Main News The Sainsbury Wing – a Sample of Architectural Excellence

The Sainsbury Wing – a Sample of Architectural Excellence

>The Sainsbury Wing – a Sample of Architectural Excellence

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is honoring the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London—designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA)—with its Twenty-five Year Award. This award is conferred on a building that has set a precedent for the last 25–35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance. 

Architects Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, FAIA—VSBA founding principles—sought to relate the new wing to the National Gallery while maintaining the wing’s own identity as a work of modern architecture. A play on Italian Mannerism, the Sainsbury Wing demonstrates the architects’ sophisticated but ironic acknowledgement of modern conditions while thoroughly exploring classical architecture’s conventions. 

VSBA won the project during the second iteration of an international competition, the first round of which roiled with aesthetic discontent that prompted direct intervention by Prince Charles. While the firm’s solution for the extension had its own early detractors, it carried the support of the National Gallery and noted British journalist Simon Jenkins, who called the wing “a building which both sustains a presence across a large square and fits comfortably into the adjacent streetscape,” and later deemed it one of the finest galleries of the 20th century.

Stylistically, Venturi and Scott Brown endeavored to relate the new 120,000-square-foot wing to the National Gallery, William Wilkins’ 1838 “Temple of the Arts,” while maintaining its own identity as a work of modern architecture. Prior to the addition, the gallery neighbored an irregularly shaped site defined by narrow streets and the Jubilee Walkway, a public footpath connecting Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square. The firm envisioned the wing as a separate building that connected to the gallery by physically engaging with the path. “A ham and cheese sandwich held together with a toothpick,” as Scott Brown called it, the wing’s location was integral to the design. The firm approached the dense medieval site by assembling the floors atop one another, creating rectangular spaces on an angular site.

Riffing on the historical motifs found in Wilkins’ façade, Venturi and Scott Brown implemented the elements found there in innovative ways. Most notably, Corinthian columns and pilasters are folded against the glass edge of Jubilee Walkway, while at the entry large square openings and metal columnettes form new architectural rhythms that spring from the duo’s affinity for Palladio, Aalto, and early Modernism. Made of the same Portland limestone as Wilkins’ building, the wing also observes its cornice height. As Venturi noted, the wing is “harmony between the old and the new and the varying contexts—via analogy and contrast within a difficult whole.”

Providing grade access to the entire gallery, the wing boasts an entrance accessible to all visitors, in direct contrast to the original building and an important consideration as museums across the world continue to embrace more diverse audiences. Inside, the wing offers convenient access to exhibition space and other museum amenities, including a restaurant, interactive information center, and 350-seat lecture theater. 

Spanning 120,000-square-feet, Sainsbury Wing is one of the world’s most visited collections of early Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings. Addition to the National Gallery turned out to be one of the most sophisticated examples of postmodern architecture, combining Modernism, English classicism and modern style of glass, steel and stone. 

Its original design is still largely intact and has had few alterations since its completion. In 2018, Historic England, the government arm charged with protecting England’s historic treasures, bestowed Grade I status on the wing, propelling it into the ranks of the country’s most architecturally significant buildings.

The building by Robert Venturi, winner of the Pritzker prize (1991), is not the first time the winner of the “Twenty-five Year Award”. In 1989, this award was given to the Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, designed by him for his mother, – one of the first outstanding works of postmodernism.

American Institute of Architects