National Gallery: controversial redevelopment plans for Grade I listed building to be given the go ahead

Former presidents of the RIBA have labelled plans to renovate the Sainsbury “wholly undermine” previous architects Venturi Scott Brown

Despite a letter from eight former Royal Institute of British Architects calling plans “ill judged”, the controversial remodelling of the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery is set to be given the go ahead by the end of the week. The revised plans for the Grade I listed building were submitted by New York architects Selldorf, who have worked on projects for The Art Gallery of Ontario and Museum Of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

The plans from Selldorf look to increase visitor capacity in the Sainsbury wing; this includes removing a large section of floorplate, cladding pillars in sandstone and relocating a group of Egyptian-style columns that were erected in 1991 by Venturi Scott Brown & Associates. The Sainsbury wing is the only UK work by Venturi Scott Brown and is widely considered to be among Britain’s most important public buildings of the second half of the 20th century.

Westminster council’s planning officer has recommended the application for approval at a meeting due to take place on 29 November. The changes would see the creation of a more welcoming environment for visitors through increased space and natural light, easier operation for security services and improved energy performance, which the planning office say “the plans would cause harm to the heritage of the building but concluded that this would be outweighed by significant and weighty public benefits.”

The move has proven a point of contention for many; Historic England initially said in a consultation on the former version of the proposals that they would harm the building’s heritage but then softened their stance after a second proposal from Selldorf, concluding that while the plans would still harm the building’s heritage, this would now be “no more than is necessary to secure the objectives that have been identified by the gallery as being key to the project”

But both the former presidents of the RIBA alongside The Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society have maintained their objections. In a letter to the Westminster council, former RIBA heads Paul Hyett PPRIBA, Sunand Prasad PPRIBA, Ruth Reed PPRIBA, Angela Brady PPRIBA, Stephen Hodder PPRIBA, Jane Duncan PPRIBA, Ben Derbyshire PPRIBA, and Alan Jones PPRIBA were critical of the revised proposals.

“This, the only UK work of the exceptional and ground-breaking Philadelphia-based architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, was designed after intense research with passion, empathy, creativity, and delicacy. I and so many, many others love this wing which is the subject of current full planning and listed building applications due to be determined this autumn” they wrote in their letter.

“It feels as if the architect is trying to jam a modern building into the guts of the Sainsbury Wing and wholly change its character - the VSBA ambience will be lost, and the ground and mezzanine floors detached psychologically from the main gallery floor. Apart from the worrying precedent being set for Grade I Listed buildings elsewhere, the proposals wholly undermine the thoughtful sequence of spaces that Bob and Denise introduced to prepare the visitor carefully and propitiously for the delights of the galleries above.”

“We feel as many others do, that this project is ill-judged and that the Sainsbury Wing should be afforded more care and attention. The RIBA itself cannot of course comment, but as past presidents we feel it is imperative, in the face of such harmful proposals, that we make our views known as advocates for and defenders of appropriate, beautiful and considered architectural design.”