Carbuncles usually take only a few weeks to heal, but the architectural row over the National Gallery has been going for nearly 40 years.
The latest eruption came last week, when the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) took aim at eight of his predecessors over their objections to plans to overhaul the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.
In pointed remarks to an audience at RIBA’s London headquarters, Simon Alford said the architect of the plans, Annabelle Selldorf, had been subjected to “unjustified commentary posing as criticism”, and accused the eight past presidents of a “nostalgia for a reinvented and reimagined past” similar to that which had led to the Sainsbury Wing’s creation.
This was an allusion to King Charles, who in 1984 as Prince of Wales, had decried the gallery’s plans to expand into a corner of Trafalgar Square with a steel-and-glass construction he described as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.
His intervention turned into years of headline-grabbing campaigning against modern architecture and prompted the National Gallery to scrap its plans and commission an extension by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates instead.
The resulting building, by Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown, is a postmodern work that the past presidents described as “a beautifully designed sequence of spaces”. Visitors enter via a dark, low-ceilinged area reminiscent of a cathedral crypt, then ascend a staircase into the open, light galleries housing the Renaissance collection.
But once the Sainsbury Wing was completed in 1991, the new foyer became the de facto main entrance to the National Gallery, because the cascading steps of the original portico entrance to the main building, designed by William Wilkins in 1832, are not suitable for wheelchair users.
Director Gabriele Finaldi wants to remodel the entrance to make it more welcoming in time for the gallery’s bicentenary in 2024. He commissioned Selldorf, whose plans would remove some of the mezzanine level to throw more light into the entrance hall, and thin out the columns.
This would end the contrast between dark and light, and amount to “vandalism of a Grade I-listed building” according to Hugh Pearman, architecture critic and former editor of the RIBA Journal. The eight former presidents wrote to Westminster council, the planning authority, saying Selldorf’s “insensitive” plans turn “a finely conceived space into an airport lounge” and asking why the main Wilkins entrance could not be modified instead.
Among some leading architects there is an expectation that their major works will not be altered during their lifetimes, and although Venturi died in 2018, Scott Brown remains active and she is believed to be thoroughly disappointed with the plans.
Last week, the National Gallery hit back. Selldorf was invited by RIBA to give a keynote speech, which was introduced by its current president.
“I personally regret that she has been subjected to what I believe is in some cases much unjustified commentary posing as criticism,” Alford said. “I am aware of the letter from eight past presidents whom I know and respect. But I do not share the sentiments that I’ve seen expressed. Indeed I sense a certain nostalgia for a reinvented and reimagined past, not unlike the nostalgia that called into being the very scheme about which we’re talking.
“The Venturi Scott Brown extension emerged from the ashes of a competition and a winner that was interfered with and unfortunately rejected. The scheme itself was not universally well received at the time. That of course does not mean it is not a fine building. It shows how the vagaries of fashion inform our thinking always, and we should be aware of that. Indeed it could be said this is one of their finest buildings – their best and most decorated shed. But also it means like any fine building, it can be adapted, if needs arise and I believe that is the case here.”
Selldorf told the audience that she had always admired RIBA but added: “I will say that eight presidents not liking what we do is something less than what we would hope for.”
Describing her approach to the Sainsbury Wing, Selldorf repeatedly emphasised that she was thinking about how visitors experienced the building and its entrance. “Once you have made your way through … you find yourself in a still rather dark and confusing space. Some people think dark and confusing is good; others don’t. I belong to the latter.”
She was challenged by Edward Jones, who designed extensions to the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House with his partner Jeremy Dixon. In 1998 Dixon Jones created a masterplan to revamp the Wilkins portico entrance, which is a more natural focus for visitors.
“It has been on everybody’s mind for a long time,” Selldorf replied. “The symmetry of Trafalgar Square is powerful. At the end of the day, I do think that [the Sainsbury Wing] isn’t a side entrance.” Venturi Scott Brown had “skilfully and very confidently” placed the wing at an angle to respond to Trafalgar Square, she said.
She has other supporters. The National Portrait Gallery backed her last Friday, along with Sir Tim Sainsbury, who said that he and his brothers accepted the need to make modifications and if the building was “preserved in aspic” then it would no longer be able to fulfil its purpose. “We support the proposed improvements and believe that the Selldorf architects’ proposals are a sensible and sensitive response,” they said.
• This article was amended on 9 November 2022. Hugh Pearman is a former editor of the RIBA Journal, not is current editor as an earlier version suggested.