2019 Twenty-five Year Award
One of the finest “decorated sheds” created by Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London balances old and new as a home to one of the world’s most visited collections of early Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings. Scott Brown once noted, “A building should make its context better than it found it,” and this extension of the gallery deftly adhered to that axiom when it was constructed on Trafalgar Square’s last bit of open space.
Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates won the project during the second iteration of an international competition, the first round of which roiled with aesthetic discontent that prompted direct intervention by Prince Charles. While the firm’s solution for the extension had its own early detractors, it carried the support of the National Gallery and noted British journalist Simon Jenkins, who called the wing “a building which both sustains a presence across a large square and fits comfortably into the adjacent streetscape,” and later deemed it one of the finest galleries of the 20th century.
Stylistically, Venturi and Scott Brown endeavored to relate the new 120,000-square-foot wing to the National Gallery, William Wilkins’ 1838 “Temple of the Arts,” while maintaining its own identity as a work of modern architecture. A play on Italian Mannerism, the wing demonstrates the duo’s sophisticated but ironic acknowledgement of modern conditions while thoroughly exploring classical architecture’s conventions.
Prior to the addition, the gallery neighbored an irregularly shaped site defined by narrow streets and the Jubilee Walkway, a public footpath connecting Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square. The firm envisioned the wing as a separate building that connected to the gallery by physically engaging with the path. “A ham and cheese sandwich held together with a toothpick,” as Scott Brown called it, the wing’s location was integral to the design. The firm approached the dense medieval site by assembling the floors atop one another, creating rectangular spaces on an angular site.
Providing grade access to the entire gallery, the wing boasts an entrance accessible to all visitors, in direct contrast to the original building and an important consideration as museums across the world continue to embrace more diverse audiences. A deeper connection to the site greets visitors who approach from the Pall Mall East side, which receives heavy traffic from Trafalgar Square. Inside, the wing offers convenient access to exhibition space and other museum amenities, including a restaurant, interactive information center, and 350-seat lecture theater.
Riffing on the historical motifs found in Wilkins’ façade, Venturi and Scott Brown implemented the elements found there in innovative ways. Most notably, Corinthian columns and pilasters are folded against the glass edge of Jubilee Walkway, while at the entry large square openings and metal columnettes form new architectural rhythms that spring from the duo’s affinity for Palladio, Aalto, and early Modernism. Made of the same Portland limestone as Wilkins’ building, the wing also observes its cornice height. As Venturi noted, the wing is “harmony between the old and the new and the varying contexts—via analogy and contrast within a difficult whole.”
Few alterations have been made to the wing since its completion, leaving its original intent largely intact. Last year Historic England, the government arm charged with protecting England’s historic treasures, bestowed Grade I status on the wing, propelling it into the ranks of the country’s most architecturally significant buildings. In 2009 architectural historian Dr. Barnabas Calder wrote that the wing’s presence on the square was “politely low key and even more so on Pall Mall East.” Many others have noted that visitors may be as unaware of the building as they are of the contentious competition that spawned it, proving that, indeed, Venturi and Scott Brown successfully designed a building that does not outshine its context.