I reproduce two quotations from an interview with Bob Venturi in 1991 (it appears in ‘National Gallery — Sainsbury Wing. Robert Venturi, David Vaughan and Charles Jencks. An interview’ in Post-Modern Triumphs in London, London, 1991), which I think are germane to understanding the character of the wing as built. The first concerns the low ceiling in the entrance foyer:-
There are two determinants that effect the design of the [foyer]. It is very low from necessity, because of the need to link with the elevation of the piano nobile of the old building; also we refer to the traditional way of dealing with a high-Classical building at ground level. In many English country houses you come into the lower part, which is designed in the manner of the outside vocabulary of the building; and then climb to the major floor above. In Italy it was often where the carriage drove in. So we gave it that character, to some extent, with the big piers.
The second concerns the importance he attached to views out – the windows onto the monumental staircase:-
The client wanted something that paralleled the original setting the painters might have anticipated for their art. The sense of place was important. Also it is thrilling to see art in the real world, rather than in a museum: if you go to someone’s house and they have a great painting in their living room, there is something more wonderful about it than if you see it in a museum — it’s in the real world. At the same time you have to acknowledge the museum as an institution for accommodating high security and great crowds, so what we did was to place occasional windows in the galleries. A window indicates that you are part of the living world. Also you can look through it — and the magic you’ve been experiencing looking at great paintings becomes more magical after it is interrupted by the real world; it’s like intermissions between acts at the theatre.
And finally a comment he made on the nature of its relationship to Wilkins’s portico:-
The porch of the old building was for a few ‘élitists’, the 500 persons per day who went up the steps originally. Our building – not quite a sports stadium – still has to acknowledge that many more people come through the entrance than in 1830. No longer just gentlemen, but thousands of students on cheap air fares.