public realm immediately outside and carve out an even larger foyer inside. These plans were approved some time ago, very quietly, mirroring I imagine the more modest place the body has in the public conscience compared to its neighbour, and should be completed in 2023.

The gardens surrounded by railings were added in first half of the twentieth century, along with the memorial statue of Sir Henry Irving. They do not have any opportunity for the public to sit or gather, notes the NPG’s planning application (which is a little ironic since the lawns to the NG are freely sat on, lounged on and indeed slept on), so this entire area is being altered in partnership with owner Westminster City Council. The statue will be moved forward, the railings removed and the landscaping revised. A new bridge over the basement area will connect to a new entrance, which is being created in the middle of the main façade by cutting down three of the existing windows and inserting a doorcase in each. Chairperson & Regional Partner Liz Smith of architects Purcell, who are also working on the project, describes this dropping of the sills and new central space as the “best way of bringing the elements together, returning to the original architectural intent and achieving a more coherent” building. This feeling is to be enhanced by restoration, repurposing and other “overlaying [of] found detail where the building is at peace."

Inside, a fair amount of demolition is being undertaken that will affect parts of the building from both the Ewan Christian and Dixon Jones eras. Smith – speaking at an event on working with existing buildings that I attended – refers to this as asking “Which puzzle pieces do we keep and rearrange?” One such piece is the NPG’s own East Wing, a curious sliver scabbed on to the NG by Christian who was required to match Wilkins’ architecture as a result. Long-since used as back-of-house space and, as mentioned, gifted to the NG previously, this has been returned to the NPG and will be converted back into top-lit galleries at first floor level. The new foyer, which will connect with the Dixon Jones work and a new shop, will be made from existing exhibition space. Throughout the building other elements will be similarly sacrificed but some will be retained; in early investigations some original features were even re-discovered. Horizontal circulation will be improved by unifying accessible and non-accessible entrances and vertical movement by opening new portals to the existing lift.

No professional has voiced objections to what are actually quite major interventions, and the gallery has simply got on with it as a result. Occasional glimpses through the hoardings and progress reports on the NPG’s website hint at what it will all look like.

It is remarkable to find two major galleries that happen to be neighbours addressing the same issues at the same time with almost the same solutions. The National Gallery is making the best of a bad job given that earlier missed opportunity; the impact on its architecture is as overstated as the opposition, which should instead be wondering whether the scheme is actually enough to solve the stated problems. The National Portrait Gallery is taking a far more radical path, and doing so with rather more fortitude. Moving away from its bigger brother and establishing its own identity seems the right thing to do, the method appears sound and the result may well have wider benefits beyond the building itself given the forgotten nature of the current location.

Of course, what goes around comes around. When the same problems re-emerge in 2050, as they inevitably will, perhaps someone will realise that having Britain’s national galleries of landscapes and portraits not only standing adjacent to each other but actually sharing many spaces and architecture suggests the obvious response – a merger. Gallery, going indeed.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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