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’If you have Venturi and Scott Brown you have double your problem’


The Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London (Part 5)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] Behind the clere stories is a very big technical system which lets in daylight and electrical light, both, and adapts because England is rain, showers and sun and then rain and sun again.  And clouds move over, and so you want an awareness of that and, at the same time, you don’t want it to affect the lighting in the gallery. So it does adapt to the changes in light but it adapts a little slowly.  And the windows in the gallery… you can see out into the stairwell, so nothing again will ever hurt a painting, but you really get the feeling of being part of the world.

There is one very sad aspect to the whole thing which is that, at the end of the concourse we had wanted a window– again a protected window that let light in and that let you see down into the street, but only at a certain closeness to the window. We felt there was no painting in their collection that was strong enough to have the scale to take the feeling of a concourse at the end.  Particularly when people…

[RV] With a long axis...

[DSB] Yes, are walking 15 abreast on a Sunday afternoon down there. There’s no painting could tower over that whole thing.

[RV] These are not Baroque paintings, these are Renaissance paintings and, therefore, Renaissance paintings were smaller in scale.

[DSB] So, from that point of view, we had planned a window there and they said absolutely no. One curator said, ‘No’, and he prevailed. He said, ‘It breaks the magic of the gallery’. We said, ‘It will add more magic’. Have you ever looked through from a plane window between clouds and seen the earth below between clouds? It looks like fairyland. It looks magic. We said that seeing the street outside could have that quality of being magic in the context.  And, with a special quality of light in that space, it would be what you needed to give you a relief.  But not a relief from magic. And also they wanted to put their major, most important painting there which was a… what’s his name?

[RV] Fra Angelico?

[DSB] No. Paolo… Francesco.

[RV] Piero della Francesca.

[DSB] Piero della Francesca. And that painting was too delicate for that; they said we managed to persuade them to have, what they called a studiola, just to one side. And in that we put the three most important Piero della Francesca paintings and they sit in this room and that’s magic too.  That is like a chapel.

[RV] But that is one we lost where we did not have the window at the end and that does make us very sad. And I should mention that we worked very hard on that job. I went to England over 50 round trip times and Denise went 50 times and that was because we were very dedicated to the project.

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: 2 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010