My plea to London’s National Gallery to scrap its £35m Sainsbury Wing new entrance plans

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There are growing concerns that London’s National Gallery, in its eagerness to have a spruce new look soon after its bicentenary in 2024, is pressing ahead too fast with plans that involve making drastic and irreversible changes to its Grade I-listed Sainsbury Wing and, in the process, removing most of its early Renaissance collection from display until 2025.

The Sainsbury Wing opened 31 years ago and is the only UK work of Philadephia-based architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Objections have been raised by English Heritage, Historic Buildings and Places, the Twentieth Century Society and a slew of architecture critics since the designs were submitted for planning approval this summer.

Never originally intended to serve as the National Gallery’s main entrance, the Sainsbury Wing has done so for six years now. At busy times queues form for the bag check, but otherwise it has absorbed the extra footfall remarkably well and is in good condition. However, the shop and restaurant activities previously sited here have now been moved into the main building. The Paula Rego mural Crivelli’s Garden (1990), commissioned for the restaurant, has also been removed and will be the subject of an exhibition next summer. These spaces are now conveniently seen as ripe for redevelopment in a corporate-modern style thoroughly at odds with the richly allusive historicist architecture of the rest of the wing.

It was granted a Grade I listing, the highest possible, in 2018. Historic England’s listing notice describes it as “a highly individual design, achieving a balance of old and new in the display of Early Renaissance art”, and cites “lack of alteration and legibility of the overarching concept” as one of the reasons for its designation. Its intactness is therefore crucial.

‘An act of vandalism’

The assumption that the Sainsbury Wing would become the permanent main entrance and that this would require major works was written into the gallery’s architectural competition brief for the project. The winner of the competition, Selldorf Architects of New York, headed by Annabelle Selldorf, proposes alterations to both exterior and interior—the interior changes being so intrusive as to provoke outrage. Sean Griffiths, architect and professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, told online architecture and design magazine Dezeen last month: “In the context of the unique character of this building, the deployment of ubiquitous corporate, airport concourse aesthetics in the proposed revamp looks a lot like an act of vandalism to me.” Meanwhile Rowan Moore, the Observer newspaper’s architecture critic, described the Selldorf approach back in June as “an architecture of near-emptiness, the default style of international art-world good taste”.

Conservation bodies such as Historic England set great store by reversibility—the doctrine that changes made to such significant buildings should wherever possible be removable, with the original architecture still there to be found. But here, the proposed alterations are not reversible. They hack away the carefully considered sequence of spaces as designed by Venturi and Scott Brown, removing large parts of the first floor and its façade onto the grand stair, junking nearly all of the original architectural details. These—such as the crypt-like character of the entrance floor with its fat columns and coffered ceiling—were inspired by the architectural characteristics contemporary with the works in the Renaissance galleries on the top floor. The whole experience of moving through the spaces, ascending from (relative) dark into light, was very carefully considered.

There is anger too that—after a pre-planning consultation with the usual bodies earlier this year, at which such concerns were raised—the designs now submitted to Westminster planners take very little account of them. One of those bodies, Historic England, in a letter to the planners, details the amount of harm the project would cause and urges them to seek amendments to reduce it. In particular it notes: “Internally, harm would result from the transformation of the intended character of the ground floor of the Sainsbury Wing and of the drama of the visitor’s journey to the main galleries by seeking to create a more conventional large and open ground floor space.”

The Twentieth Century Society also calls for more of the original fabric to be maintained. Generally the “amenity societies”, as these consultative bodies are called, take this line. They nonetheless accept that keeping the Sainsbury Wing as the main entrance to the whole museum is a fait accompli.

I disagree. In my view this unbalances the whole composition of the National Gallery. William Wilkins’s 1838 building is very far from great—it wrecked his reputation when built—but at least it put its presently closed-off entrance in a central portico. In the early 2000s East Wing building programme, the Getty entrance was added at pavement level to the right of the portico, leading to the Annenberg Court within. Another entrance was mooted to the left, but this was never done. I would urge the gallery to scrap the Selldorf plans and return to the drawing board—this time with a much improved central entrance as the brief. Then let the Sainsbury Wing return to being the subsidiary entrance/exit it was designed to be. But if the gallery continues to insist that its main entrance should be at the far western end of the main complex, then only the most minimal and respectful alterations to Venturi and Scott Brown’s unique building should be allowed.

The proposed changes to the Sainsbury Wing, costing at least £35m, are only the first phase of what is intended to be an £85m programme of capital works, for which some £50m has already been raised. These include a new Members’ House and Research Centre within the old building, and a new basement-level link to the Sainsbury Wing that Historic England warns will affect the archaeology beneath the site.

The early Renaissance works in the wing would not all vanish into storage. Around half of them will be rehung in other locations across the gallery, it claims, though that will clearly displace other major works. When the later capital works kick in, it estimates that only 25-30% of the overall collection will typically be on display (historically most of the works have been on show).

If, despite the wave of objections, all this receives planning permission from the City of Westminster this autumn and goes ahead as originally intended, the Sainsbury Wing—including its entrance—will close completely from mid-February 2023 until spring 2025. During this period the main entrance point will return to the Wilkins portico and adjacent Getty entrance: there appears to be no problem with that. It makes one wonder what the overwhelming rationale is for spending £35m on making what the gallery’s notice describes as “some exciting changes to improve the welcome we provide to you and our visitors”.

• The “determination date” for the National Gallery’s comprehensive planning application, comprising all the phases of its NG200 development, was 13 September. This has now been delayed and will likely be reported to the Westminster Planning Committee, which handles large applications.

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