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The Sainsbury Wing's postmodern riffs on classical architecture, noted in Apollo in 1991, have an appeal that has endured.


Twenty-five years ago this month, London's National Gallery officially opened its Sainsbury Wing to the public following a ceremony performed by the Queen. The building's conception had not been easy, thrown out of kilter following an intervention by the Prince of Wales: in May 1984 during a speech to mark the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects he had described the original proposed extension, designed by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK), as 'a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend'. Consternation followed, as did a rejection of the ABK design, and an ultimately successful scheme devised by the American architectural partnership of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

It was this building which the Queen duly opened and which in the same month of July 1991 was assessed in the course of an Apollo editorial. While we may never know the former's opinion of the Sainsbury Wing, overall the latter's verdict was favourable. The piece began by contrasting the work with the Tate's Clore Gallery, designed by James Stirling and opened four years earlier. Stirling's design has been described as 'an important example of Postmodern architecture, especially in the use of contextual irony'. However, that does not necessarily make the space best suited for art, particularly paintings by Turner, which is what it was intended to display.

For this reason alone Apollo's editorial was more favourably disposed towards the Sainsbury Wing, describing its architects as having worked 'with, rather than against, the institution and its works of art'. The building's galleries are hung with the earlier, predominantly Italian, pictures in the collection 'and so it was not unreasonable to evoke the feeling, as Mr Venturi has explained, of a fifteenthcentury Tuscan palace. This "analogous" feeling is achieved through the use of pietra serena and echoes of Brunelleschi.' As far as the editorial writer was concerned, 'there is no question but that this effect is achieved, together with the suggestion of the nave and aisles of a Florentine church.'

The essentially respectful character of the Venturi design was in sharp contrast to the Richard Rogers/Renzo Piano Pompidou Centre in Paris, which next year celebrates its 40th anniversary. And indeed the Sainsbury Wing is equally unlike Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened seven years later. Since the latter's arrival, it has become almost de rigueur for new galleries and museums to offer visitors as much if not more spectacle than their contents. Such would likely have been the case had the ABK proposal, or any of the other initial contenders, been built.

In contrast to explicit theatrics, the Sainsbury Wing proposed reticence, like Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum (now almost half a century old), content to serve as backdrop rather than demand centre stage. Yet, as the Apollo writer commented, the consequences of calculated moderation could still be remarkable. The vista through one particular suite of rooms, for example, 'really marks this extension as something extraordinary. The proportions are exquisite, the effect one of restrained drama, unlike any other gallery space in Britain.'

The praise was rightly tempered with reservations. In particular, the editorial was critical of what might be called an inclination to invoke but not emulate. Seeming Tuscan columns on either side of some doorways, 'turn out to be sliced in half vertically, with half-capitals to match: it is a stage-set'. The drama, it seems, was too restrained, too much of an artifice. 'We have seen an illusion, the architect may be telling us, and the show is over: look, here is the scenery viewed from the back.' Despite initially indicating otherwise, the Sainsbury Wing is a building of its era, and therefore as prone as the Clore Gallery to engage in postmodern jokes, even if these are presented in a less overt fashion. The allusions to Brunelleschi are just that and no more: it is up to the informed observer to spot the gags.

As the editorial commented: 'The problem is that the sheer fun of it all is taken too far and purely decorative aspects are indiscriminately thrown around: here a pseudo-rusticated wall: there an Egyptian column.' Nevertheless, despite justifiable reservation, the writer concluded that the building's main floor, 'in an entirely novel way for London, provides a public gallery for Italian pictures unequalled outside Italy'. Twenty-five years later, the Apollo editorial has aged as well as the building it assessed.
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Title Annotation:FROM THE ARCHIVES
Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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