The controversial history of this project, which began as a commercially funded extension to William Wilkins' building of 1832, began when the competition winners, Ahrends Burton Koralek (ABK), had their scheme denounced by Prince Charles as 'a carbuncle on the face of an old friend' - a somewhat saccharine comment about a rather weak neo-classical building that forms the northern edge of Trafalgar Square and sits as the termination of an axis up Whitehall. Another competition was held (limited, this time, to keep out the riff-raff) and the eventual winner was Venturi, Rauch, Scott-Brown Architects, from the USA (now VSBA). The outcome was a controversial scheme, but one that is rich in intellectual gusto. No doubt you'll either engage and possibly respect that, or — like most of the English architectural profession — turn away in horror from the whole enterprise. (To gauge the tenor of the times look at the opposite, south east corner of Trafalgar Square, where there sits a multi-storey office building ostensibly at least 100 years old; it was constructed at the same time as the Sainsbury Wing, replacing an original building that looked exactly like this.)
The VSBA scheme almost literally hangs on a long transverse axis that passes through the main galleries of the Wilkins building, projected out into the new Sainsbury Wing building and terminated within (not by) a perspectival painting set within an arched frame (Cima's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas). The architects then bring the painting's architectural content out into their own architecture, so that the two blend together in a forced perspectival play with a series of arched openings. This one gesture alone justifies a visit to the building and constitutes a powerful flourish of gamesmanship.
Visitors turn off this armature into a simple series of interlinked room settings with continual plays upon views of the unique and permanent collection of Medieval art, with carefully articulated diagonal views between rooms. Each of these enjoys well-engineered lighting (of
Venturi divides the architectural issues into distinctly ^ ' separate realms of outside and inside. The former
Architectural Post-Modernism arrived in the UK as a transAtlantic import and quickly took over from moribund fashions of the '60's. Robert Venturi was one of its leading lights, strongly promoted over here by the historian Charles Jencks, who also befriended Terry Farrell, assisting the latter to become this country's premier Post-Modern architect. Whatever the term has meant in other cultural sectors, in architecture it mainly refers to those '70's and '80's conversations with a distinct pro-historical and classical inclination. Whatever other words, ideas and concepts filled the air, the principal ones were composition, hierarchy, layering, contexturalism; the principal game was historical quotation. (Although Venturi himself had originally informed the genere with a more erudite and complex employment of signage and symbol which blurred the boundaries between them botj.) Then came the 1990 recession, lasting until about '94. When we emerged, Post-Modernism no longer existed. It had evaporated. No one discussed it. Everyone pretended it hadn't happened. Late Modernism was back, but Hi-Tech — which had been Po-Mo's contrast — had also disappeared. And then every°ne began to practise the kind 0n the other hand it is interesting to note that there of post-industria|, post-modernist practices of other cultural are again stirrings of the Po-Mo spirtt among those spheres. Even Farrel became a bom-again Modemist. 'younger' archttects trained at that time (e.g. FAT). Now everyone is the genuine Po-Mo thing and even Foster we could yet see some form of revival. designs parodies of '50's work, entirely without irony.
Like the NPG, the National Gallery is also undertaking a Dixon Jones transformation of its circulation spaces. Entry has traditionally been through a rather cramped portico. This is now being altered so that visitors can enter at ground floor level through paired entrances, either side of the portico steps (only one of which had been constructed in early 2006). People leaving can, of course, now walk straight across the road and into Trafalgar Square and this is a huge improvement.
which only a tiny proportion is real daylight) and makes reference to John Soane's rooms at the 1826 Dulwich Picture Gallery (England's first public gallery) whilst reengineering the lantern to mask an upper service void and roof lights.
Outside, VSBA treats each facade as a set of discrete screens fronting a coherent internal suite of rooms, as if the two had little or nothing to do with one another — another move contradicting Modernist orthodoxy. The principal facade plays with the elements of the Wilkins' frontage and 'ghosts' them into (out of?) their screening extension along this northern side of Trafalgar Square. The opposite, rear facade plays with neo-Las Vegas billboard themes (it faces toward Leicester Square, to which it reaches out in implicit desperation) and the west side is utilitarian, plain and brick. The area between the new wing and the old building is more complicated: a clever inside / outside game that places the main stair in an ambiguous situation, at once outside (the solid internal walling, stone-faced and similar to the other facade screens) and a large glass screen that protects it from the elements whilst offering a view (a reminder) of the Wilkins building and the bridge link that features as a discrete tower. Because black glass and heavy framing was chosen it doesn't work and Venturi has admitted as much, but it's a game try at something complicated and ambitious. It adds up to erudite Post-Modernism, continually quoting precedents and employing recurring references to the original Wilkins building; gives a nod to Finland's great architectural hero, Alvar Aalto on the main stair, and the way a mezzanine landing is used; and even homage to Egyptian sources (small columns, the deeper meaning of which no one has yet uncovered and which Venturi claims is arbitrary). It's a design that exudes competence, is clever, ironic (as PostModernists used to say), playful and even witty. For example, the large arches above the grand staircase leading from the entrance lobby up to the gallery spaces enjoy a reverse perspective and are a reference to Bernini's famous Scala Regia at the Vatican. However, in this instance the ceiling arches deliberately float, touching nothing (they're plywood), playing the game and giving it away at the same time, enjoying participation in the history of architecture whilst asserting originality.
Perhaps the English profession is being overly dreary in dismissing all this. The validity of architecture arguably rests ultimately in its 'authentic' actions (admittedly a difficult concept) rather than mind games and an egocentric architectural mannerism that continually says, 'look at me being clever'. Aesthetics, as Terry Eagleton contends, is a discourse of the body, not the mind; on the other hand, Cassirer points in the direction of a mythical and symbolic awareness that most architects neglect. But, in the end, one has to ask: does the heart keep pace with the head's respectful applause of VSBA's erudite acrobatics? Is the essential immediacy and emotive quality of the building - fundamentally important to all architectural experience - forced into the background, prompting intuitive discomfort? Perhaps, in Venturi's own words, the Sainsbury remains 'almost all right' and is worthy of your attention. For, make no mistake: this is a level of architectural gamesmanship far too many architects are hardly capable of. Make a visit, but be prepared to stay awake.
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