The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has selected Venturi Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery of London as the recipient of the 2019 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. Designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in an international competition, AIA commended the project for its ability to “…make its context better than it found it” – a citation borrowed from Venturi himself.
The award is presented annually to a project that has “stood the test of time by embodying architectural excellence for 25 to 35 years.”
The Sainsbury Wing may appear conservative, but was both itself contentious and a part of a raging debate about public architecture when it was introduced. The addition to the National Gallery was initially planned in the 1980s, and was at the time to be designed by Ahrends Burton Koralek, a British practice known for their large public works across the UK and Ireland.
Their scheme however, an example of the British Hi-Tech movement (popularized by Norman Foster), ignited a massive public debate regarding the state of British architecture. In an ad-libbed speech at the 150th anniversary of RIBA, Prince Charles derided the state of the profession, calling out ABK’s proposal in particular as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”
The ABK scheme was scrapped, and a competition for the addition was subsequently held to appease the warring factions. Venturi Scott Brown, delivered and ultimately built, in the words of architect and postmodernist expert Adam Nathaniel Furman, “one of the most—if not the most—sophisticated pieces of public architecture to have been built in the Postmodern idiom.”
The facade of the VSB addition echoes the architectural rhythm of the main Gallery building, slowly breaking down the historic geometries until the dissolve entirely around a corner. Inside, domestically-scaled galleries create an atypically comfortable gallery experience.
In the citation, the AIA jury noted that: “…Dr. Barnabas Calder wrote that the wing’s presence on the square was ‘politely low key and even more so on Pall Mall East.’ Many others have noted that visitors may be as unaware of the building as they are of the contentious competition that spawned it, proving that, indeed, Venturi and Scott Brown successfully designed a building that does not outshine its context.” For a building in a physical context so packed with masterpieces – and in a historic context fraught with controversy – this is high praise indeed.