Proposals make Sainsbury Wing look like “a circus clown wearing a tutu” says architect

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The plans will see a large section of the ground floor ceiling removed to allow in more natural light

Denise Scott Brown has accused Selldorf Architects of failing to appreciate key elements of her Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London, and of creating a remodelling vision that makes the grade I-listed extension look like “a circus clown wearing a tutu”.

Members of Westminster City Council’s planning committee are due to approve Selldorf’s hugely controversial proposals to substantially change the Sainsbury Wing – which was only opened in 1991 – at a meeting tomorrow night.

Selldorf’s plans, commissioned to mark the National Gallery’s 200th anniversary in 2024, would see the removal of a large section of the Sainsbury Wing’s floorplate, the relocation of a group of Egyptian-style columns and the cladding of pillars in sandstone, among other interventions.

Opponents of the proposals – which have already been amended once in the face of criticism – include a concerted bid by eight former RIBA presidents and campaign group the Twentieth Century Society. The RIBA past presidents call the proposed changes “drastic”, “irreversible” and “insensitive”, and argue Selldorf’s vision “changes a finely conceived space into an airport lounge”.

Denise Scott Brown designed the Sainsbury Wing in collaboration with partner Robert Venturi. Venturi Scott Brown & Associates was appointed to the project in 1986 following Westminster’s rejection of proposals by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, which had been dubbed a “monstrous carbuncle” by the then Prince of Wales, King Charles III.

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The latest incarnation of Selldorf’s Sainsbury Wing proposals

At the weekend Scott Brown – who is now 91 – spoke of her anger at Annabelle Selldorf’s proposed changes to the internationally lauded Sainsbury Wing, which are recommended for approval tomorrow.

“She’s making our building look like a circus clown,” Scott Brown said in an Observer interview. “There are elements of tragedy – circus clowns are made up to look happy, but they’re not. This is a circus clown wearing a tutu.”

Selldorf has endorsed the opinions of those who view the Sainsbury Wing’s lobby as “dark and confusing”.

Scott Brown said the argument missed the point that the design for the wing – which normally houses the National Gallery’s Renaissance collection – was inspired by the experience of leaving an Italian church crypt to experience artistic wonders above.

Denise Scott Brown portrait, 2005

Source: Photo by Frank Hanswijk, courtesy of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Denise Scott Brown

“By the time people come up our stairs, they look around and say ‘you’ve cleaned the paintings’,” she said. “But we haven’t – we’ve made their eyes modulate by the coolness of the downstairs.”

In their letter to Westminster City Council, the RIBA past presidents said Selldorf’s proposals were “ill judged” and risked losing the ambience Venturi Scott Brown created in an apparent attempt to “jam a modern building” into the guts of the Sainsbury Wing.

“Apart from the worrying precedent being set for grade I-Listed buildings elsewhere, the proposals wholly undermine the thoughtful sequence of spaces that Bob and Denise introduced to prepare the visitor carefully and propitiously for the delights of the galleries above,” they said.

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Selldorf’s Sainsbury Wing proposals

A report from Westminster planning officers acknowledged the plans would cause harm to the heritage of the building but concluded that the harm would be outweighed by “significant and weighty” public benefits.

Westminster City Council’s planning committee meets at 6.30pm tomorrow to consider the proposals.

Exterior hero image credit Selldorf Architects_WEB

Source: Selldorf Architects