Essay

Sainsbury Wing: Objection from Denise Scott Brown

About

On November 29, 2022, the City of Westminster Planning Application sub-committee will be determining full planning and listed building applications, which propose to radically alter the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and their team spent six years designing and constructing this building. Denise Scott Brown would like to explain the care and thought that was involved in its creation and why she cannot support the proposals that are to be placed before the committee.

Contributors

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Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. © Phil Starling. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

The Entrance Hall

The design of the Sainsbury Wing is steeped in the history of London and Western European architecture.

Externally, it continues the themes of the main gallery Wilkins’ building with a jazzy mannerist façade. This alters as it steps forward from the alignment with the National Gallery, acknowledges the building line of Pall Mall, and reflects the architecture of the London clubs. Large openings cut out on this diagonal façade, which addresses Trafalgar Square, indicate from a distance the level access entrance.

The building orchestrates the transition from (large scale) outside to (small scale) inside by firstly allowing one to penetrate the outer stone façade into a covered loggia with a double-height ceiling, then turning the visitor as the ceiling steps down again over the doors, which are traditional in scale and material, and turning once again, one enters into an entrance hall which maintains this lower height.

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The scale steps down as one enters. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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The entrance hall and information desk as originally constructed. © Phil Starling. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

Here, one feels the weight of the building, the large stone columns emphasizing the transfer of loads from the large volume above. The stone floor, the coffered ceiling, and the colonnades illustrate the axes of the building and help to orientate the visitor within the space. The character is similar to entering the lowest level of a Florentine palazzo, with the traditional rusticated stone base.

Two widened columns—both column and wall—provide enclosure to this portion of the lobby, infer direction, and present a surface for gallery guidance and exhibition display posters. The building naturally moves the visitor towards the information desk and thence to the cloakroom where wet coats can be shrugged off. From here, one can easily move to the lifts or turn back towards the foot of the main stairs. All the while one is aware of the presence of and being tempted by the rooms above, under a coffered ceiling that originally was designed to be finished in warm, welcoming colors.

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Columns-as-walls. © Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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The original information desk. © Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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The theater lobby. © Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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Study for the coffered ceiling by Robert Venturi. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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The layered façade, the inflection of the angled and curved walls, the colonnades, the columns-as-walls, the patterns on the floor and ceiling, the curved information desk, the wide opening at the foot of the grand stair—all work together holistically to gather one in and show you the way. Ground plan by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, 1987. Pink movement pattern by Richard Pain.

As one steps on to the foot of the main stair that leads to the glories of the galleries upstairs, the ceiling leaps up first one then three floors, the compression of the entrance hall ceiling is released, and the full empathetic experience of the building lifts you towards the art above.

The glazing is darkened glass for several reasons. The lower light levels in the entrance hall and then slightly raised on the stair condition one’s eyes so that, when the well-lit galleries are achieved, the art looks dazzling. When the gallery first opened in 1991 many thought the art had been cleaned but in fact it hadn’t—a reflection of the success of this architectural sleight of hand.

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Rusticated stonework to the lowest level (only). © Phil Starling. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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This is the point of release, the moment the ceiling leaps in height and the stair opens up—the ascent to the glories above. © Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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The windows to the gallery provide an important visual link back to Trafalgar Square. © Phil Starling. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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Main stairs. © Richard Pain.

This darker glass also allows conservation levels of daylight to pass to the galleries. The internal windows that face the stair allow views back from the gallery to the outside. These are rooms within a building rather than isolated volumes for viewing art—as in so many modern galleries—and the windows provide that important connection back to Trafalgar Square and allow one to reorientate oneself. Originally, to enforce this concept, we also designed destination windows to terminate the end of the main long gallery so that visitors could look out over the double-height space above the restaurant and out to Pall Mall.

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Main Stairs, exterior window detail. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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Main stairs, interior window detail. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

Beguilingly, the dark glass also becomes transparent as the external light fades and the stair and its ascending folk gradually, magically, become evident to those outside.

On the mezzanine / first floor level above the entrance hall is a restaurant where one can sit by the windows and, looking through the layers of the façade, enjoy unique views over Trafalgar Square.

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© Phil Starling. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

My Concerns

Much of this carefully orchestrated movement of the visitor through the building will be lost should the current proposals be approved and the destructive, irreversible demolitions be allowed to proceed to this Grade I listed building.

The compression will be lost with the opening up of voids in the ceiling.

The movement and removal of columns loses the hierarchy of spaces and legibility of the design. The columns are intentionally heavy and serried just so as to convey the weight of the building above, to strengthen the release and elation of that first step on the grand stair.

The material is a pale limestone to maintain consistency across this entrance level. Smooth Pietra Serena is reserved for the galleries above. Its proposed use in the entrance hall is inconsistent with the palette that has been established to convey this servant space. Skinny smooth Pietra Serena columns and rough Pietra Serena void edges are anathema to the Sainsbury Wing as a whole.

The Egyptian-style columns, used externally and internally too to assist in the containment of space, moved to form the backdrop of a shop, is treating the elements of this building as if it were a Lego set.

