Responding to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London

After reviewing and enjoying Venturi's book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Matt Page tests Venturi's own ideas against one of his most well-known projects, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. 


Venturi photo essay introduction


After reading and reviewing Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture I decided to visit the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery with the intention to see how the ideas in Venturi’s book manifest in his architecture. What follows is a brief response to some aspects of the Sainsbury Wing’s architecture and how they demonstrate ideas of “complexity and contradiction”.

The task of designing the National Gallery’s extension, known as the Sainsbury Wing, was awarded to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in January 1986. The building was completed in 1991.

Responding to Venturi & Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing: Architectural Systems

Venturi photo essay

"a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend" — Prince Charles, the self appointed arbiter of architectural taste, on the ABK proposal.

The architecture of London, like all cities, cannot be described as following a universal rule. Neo-classical buildings sit side-by-side corporate high-rises, and concrete cohabits with Portland stone. The city cannot, however, be said to follow no rules at all: urban spaces are rarely un-planned despite the fact that they are constantly susceptible to change and augmentation.

Trafalgar Square is an example of a space in London which has an inherent architectural system that if broken would make a building appear glaringly incongruous: this was the fatal flaw of the Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK) design, which won the commission in 1984 but was terminated later that year.

Responding to Venturi & Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing: Part of the Whole In Complexity and Contradiction 

Venturi Photo Essay

Venturi argues that “there are no fixed rules in architecture, but not everything will work in a building or city” and that an important consideration for architects is the relationship between a building and its context. In the case of the Sainsbury Wing, the building exists not only as part of the National Gallery, but also as part of Trafalgar Square. Because of this, there are two broad concerns that we should consider when looking at it: firstly, how does it interact with the surrounding architecture, and secondly, how does it function within the plan of Trafalgar Square?

Responding to Venturi & Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing: Mimesis? 

Venturi Photo Essay

Venturi’s book is primarily focussed on the formal aspects of architecture. We can select a few aspects of the facade which illustrate Venturi’s ideas, and of these the pilasters (flattened columns) are the most prominent. A direct visual comparison between the Sainsbury Wing (right) and the Gallery’s main building (left) gives us an idea of how Venturi and Scott Brown are taking an existing architectural system and adapting it. There are clear similarities between the pilasters: the capitals are the same, as is the flat shaft. In Venturi and Scott Brown’s building, the ornament of the nineteenth-century gallery building has been translated on to the twenty-first-century facade.

Responding to Venturi & Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing: Jazz

Venturi photo essay

In a 2006 interview with Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Venturi discusses how the rhythm of the ornament on the original gallery building resembles the regularity of a minuet or a gavotte. The rhythm of the Sainsbury Wing, however, breaks the regularity and resembles a jazz rhythm. While the pilasters on the original nineteenth-century building are arranged in regular intervals, and follow neo-classical ideas of structural logic, Venturi and Scott Brown’s merge into one another and undermine this logic.

Responding to Venturi & Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing: Facades

Venturi Photo Essay

Due to the difference in time between the Sainsbury Wing’s construction and the original gallery’s construction, we must consider the fact that Venturi’s building is a response to the original — it is an obvious point, but one worth making. As a result of this, the south facade quotes the original building — although, it is in a distorted manner — but the other facades depart from the system of Trafalgar Square and employ glass, steel, and brick. The differences in these materials highlights the contradiction within the building: it is at once sympathetic and incongruous with its surroundings.

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