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The Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London (Part 5)


The Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London (Part 4)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[RV] And then the last thing is that we put some windows in it, because we liked the idea that you should see paintings in the real world where you could actually look out of the window and see the real world. You had to be careful when the light comes in, it’s not going to hit any paintings, so we had to deal with that very carefully, but we didn’t want to have it like typical galleries which have no windows and have sky lights above. And so, we have clere stories above and then we have some windows so that you are in rooms in which you see these paintings that have the scale of Italian Renaissance architecture, which would be the kind of architecture that the painters were assuming the paintings would be displayed in. That’s a very complex thing. I’ve told it very quickly, but that was the approach and that seemed to work well with the clients too. So, it happened.

[DSB] In so many galleries which have lay lights, top lights, I say, ‘It feels as if it’s about to start raining in here’. And it’s sort of dark and gloomy, or like if you’ve dived into a swimming pool and you start coming up from underwater. And it’s that sort of atmosphere with the big… you see a circle of light ahead of you as your arms go up, well, it’s… and the sort of grey light of being underwater, it was like that, in some of the galleries we saw. And so, we said, we didn’t want that. But you still had to keep the paintings dark. So, we said, ‘We think we can bring light in, in such a way that it lights the people and you think the paintings are lit’. And then, we also had to control the acoustics, so we needed acoustical material up there, which could also reflect light in certain ways. And sure enough, we were, thank God, able to persuade them to do all the same colour grey wall, but a light upbeat grey. When people went into that gallery we… they said, ‘You’ve cleaned all the paintings’.  But, of course, we hadn’t cleaned the paintings we’d just lit them right. And yet, they maintained conservancy standards for lighting.

[RV] There is… was that, at least, very much, the tradition of the American museums where you spot-lit the paintings very dramatically and especially these… you have these great, horrible shadows under the lower frames… the lower part of the frames, and things like that. Whereas, the European historical tradition is more that you see the paintings in ambient light, a very special light. You don’t spot light. So, we worked very hard to get a combination, after all we are more than in the 20th century world, spot lighting is expected, but at the same time, we were making it accommodate the other tradition of ambient light as came from artificial lighting but also from the lighting above, as Denise points out, from the… in the central part of it, from the clere stories.

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: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010