Vitra Design Museum 269

(Opposite, top) Night view of the exterior

(Above) Exterior view

(Opposite and right) Views of the interior

Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, Inc. THE NATIONAL GALLERY, SAINSBURY WING

(London, England) 1986-91

Few buildings have generated so much controversy and passionate writing as the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery by the American architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. This is understandable because of the unfavourable conditions attending the building's birth - 'wicked' problems which invited solutions that had to be debated at each step of the design.

Trafalgar Square, fraught with complexity and contradiction', is a difficult site. A vast, untamed camp' rather than a square, it has a long architectural history which still begs for some definition. The specific site, just west of the National Gallery - a quiet, felicitous, careful and rather undemanding building of the 1830s by William Wilkins - has been associated in its recent past with uninspiring if practical uses: before the War it was occupied by a furniture store: then it was left a bombed out hole until it became a car park. Across from it stands what Ludwig Wittgenstein deemed the most stupid building in the world, the superficially classical Canada House. To add to the difficulties of the variety of the area. Trafalgar Square also contains a masterpiece - Gibbs' St-Martin-in-the-Fields - along with, at its very heart, a disaster- the 19th-century, indisputably State-kitsch monument, Nelson's Column.

The government acquired the site for the museum extension in 1959 and a saga of conflict and frustration began as soon as plans took shape. The first competition was won by the British architects Ahrends, Burton & Kora-lek, whose project was described by the Prince of Wales as a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend', a stunning characterization for a rather unasto-nishing project. The phrase became legendary and was adopted as a war cry by anti-modernists, especially in the UK. It left many victims in its wake, including Richard Rogers' proposal for the site which was both fascinating and also popular with the public.

Despite the troublesome competition for the architectural design of the extension, finances for its realization had not yet been secured, since the government was not prepared to spend any money on the extension of the National Gallery of Great Britain. While this unwillingness would have been inconceivable in most other countries in Europe, it followed the doctrines of the Thatcher era about the need for self-reliance by all, including national institutions. Finally, in 1985, Sainsbury Brothers, Sir John, Simon and Timothy, offered to fund the project with an unquestionably generous donation which did not stipulate the creation of rentable office space above the extension, as the previous scheme had done. The estimated £35 million budget and the 10,000 square metres of usable space were modest by the standard of other contemporary international and European comparable institutions. Thus, one more degree of difficulty was added to a problem already made difficult by the awkward configuration of the site, the super-demanding programme, the number of 'masterpieces' that had to be accommodated and the formidable size of the crowds expected to use the facility.

In 1986, in a reversal of the open procedures followed up to then, Robert Venturi and his associates were chosen from among six other architectural firms after a worldwide search. Not much was disclosed about the underlying reasons for the selection of an American firm in a city and a country where projects by foreign architects have tended to be rare. Obviously, this decision contributed even more twists to an already tangled knot.

This situation was not made any simpler by the fact that one of the chosen architects. Robert Venturi, author of what is probably the most influential architectural book of the past twenty-five years, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture ( 1966), is one of the most complex and contradiction-loving theoreticians and practitioners today, and this at a time when architectural practice as a whole is going through a phase notorious for a generalized lack of simplicity.

It is difficult to imagine how all this could have resulted in anything but controversy, a controversy that contributed, with few exceptions, to the general lack of understanding of the solution offered by Venturi. Such lack of understanding, and indeed misunderstandings. about the Sainsbury Wing have led, for instance, to the impression that its design is dominated by historicist motifs whimsically posing merely to tease the passer-by, pretending to offer a polite gesture to the building of William Wilkins, while a few metres away proceeding to disintegrate into a jocular banality of commercial brick surfaces: and all this without any relation to the structure, function or purpose of the building which remain suppressed behind a farcical facade.

A more careful inspection of the building leads, however, to an altogether different set of conclusions. To begin with, the National Gallery extension is a highly functional building dedicated to satisfying the basic operational, programmatic needs of a contemporary museum. It is a major contribution to a unique collection of cultural institutions located in a unique metropolis. With great skill, the project fulfils the programme requirements in the way it interweaves and interlinks spaces. The route the visitors take through the galleries and the secondary facilities of the museum is perfectly clear. This is the result of a simple, hard-headed choice. Instead of ignoring the problems of circulation, or inventing an idiosyncratic network, an ordinary, traditional path-pattern has been rediscovered which possesses the qualities of directionality, memorable organization and flexibility. The setting it offers for the display of paintings, the sequencing, the approach to each gallery, the architectural framing of the objects, the vistas it opens, the entry, dimensioning, proportion

(Opposite) Site plan at the level of the extension's main floor ing, and the scale of each exhibition area are quite simply stunning. The internal spaces are related to the outside through strategically inserted openings across the visitor's path, thus overcoming the difficult problem of disorientation so frequent in contemporary museums because of their great demands for controlled environments. At the same time, the spaces do not disrupt the degree of concentration expected by modern audiences. A superb quality of lighting is achieved by clerestory windows framed in wood with acid-etched glazing to diffuse daylight, located at the upper perimeters of the galleries. The allocation of activities within the building perfectly balances the conflicting requirements of space occupation and the demands of accessibility of sen/ices - conference rooms, special exhibitions, shop, brasserie, coffee bar, a computer interactive facility and galleries. Functionally, therefore, the building is one of the most successful accommodations for a museum in the last two decades, a period massively characterized by museum production.