Changing the dark glass to clear will wholly alter one’s experience of the art and bring in high levels of light that will put pressure on the new blinds to the gallery stair windows to be pulled down and so lose that important connection between inside and outside.

The close relationship of the restaurant to the windows will be lost and the intimacy with that fantastic view through the layered façade.

Removal of the patterned stone paving and the coffers will erase the connection between floor, ceiling, and colonnade, and lose the powerful orientation of oneself to the directional axes within the building.

Stripping the iron gates of their second layer will diminish their visual weight; lightening them to a pale grey will detach them from the shared memory of London’s railings. The gates to Jubilee Walk are offset so as to align with the opening under the rotunda and leave space for the ramp to be enjoyed at a slower pace.

The loss of the lobby space to the theater would remove an intimate gathering area amongst a sea of circulation, the adjacent flowing wall the visual link to the floors above and the central pier a direct link back to Robert Venturi’s love of the Philadelphian architect Frank Furness.

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Main gallery entrance. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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© Matt Wargo. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

Our Approach—The People Freeway

As a student in the 1950s I visited museums all over London on Sundays because I was studying at the Architectural Association during the week. I could not believe the crowds. I was from Africa and felt that, anytime I went through a London doorway, six people went with me! I soon became aware of how crowds behaved in museums. Later, Bob and I went looking at different crowded places—World’s Fairs, the palaces on the Loire, Las Vegas casinos, and the New York subway. As a planner and architect, I was fascinated by how people moved and my professors recommended that we, architecture students, look at places that people choose, as they were obviously not the places that architects had designed. Dr William LC Wheaton, for example, Head of Planning first at Penn and later at UC Berkeley, recommended we go look at Las Vegas.

While traveling, I frequently found myself in groups of more than 150 people where guards headed the line but there was no supervision at the back of the crowd. There, I saw people stripping wallpaper and taking other souvenirs of their visit to museums! And I studied how people moving sixteen abreast through a gallery got oblique views of paintings, and how a habit was developed of moving towards the center of a phalanx where you could see more directly.

We studied deeply before we put pen to paper to understand what people love in a gallery or in a public space that would make them want to visit. Particularly for the Sainsbury Wing, we considered how the building would open its arms to its streets. Not only in how people would enter the main rooms and the galleries but also how the outdoor space would, as it so beautifully does now, lend itself to hovering as a welcoming and protective mother over protests about the Iraq War or the arrival of the American president.

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Anti-War protest. © Steven Izenour. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

It is the character of early Renaissance paintings that we are preparing you for. This art hangs mostly in churches. What is nativity painting but a mother and child and its intimacy and size make it hard to mix with crowds, but we did our best because we knew that people of all kinds, from the poorest to the richest and from the youngest to the oldest, love these paintings. We were asked and we did enable the possibility of looking straight ahead in the galleries devoted to Italian paintings but also seeing across through doorways and openings at the parallel galleries containing early Dutch painting. The Italian and Dutch Schools could be seen either in sequence or in parallel.

So from this point of view the ground floor that you are considering now is, and should be, a very busy place where you go to do your preparatory business, grab a snack (or hold an opening party safely away from the paintings), collect your tickets, pick up a guide plan, put away your packages, take off your wet coats—and by the way it is ridiculous to propose to put the cloakroom in the basement—because no one will go there. Wet coats will then adversely affect the most vulnerable paintings and all the rest of the galleries.

The winding flow of a crowd to meet all these activities we called a People Freeway, through being crowded, not because they are running fast. They must get information as they get their tickets, and head upstairs and slowly—slowed down because they are going up the stairs (luckily, centuries ago the danger of flooding was avoided by raising all the galleries well above ground level)—and getting their eyes more modulated to a dimmer light before arriving at corridors scaled to the new collection. And they come into the brighter galleries and say—and they do say—“Ah, you have washed the paintings!”

That sequence is one of which we are very proud.

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Perspective galleries with axis window. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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Lobby elevation. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

My Plea

Refusal of these applications is the only appropriate decision.

In refusing them, the committee should urge the applicants to understand the provisions of the original architect using any such advice as they may require to do so and bring forward a scheme that better secures the considerable architectural thought that informed the original work.

Go back to what we first had and take a look at it. The chosen architect in their accepting the refusal should find means to understand the reasoning I have described here and using their own design preferences still obey those useful rules about helping people to see the things that they need to see.

The chosen architect in accepting the refusal should return to the original plans and try to understand what they stood for and then interpret them in their own way. It should be important that they meet the same fundamental criteria that we met.

Without this, the intervention is arbitrary, meaningless, and not grounded in a proper and respectful understanding of the role of access in this museum. They should be exceptionally pleased to have the opportunity of working with a building of the highest level of listing and of not traducing that standard by what they do as it will affect all future cathedrals.

Only 2.5% of listed buildings are listed at Grade 1. Of these there can be only a very tiny number where the original architect is still living, and crucially willing to freely engage and advise upon such significant interventions.

What this architect does now in this Grade 1 Listed Building could endanger all the others.

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© Timothy Soar. Courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates.

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