‘Like a clown in a tutu’: London’s National Gallery architect steps into row over revamp plan

The Sainsbury Wing’s co-designer Denise Scott Brown says plans to remodel her award-winning entrance are tragically bad. Here, she explains why

The architect of the controversial Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London has publicly hit back at plans to completely rebuild it, accusing the new designer of “making our building look like a circus clown”.

When it was completed in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing, designed by Denise Scott Brown and her husband Robert Venturi, was derided at first by modernists and traditionalists. Yet by the time Venturi died in 2018, it was, according to the architectural historian Dr Barnabas Calder, “in the absolute top rank of postmodern buildings internationally” and Historic England granted it Grade-I listed status.

Now the building’s future is again up for grabs, and Westminster council’s planning committee will decide whether to approve plans for a substantial remodelling. The National Gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, has commissioned Annabelle Selldorf to make the Sainsbury Wing more instantly appealing to visitors.

But Scott Brown is not happy. “She’s making our building look like a circus clown,” she said. “There are elements of tragedy – circus clowns are made up to look happy, but they’re not. This is a circus clown wearing a tutu.” Scott Brown, now aged 91, is used to fighting back when it comes to her design. Despite being one half of the 20th century’s most influential postmodernist architectural partnership, she has often been overlooked in favour of Venturi.

Annabelle Selldorf’s vision for the remodelled interior of the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.
Annabelle Selldorf’s vision for the remodelled interior of the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. Photograph: Selldorf Architects

“We went one night to Sainsbury’s house and we all had dinner,” she said, “and I was put next to Prince Charles. I showed him the plans and he loved them. Then he said something about ‘the building of your husband’ and I said: ‘Just a moment. We’re partners in this. We both designed it.’”

Scott Brown and the then Prince of Wales were guests of John Sainsbury, the retail magnate, who, with his brothers, had put up £50m to fund an extension to the National Gallery. Venturi Scott Brown was selected to design the building after the prince had objected to previous plans as a “monstrous carbuncle”. Such was the objection to the new design, however, that when the Queen came to open the building she was “very angry with her subjects for being so rude to the donors”, Scott Brown recalls.

She had to fight her corner again when Venturi was awarded the Pritzker architecture prize in 1991. Scott Brown was excluded by the jury in spite of his request to recognise her as an equal partner.

A visualisation by Selldorf Architects of the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing entrance after the remodelling.
A visualisation by Selldorf Architects of the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing entrance after the remodelling. Photograph: Selldorf Architects

Now, once again, she and her friends have been marshalling opposition to the new scheme. So far, eight past presidents of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) have condemned Selldorf’s “insensitive” plans, saying the scheme would turn “a finely conceived space into an airport lounge”. Other objectors include Hugh Pearman, Francesco da Mosto, Jules Lubbock and the Twentieth Century Society. The National Gallery, for its part, has supporters including Tim Sainsbury, and managed to persuade Historic England to overcome its initial objections.

Scott Brown’s research began in the 1950s when she and her first husband, Bob Scott Brown, drove around Italy in a Morgan 3 Wheeler, discovering the mannerist art of the late Renaissance. “We stayed with friends who were reduced nobility, living in the basement of what had been their palace,” she said. “They have multipurpose spaces down below, and the scale between that and the house above worked beautifully. That was what we were trying to do with the National Gallery. And it worked.”

The Sainsbury Wing, which houses the Renaissance collection, has a facade that was intended to be a mannerist variation on the theme of the main building, designed by William Wilkins in 1832. From the street entrance, visitors enter a dark, dense, low-ceilinged room intended to feel like the crypt of an Italian church with the weight of the building above. From there, they can ascend a broad staircase towards the light, airy galleries. The suspended walkway linking the Sainsbury Wing to the main building was conceived as a Bridge of Sighs.

Even the dimness of the lobby has a purpose. “By the time people come up our stairs, they look around and say ‘you’ve cleaned the paintings,’” Scott Brown says. “But we haven’t – we’ve made their eyes modulate by the coolness of the downstairs.”

