London’s National Gallery will get a major upgrade ahead of its bicentennial

Bicentennials, Man

London’s National Gallery will get a major upgrade ahead of its bicentennial

The front of the National Gallery. Prior to 2018, the Wilkins Building portico, pictured here, was the central entrance. (Nicolas Lysandrou/Unsplash)

Today, London’s prestigious National Gallery announced that ahead of the institution’s 200th anniversary in 2024, it would be embarking on a $34.7-to-$41.7 million (£25-30 million) upgrade of its public-facing amenities—including renovating the lobby of the Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA)-designed Sainsbury Wing addition.

The competition brief for the upgrade (the museum is currently soliciting design teams, interested firms have until March 18 to apply) is focused on improving the visiting experience as part of its NG200 initiative, as the National Gallery expects guest figures to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024; the institution is currently closed due to COVID. But the National Gallery is taking the opportunity to reconfigure the entrance to the Grade I-listed Sainsbury Wing lobby and immediate outdoor entrance to deal with what it expects will be greatly increased future demand, as well as the museum’s presence along Trafalgar Square. A new research center, to possibly be housed in the Wilkins Building next to the Sainsbury Wing, would further the museum’s painting conservation and research abilities and create a hub for studying art history.

“We are extremely fortunate to have a superb building and a modern classic in the Sainsbury Wing,” wrote National Gallery director Dr. Gabriele Finaldi in the announcement, “one that has more than met its original brief, notably in the practically perfect picture galleries. The dual challenge of a huge increase in visitor numbers and the changing expectations and needs of those visitors over the last 30 years, means we do need to look again at the spaces we have, and in particular the ground floor entrances and amenities.”

The Sainsbury Wing, awarded the prestigious Twenty-five Year Award by the AIA in 2019, was originally an object of derision upon its completion in 1991. The 120,000-square-foot addition to the 1838 National Gallery building was seen as trying to thread the needle (unsuccessfully) between modernism and traditionalism, using Postmodern gestures to reference the historic nature of the adjoining galleries while integrating a more contemporary feel. Critics ultimately came around on the VSBA wing and it was listed as a Grade I building in 2018, the highest status of landmarking in the U.K.

However, as the National Gallery’s competition brief notes, 2018 was also the year the Sainsbury Wing became the gallery’s main entrance. According to the institution:

Although the 1991 Sainsbury Wing has more than satisfied its original brief, audiences have grown over the past 30 years and, during busy times and especially popular exhibitions, the Wing can become quickly congested, resulting in visitors queueing outside in all weathers. Another problem is that the Wing lacks adequate orientation and information space to help visitors to wholly engage with the collection.

So, the National Gallery now needs to develop an inspirational, world-class welcome attuned to visitors’ expectations, which also resolves practical problems, some of which have been further highlighted by the pandemic.

Because of the wing’s historic status, any renovation will need to keep in line with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s vision. The National Gallery expects that expanding the currently cramped entrance hall can be achieved by removing and reorienting the gift shop (which will join a new restaurant), part of the museum’s strategy for enhancing future revenue.

The design portion of NG200 is expected to take five years, with the first phase to be delivered in 2024. As mentioned, the deadline to apply for the project is March 18, 2021; the gallery will then create a shortlist of five teams and announce the winner this July.