‘National Gallery plans will create an entrance suitable for today’s audience,’ says London museum director

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From humble beginnings in 1824 in a private house in Pall Mall – a “collection of pictures purchased for the use of the public”, as the notice on the door stated – the National Gallery has grown to become one of the world’s most most visited and admired in the world.

The museum’s approaching bicentenary offers the opportunity both to transform the reception of millions of people when they cross the threshold to view its great paintings and to revitalize its research and teaching facilities. General visitors, students, children and families will be the main beneficiaries of the NG200 project, but the National Gallery will also become a more energy-efficient and sustainable museum.

Quickly outgrowing its first home, the National Gallery opened in Trafalgar Square in 1838, in a dignified, but not universally lauded, building designed by William Wilkins. Over the decades, as the gallery’s footprint has grown, the portico and long classical facade have served as the backdrop for many public gatherings, from celebrations of sporting glory to political demonstrations. The delightful collection of Renaissance paintings by artists such as Van Eyck, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo found a new home in 1991 in the virtually picture-perfect daylight-lit galleries of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) Sainsbury’s Wing.

This building provided the Gallery with other essential equipment: an auditorium, a restaurant, for which Paula Rego, then associate artist of the Gallery, painted Crivelli’s garden (1990-91) – and a suite of temporary exhibition galleries in the basement. Scott Brown uses the vivid metaphor of the “ham and cheese sandwich” to describe the wing: tall galleries at the top and bottom, but everything else is tight in the middle. Entrance is through a dark “crypt-like” hall with “heavy columns (stand-ins for people on an empty day),” in his words, which intentionally, and slightly perversely, obscure the fact that the visitor has entered. in an art gallery, and the first floor, often described as a mezzanine, where the restaurant is located, is actually another full floor with low ceilings.

A rendering of the new double-height space and mezzanine planned for the Sainsbury’s Wing from the Gallery’s revised planning application

© Selldorf Architects

One of the defining features of the Sainsbury’s Wing is that it is accessible at ground level directly from the square. This powerful and democratic architectural gesture is consistent with the deeply rooted notion that paintings belong to everyone and that entrance to the gallery is free from the start.

In 2017 it was decided that the Sainsbury’s Wing, rather than the Wilkins Portico, should be the main entrance to the National Gallery, welcoming the approximately 15,000 guests a day who come to visit. There were three main reasons for this: first, ease of physical access; second, the availability of much more floor space to provide visitors with the necessary services, from security to changing rooms, from the information desk to the bookshop; and, thirdly, and very significantly, VSBA’s monumental staircase takes the visitor to where the collection begins with Giotto and the Diptych Wilton, rather than Wilkins’ one that takes you to where the story comes to an end with Van Gogh, Klimt and Matisse. But currently the reception experience is frankly poor and must be greatly improved. The Prado, the Rijksmuseum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and, more recently, the Munch Museum in Oslo, have emphasized the “conservation” of their visitor experience. The National Gallery must do the same.

“A square on the square”

The NG200 designs developed by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf, in collaboration with London heritage specialists Purcell, seek to reorient pedestrians from Trafalgar Square to the Sainsbury’s Wing by opening up, as she calls it, “a plaza on the place”. between the Sainsbury wing and the south-west corner of the Wilkins building, and by lightening the glazing of the façade of the grand staircase. If the building of VSBA was intended to open the gallery to the city, Selldorf opens the view of the gallery from its urban environment, dissolving the barriers even more.

Inside the Sainsbury Wing, the entrance vestibule space will be nearly doubled while retaining the distinctive mannerist qualities and pietra serena and limestone materiality of VSBA’s architecture. By cutting off part of the first floor, the vestibule rises to double height on the east and west sides while preserving the feeling of compressed space in the center, making the first floor a true mezzanine and offering fascinating views inside of the building and onto Trafalgar Square.

Gabrielle Finaldi Photo: National Gallery, London

This sensitive and carefully considered intervention in what has become an icon of post-modern architecture is rooted in a deep understanding of the original building and the intentions of its architects while responding to the changing needs of the Gallery which, in the last pre-Covid period The year 2019 recorded six million visitors, 50% more than in 1991.

It will cost £85m to build the NG200, of which £50m has already been pledged. It includes much more than the described Sainsbury Wing Hospitality (which costs £35m). A new underground link between the Sainsbury’s Wing and the Wilkins Building will allow much better circulation of the public between the different parts of the gallery grounds. It also includes a renewed research centre, the intellectual engine of the National Gallery, which aims to be the leading resource in the UK for the study of Western European painting from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, as well as a essential equipment for the gallery. members and supporters, which will be located on the ground floor of the Wilkins building.

A new entrance from Trafalgar Square at the western end of the Wilkins frontage will provide access to these facilities. Finally, NG200 also includes a completely redesigned and renovated Pigott Learning Center for children and families in the North Galleries at the rear of the building on Orange Street, the largest of its kind in the country. This is designed by architect Hannah Lawson.

Bicentenary celebrations will begin in May 2024 with the simultaneous loan of 12 major paintings to museums in 12 regions of the UK, putting a National Gallery masterpiece within an hour of half the UK population . With the delivery of the NG200 project, the gallery will be able to enter the third century of its history as the depository of the national collection of paintings and its buildings in Trafalgar Square “for public use”.

Gabriel Finaldi, director, National Gallery, London

This article is a response to a Leader by architectural critic Hugh Pearman. The ‘determination date’ for the National Gallery’s planning application covering the NG200 development is 29 November.

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