The Sainsbury Wing (1)

I have only just caught up with Rowan Moore’s careful analysis of some of the problems and issues surrounding the Sainsbury Wing, whose redevelopment is considerably complicated by the fact that it is a building of such exceptional historical importance, but possibly more admired for its intellectual ingenuity than loved, apart from the wonderful top floor galleries.

My own view is that its entrance was compromised from the beginning by the fact that Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were not allowed to design the furniture and fittings themselves, so the gallery instead commissioned Venturi pastiche; half the entrance was chopped off to make a bookshop of an entirely different character; and over time it accumulated a lot of extra desks which meant that the original design was no longer legible. The passage from darkness into light, a characteristic of a Renaissance church (both Venturi and Scott Brown spent time in Rome in the early 1950s), and the more baroque feature of a grand escalier are, rightly or wrongly, no longer regarded as appropriate ways of approaching the experience of a great museum. So, some level of rethinking and redesign was necessary.

Annabelle Selldorf has sensibly opened the entrance space up to give it more height. She would be condemned if she tried to imitate Venturi and Scott Brown (Scott Brown herself is anti-pastiche) and she may now equally be criticised by Rowan Moore and others for being too polite. It’s a nearly impossible task.


7 thoughts on “The Sainsbury Wing (1)

  1. Jean Walker says:

    Have you seen Lucy Worley’s latest series, one of which was on George III and the new diagnosis is bipolar.

  2. Juliet Wrightson says:

    Neither you, nor Rowan Moore ,mention one of the highlights for me, and one which I always point out if visiting with a friend : the beautifully designed and executed hand cut lettering by Michael Harvey.

  3. Oliver Domeisen says:

    Hello Charles,
    I recently took MOMA’s Martino Stierli, who in his past work produced valuable research on Venturi Scott Brown’s Las Vegas Studio archive, to see Raphael at the Sainsbury Wing. We both agreed that it would be such a shame to loose the architectural uniqueness (and humour) of the grand staircase as a result of the current remodelling. What is at stake here is the ‘Mannerist’ irreverence, with which Venturi (more than Scott Brown) countered Modernist ‘neutrality’. To produce a complex system of often contradictory historical references relies on the architects courage to not just embrace historical and ornamental grammars, but to combine them into intellectually stimulating, as well as laugh-out-loud funny concoctions. As such the Sainsbury wing is akin to Sterling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
    While Annabelle Selldorf is certainly a very talented and experienced architect, I remain to be convinced that she possesses Venturi’s daring touch. You are absolutely right to point out that the entrance was flawed from the beginning; but there are now a whole bunch of contemporary UK (and international) practitioners that revisit ‘postmodernist’ aesthetics and practices, and invent current Mannerist design methods, that certainly would relate more closely to Venturi’s intentions for the building. Maybe Selldorf’s appointment merely reflects the conservatism of the current client, lacking the courage to continue (in a creative an innovative way) the experiment that Venturi startet. As a result the entrance area may appear as an even more disjointed element from the rest of the building than it already is.
    Bob Venturi once told me that he had no interest in ornament (which of course was a provocative fib) – he certainly had even less interest in polite Minimalism. The Sainsbury Wing is London’s very own ‘Palazzo del Te’, at once whimsical and sublime. Like Rowan I would be sad to see it lose any of its charm.

    • Dear Oliver, Thank you for these helpful comments. I totally agree that it’s a big challenge how to make changes whilst simultaneously retaining the integrity and mannerist qualities of the original, including the staircase (are you sure irreverence was Venturi and not just as much, if not more, Scott Brown ?). It’s just that I think choosing someone who is more obviously a disciple of Venturi Scott Brown – David Kohn, for example, was on the shortlist – could possibly have caused as many problems as it solved. Charles

      • Oliver Domeisen says:

        I take your point. If a certain level of failure seems inevitable, then maybe the question is how to fail – in a blaze of glory or with a whimper…
        As for Denise: in her last rather lengthy lecture at the AA she clearly stated a diminishing interest in aesthetics in favour of issues regarding circulation, urban planning and program (reframing their past practice as a whole). This of course does not reflect her preoccupations at the time of designing the Sainsbury Wing, which I am sure you rightly point out were just as irreverent as Bob’s.

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