These subtleties may be lost on most visitors, who face long waits to get into the Sainsbury Wing. In her RIBA lecture, Selldorf described the lobby as “dark and confusing”, adding that “some people think dark and confusing is good, others not. I belong to the latter”.

The doors have become the de facto entrance to the whole gallery for about 15,000 visitors a day, because the grand portico of the main 1832 Wilkins building in the centre of Trafalgar Square has no wheelchair access. Under the new designs, part of the first floor would be removed to turn the dim, intimate entrance hall into a grander, sunlit atrium.

There is some history between the two women. It is unusual for an architect’s work to be revised during their lifetime, yet the Sainsbury Wing is the second Venturi Scott Brown building that Selldorf has taken on. The first was the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which Scott Brown and her husband expanded in 1996.

Selldorf’s adaptation opened this year, and she critiqued her predecessors’ work at RIBA, saying there “just wasn’t any space for an exhibition or galleries”, and that to “reveal the full beauty of the original building” she had removed “the Venturi Scott Brown-installed supersize pergola that sort of concealed the building”.

That pergola, which was designed to link the museum to the village of La Jolla, was also the subject of a row, with architectural luminaries including Sir Terry Farrell and Robert Stern among those who pleaded with the museum to keep it.

Clearly the pergola’s demise rankles with Scott Brown, who says she gave Selldorf “a week of our office time” to go through the rationale behind the designs so that she could expand the museum sympathetically. “She was so polite and so charming,” she said. “But she took no notice. And all of a sudden, she’s done the whole thing.”

In the summer, Selldorf and others at the National Gallery discussed their intentions with Scott Brown, but she says she didn’t see any detailed plans and about a week later they submitted their planning application.

Scott Brown is not well enough to address the planning committee, but she hopes they will understand why they should preserve the facade.


James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
National Gallery entrance revamp row recalls King Charles’ ‘carbuncle’
Architects’ society forced to defend scheme to remodel entrance from ‘unjustified’ criticism

James Tapper

06, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Victorian architecture’s lost giant to regain rightful recognition
The designer of the glasshouses at Kew Gardens fell out of favour – but supporters of a new museum hope to change all that

Vanessa Thorpe

25, Feb, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘Like a sun on Earth’: Las Vegas warning if dazzling venue built in London’s East End
Stratford residents fear planned MSG Sphere concert hall will ruin their sleep with light pollution

Miranda Bryant

28, Jan, 2023 @1:30 PM

Article image
London’s National Gallery under pressure over links to Credit Suisse
Questions raised over sponsorship of exhibitions by scandal-hit Credit Suisse

Shanti Das

26, Feb, 2022 @8:39 PM

Article image
Water fight: the battle for London’s Victorian drinking fountains
Heritage charity says many ‘renovated’ monuments are filled with cement, not water, so can’t quench thirst or help reduce plastic pollution

Dalya Alberge

06, Jun, 2021 @5:45 AM

Article image
Arts experts tell of ‘heartache’ over legal action rift with National Gallery
Team of lecturers and workshop leaders ‘with 500 years of collective experience’ claim unfair dismissal by London gallery

Vanessa Thorpe

22, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
African photography gets a showcase at pioneering London gallery
Spotting a gap in the market, two friends have set up Doyle Wham to spotlight the continent’s neglected talent

Rob Walker

01, May, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
National Gallery chair quit after ‘gig economy’ dispute
Insiders claim Hannah Rothschild left after criticism of gallery’s handling of the dismissal of 27 lecturers

Richard Brooks

07, Jul, 2019 @8:29 AM

Article image
Dealers accused of tricks that turn ordinary desks into £1m antiques
Buyers are being warned about the over-restoring or upgrading of furniture to make it appear more valuable

Dalya Alberge

16, Apr, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘We’re ready for you’: English galleries and museums throw open their doors
With few overseas tourists, curators think there has never been a better time for Britons to see their own national treasures

Vanessa Thorpe

16, May, 2021 @9:45 AM