The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Objections raised to National Gallery’s plans for Grade I listed Sainsbury Wing

Opened in 1991 and Grade I listed in 2018, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery is the only UK project by VSBA.

Image: National Gallery

C20 Society has expressed its grave concerns regarding proposed alterations to the postmodern Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, objecting to the planning application on heritage grounds. The only UK building by Venturi Scott Brown Architects and one of very few projects the practice completed outside of the United States, the building opened in 1991 and was Grade I listed in 2018.

As the National Gallery plans to mark its Bicentenary in 2024 with a suite of capital projects, a design competition was launched in February 2021 with a brief to ‘reconfigure the ground floor entrance and upgrade the visitor amenities’ of the Sainsbury Wing, which now serves as the main entrance to the Gallery complex for some 6 million visitors a year – a function it was never originally designed to fulfill.

A team led by New York based Selldorf Architects were selected in July 2021, with their extensive experience in the arts and culture sector highlighted, previous clients including The Frick Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Neue Galerie New York. It should be noted that this team have done a commendable job in researching the history of the building and consulting with C20 throughout the design development process. The Society was pleased to see some of the initial proposals for damaging changes have been dropped or positively modified, with our suggestions at the pre-application phase sensitively integrated into the revised plans. Namely the retention of the pillars beneath the Rotunda in Jubilee Walk and the retention of the decorative gates at the entrance to the Wing – both original features from the VSBA scheme.

Nonetheless, a number of design choices have been maintained that will involve substantial and unjustifiable harm to this Grade I listed asset. Our 5 key objections to the plans are outlined below:

The new plans would see the lobby significantly remodelled, with large parts of the floorplate removed and the heavyweight columns shrunk size and stripped of their stone dressings.

Image: Selldorf Architects

Objections to the proposals:

  1. The removal and reduction in size of the lobby columns, including the stripping of their stone dressings, which is justified in the application by the need to open up the space and provide sightlines to the lift access and lower stair at the rear. Wayfinding could be improved through signage, lighting, and intermediate focal points (i.e. a ticketing desk) which would not involve loss of the original fabric. The size and quantity of these columns contribute to the sense of weight and the lobby’s function as an anticipatory space where visitors gather and prepare to explore the galleries above. This experience is fundamental to the overall original design concept and any alterations should conserve and enhance this spatial experience. The columns’ bulk and arrangement as a colonnade also have a directional effect – a feature that should be embraced and amplified rather than erased.
  2. The removal of parts of the floorplate at the east wall and where it meets the Grand Stair, justified in the application by it enabling natural light to flood the ground floor and introduce visual connectivity between the first floor and lobby area. We have severe doubts that the key sense of compression at the entrance will be maintained, as asserted in the Heritage Statement. The critical point at which this compression is released, as the visitor moves right and enters the Grand Stair, will also be lost as much of the stair becomes visible from within the lobby. In addition, the portion of wall including two windows designed to emulate an interior urban scene will be lost in this irreversible and far-reaching alteration. We’d question whether a more moderate version of this design would not be possible – one that maintains the sense of compression not only at the entrance but also at the foot of the Grand Stair.
  3. Venturi and Scott Brown selected an interior material scheme that makes reference to their range of influences, particularly Italian Mannerism. These materials include the use of a pale stone cladding (sourced carefully and specifically, according to Denise Scott Brown), a chequered marble floor, and coffered ceilings. The application’s proposals show little regard for these existing features with a scheme dominated by light timber cladding on the reduced columns. Original fixtures and finishes are an essential part of the orchestral effect of the VSBA scheme and must be retained in order to minimise harm to this exceptional asset.
  4. Similarly, the Egyptian-style ‘deco’ columns that currently flank the entrance to the shop will be removed under the current plans. As a significant part of the decorative flair and postmodern signature of the building these should be retained or, if necessary, relocated within the lobby.
  5. Lastly, the removal the internal walls and seating niches within the Rotunda has been justified by the need to provide transparency and visibility along Jubilee walk and between the interior of gallery and the semi-public passage below. The Society considers this inadequate justification for such a direct interruption within this Grade I listed building’s original plan and urges the retention of the walls.
The original architects were heavily influenced by Italian Mannerism, as reflected in the interior material scheme: the use of pale stone cladding, a chequered marble floor, and coffered ceilings.

Images: Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania

It is accepted that the gallery has to adapt to accommodate vastly increased visitor numbers and implement tighter security screening, whilst also seeking to make the building more welcoming to wider audiences. However, the notion that this must come at significant cost to the architectural and historic value of the Venturi Scott Brown scheme is one that must be rejected.

The Sainsbury Wing is Grade I listed, meaning it’s an extraordinarily outstanding work of art itself – placing it in the top 2.5% of listed buildings in the country and one of very few post-war buildings recognised at this very high grade. Indeed, in the view of the Society it is amongst the most historically and architecturally significant buildings in England constructed in the past 40 years.

Future generations should be able to visit the National Gallery and see a world-class work of postmodern architecture, as well as a stunning collection of international art. It is testament to the building’s quality and longevity that it welcomes adaptation and alteration, but this must be achieved by working in the spirit of the original design, rather than introducing contradictory architectural values. It is hard to imagine any Grade I listed building of an earlier period – let alone that of a national institution – being subjected to such treatment, and we urge the architects to amend their plans accordingly.