‘Like a clown in a tutu’: architect of the National Gallery in London gets into trouble over renewal plan | National Gallery

TThe architect of London’s controversial Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery has publicly hit back at plans to completely rebuild it, accusing the new designer of “making our building look like a circus clown”.

When it was completed in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing, designed by Denise Scott Brown and her husband Robert Venturi, was initially derided by modernists and traditionalists. But by the time Venturi died in 2018, according to architectural historian Dr. Barnabas Calder “in the very top of postmodern buildings internationally” and Historic England granted it Grade II listed building status.

Now the future of the building is up for grabs again and Westminster Council’s planning committee will decide whether to approve plans for a substantial rebuild. The director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, has commissioned Annabelle Selldorf to immediately make the Sainsbury Wing more attractive to visitors.

But Scott Brown is not happy. “She makes our building look like a circus clown,” she said. “There are elements of tragedy – circus clowns are made up to look happy, but they’re not. This is a circus clown wearing a tutu.” Scott Brown, now 91 years old, is used to fighting back when it comes to her design. Despite being one half of the most influential postmodernist architectural collaboration of the 20th century, she was often overlooked in favor of Venturi.

Annabelle Selldorf's vision for the revamped interior of the gallery's Sainsbury Wing.
Annabelle Selldorf’s vision for the revamped interior of the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. Photo: Selldorf Architects

“We went to Sainsbury’s house one evening and we all ate,” she said, “and I was seated next to Prince Charles. I showed him the plans and he loved them. Then he said something about “your husband’s building” and I said, “Just a minute. We are partners in this. We both designed it.’”

Scott Brown and the then Prince of Wales were guests of John Sainsbury, the shopping magnate, who had raised £50 million with his brothers to fund an extension to the National Gallery. Venturi Scott Brown was selected to design the building after the Prince objected to previous plans as a “monstrous carbuncle”. However, the objection to the new design was so great that when the Queen came to open the building, she was “very angry with her subjects for being so rude to the donors,” recalled Scott Brown.

She had to fight again when Venturi was awarded the Pritzker architecture prize in 1991. Scott Brown was excluded by the jury despite his request that she be recognized as an equal partner.

A visualization by Selldorf Architects of the entrance to the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing after the refurbishment.
A visualization by Selldorf Architects of the entrance to the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing after the refurbishment. Photo: Selldorf Architects

Now she and her friends have once again gathered resistance to the new plan. So far, eight former presidents of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) have condemned Selldorf’s “insensitive” plans, saying the plan would turn “a finely designed space into an airport lounge.” Other objectors include Hugh Pearman, Francesco da Mosto, Jules Lubbock and the Twentieth Century Society. The National Gallery has supporters including Tim Sainsbury and managed to convince Historic England to overcome its initial objections.

Scott Brown’s research began in the 1950s when she and her first husband, Bob Scott Brown, were driving around Italy in a Morgan 3 Wheeler and discovered the Mannerist art of the late Renaissance. “We stayed with friends who were of the lower nobility who lived in the basement of what had been their palace,” she said. “Downstairs they have multipurpose rooms and the scale between that and the house above worked beautifully. That’s what we tried to do with the National Gallery. And it worked.”

The Sainsbury Wing, which houses the Renaissance collection, has a facade that was intended to be a Mannerist variation on the theme of the main house, designed by William Wilkins in 1832. ceilinged room intended to feel like the crypt of a Italian church with the weight of the building above. From there they can climb a wide staircase to the light, airy galleries. The suspended walkway connecting the Sainsbury wing to the main building is conceived as a Bridge of Sighs.

Even the darkness of the lobby has a purpose. “By the time people come up our stairs, they’ll look around and say ‘you’ve cleaned the paintings,'” says Scott Brown. “But we didn’t — we let their eyes modulate with the coolness of the downstairs.”

These subtleties may be lost on most visitors who have long waits to get into the Sainsbury Wing. In her RIBA talk, Selldorf described the lobby as “dark and confusing”, adding that “some people think dark and confusing is good, others don’t. I belong to the latter”.

The doors have become the de facto entrance to the entire gallery for about 15,000 visitors a day, as the grand portico of the 1832 Wilkins Main House in the center of Trafalgar Square is not wheelchair accessible. Under the new designs, part of the first floor would be removed to transform the dim, intimate entrance foyer into a grander, sunlit atrium.

There is a history between the two women. It is unusual for an architect’s work to be revised in his lifetime, but the Sainsbury Wing is the second Venturi Scott Brown building that Selldorf has taken on. The first was the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which Scott Brown and her husband expanded in 1996.

Selldorf’s edit opened this year and she criticized the work of her predecessors at RIBA, saying there was “just no room for an exhibition or galleries”, and that in order to “reveal the full beauty of the original building” she had “removed” the Venturi Scott Brown installed a super-sized pergola that more or less hid the building from view.”

That pergola, which was designed to connect the museum to the village of La Jolla, was also the subject of a feud, with architectural luminaries including Sir Terry Farrell and Robert Stern among those begging for the museum to be kept.

Clearly, the demise of the pergola bothers Scott Brown, who says she gave Selldorf “a week of our office time” to work through the rationale behind the designs so she could sympathetically expand the museum. “She was so polite and so charming,” she said. ‘But she paid no attention. And suddenly she did everything.

Over the summer at the National Gallery, Selldorf and others discussed their plans with Scott Brown, but she says she saw no detailed plans, and they submitted their planning application about a week later.

Scott Brown isn’t well enough to address the planning committee, but she hopes they’ll understand why they need to keep the facade.

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