Far from disregarding technology, the Sains-bury Wing offers a highly intelligent solution to the technical problems posed by the programme and the site. From the point of view of construction, there were many difficulties posed by the clay sub-soil, the high environmental demands of the enveloped space, the tight schedule of implementation. An innovative 'top-down' method was followed, in which a perimeter wall was erected before excavation. Formed by a dense row of secant piles, it was braced by the concrete slab on top of which grew the concrete shell of the building. Certainly, the collaboration with the engineering firm of Ove Arup & Partners was crucial to the success.

These observations demonstrate Venturi's commitment to what the building does, as distinct from what it looks like it is doing. Operational and technical requirements were satisfied as separate concerns and not glossed over by visual-spatial, semantic aspects of the building. Venturi's theory of architecture and his design method are founded on the idea that architecture involves

(Opposite) Site plan at the level of the extension's main floor

(Above) Facade complex, multi-level cognition, and that architectural products are complex, multi-aspect objects which cannot be reduced to simplistic, monist design worlds without tremendous impoverishment of functional as well as cultural qualities. Transforming Mies's dictum of 'less is more* into 'less is less', Venturi singled out Mies's post-war architecture as an example of reductive monism and a mere simulacrum of function. Against it, he juxtaposed Alvar Aalto's and Louis Kahn's more multivalent, intricate and inclusive designs.

These were ideas demonstrated at the very beginning of Venturi's career, then amplified later through his collaboration with Denise Scott Brown. This enlargement of scope led to


the acceptance of the casinos of Las Vegas and the emporia of Main Street, USA, as prototypes for the directness with which they confronted and solved contemporary problems.

On the other hand, this sort of demanding credo of truth as opposed to verisimilitude, of virtue as opposed to moralism, made Venturi and Scott Brown's work difficult to understand. Their oeuvre never did quite fit into the simplistic 'blackboard diagrams', to use the phrase of American art critic Harold Rosenberg, of postwar architectural history. Taken out of context, some of the characteristics of their work have led critics to classify Venturi and Scott Brown as anti-modern and anti-intellectual. And this has been the case, to a great extent, with Venturi's Sainsbury Wing.

Hence the incomprehension with regard to the exterior of the building, with its way of presenting 'a different face at each of its edges' being taken as failure to 'show' the interior subdivisions and functions or 'the way the building is constructed' - a criticism which is irrelevant since, according to Venturi, these are issues which were not supposed to be addressed by the visual organization of the building.

Equally misguided has been the claim that the facade of the building is a mere mirroring of the strongly contrasted surrounding site, a downgrading of the building's intent to one of simple contextualism - hardly a significant performance for an architectural work aspiring to be a significant work of art. In fact, the exterior of the building is trying to do something else and something more. Of course, it uses as a motif the Corinthian mode, overtly taken from the Wilkins building. Using techniques of formal transformation, echoing Michelangelo's methods, or Guarini's, as well as Aalto's, the Corinthian motif is varied until it fades into a brick wall, another motif taken from the surroundings, to dissolve later into a plain, screen-like wall on which, in huge letters, the name of the building emerges - in true cinematic fashion.

The handling of the Corinthian motif of Wilkins* building is not just a pastiche or an ironic citation, or even a sympathetic effort to integrate the new with the old. This, as well as the use of the banal motif of the brick wall, comes closer to the kind of picking up, transforming and incorporating of 'found objects' that Pop art makes - a school of thought not alien to Venturi.

Thus, here, the found objects, such as the Corinthian motif, the brick wall, are only as important as plot is in a novel: a fabrication to carry a deeper literary message. Such objects, as Harold Rosenberg has remarked in writing about Pop art, are 'not real things but pictures of things', representations rather than presences, and their use, beyond the mimetic or the shocking, is cognitive. In the Sainsbury Wing, the bringing together of these heteroclite. contradictory motifs serves as a device for answering questions about 'well-formedness' and for coping with constraints in 'world-making' when multiple possible worlds which are inconsistent with each other must, never theless, communicate and co-exist. The building is, therefore, a multi-faceted object, at once a shelter and a structure whose visual organization can be read as an essay in built form about epistemological and moral problems. The problem it addresses through architectural, iconic means is that of communication and co-existence within the framework of numerous incommeasurable worlds, one of the major issues in the philosophy of mind today, not to mention in contemporary life.



(Top left) Transverse section

(Centre, right) Main floor plan: A = Early Renaissance and Northern European galleries; B = bridge to pre-existing galleries; a = lifts; b = Introduction


(Top left) Transverse section

(Centre, left) Ground floor plan of the Sainsbury Wing: A = entrance foyer; B = gallery shop; a vestibule; b = information desk; c = parcels storage; d = cloaks; e = lifts

(Centre) First floor plan: A = restaurant; a = coffee bar; b conference suite; d-g = toilets and infants' room; h = first aid room, i = lifts

(Centre, right) Main floor plan: A = Early Renaissance and Northern European galleries; B = bridge to pre-existing galleries; a = lifts; b = Introduction

(This page)

(Above, top left) Conceptual drawing of the exhibition space

(Above left) Looking up the main staircase

(Above, top to bottom) Extended south elevation; west, north and east elevations


Hans Hollein

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