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The Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London (Part 3)


The Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] The National Gallery had been a famous competition for years and it had been an old furniture store that was bombed. And so, it was kept for the National Gallery for an extension after the bombed store was removed.  A big open site, and one of the last bomb sites left in London, I would imagine. So, I’d been reading in the architectural press of England, this long debate. I think, there was something like 74 different competition entries. And at one point I think Skidmore, Owings and Merrill won a competition; many other people made entries. Ahrends Burton and Koralek produced a winning competition and it was in design and we gathered from the press, that there were still lots of questions about it. And the curators, in a way that we got familiar with later, ourselves, said, well, we agree with your basic access pattern, but you really need to do this, and could you do that and could you please take away your circulation from the edge and put it in the middle, you can leave one on the edge as well. So, now they had two circulation systems for one and a half buildings, you could say. And one way and another, they… they said, ‘Would you do such and such?’ And the architect said, ‘Yes sir’, because you must serve your client, mustn’t you, so you say, ‘Yes sir’ and you do what it takes to do.

And then eventually they said, ‘We need a coffee shop and could you please put it at the top of a very tall tower over the building?’ and they said, ‘Yes sir, steel and glass coffee shop and a tall tower’. Then Prince Charles looked at that and said, it looks like a carbuncle on the face of a beloved friend. And the same client, I believe, who asked them to do all that, fired them. And I made that deduction from seeing the embarrassment on the looks of the people I went to talk to at the National Gallery, when on the basis of seeing everyone they mentioned and whom they spoofed and whom they thought would… whom they caricatured as making certain competition entries, they… I decided that these people hadn’t heard of us. And they may have heard of us, but they didn’t know we were doing museums. And so, I called one of the Trustees there and said, ‘I’d like to come and talk to you’. And he said, ‘Well, I’ll be away but you could talk with the Keeper of the Museum’, as he’s called, ‘and his assistant’. So, I had tea with these two gentlemen and talked to them about America and England, and about architecture and about Sir John Soane whom we loved, and about the fact that we were doing another museum and showed them something of that. And they said, ‘We didn’t know you did museums’. And at one point they said, ‘What would you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, without having faced it, I think we would probably maintain the corner’s height that exists on Trafalgar Square and we’d probably use Portland Stone, which is the famous London’s stone’.

[RV] Of the existing building.

[DSB] Of the existing and of much of London, it’s a limestone. And they said, ‘Would you use classical columns?’ and I said… they said… no… they didn’t say that, they said, ‘Would you do a classical building?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so’, and they said, ‘Well, why not?’ and I said, ‘Well, because we’ve never done one. But’, I said, ‘something about the rhythm of the pilasters would be important to us’. And it was quite prescient to have done all that because that’s in fact, what did happen. The rhythm of the columns and it isn’t really Classical it’s more like a billboard referring to a Classical building. But all of that came out and we did accept the basic plan of the one that they had approved. It was basically Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s plan, which brought an L shape corridor from the existing building across Jubilee Walk and straight down the middle.

And then Bob solved something that I didn’t see anyone else ever solving and made the whole thing work, which is, you had to take the entrance right at the corner of Trafalgar Square. It was the only logical place for the entrance. But everyone had to end up together, coming from the main building and coming from this new entrance on the second floor, what we say the second floor, what the English would say the first floor, just outside gallery number nine and across Jubilee Walk.  Well he produced a very big stairway that led you up there slowly past another mezzanine floor, as well. And, it took you down into the basement two levels too. So, he had the stairway linking everything in a very understandable way and brought you in at the top floor to the new experience of the… some of the most precious paintings in the world and in that gallery, which are in the Sainsbury wing.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 5 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010