The National Gallery, known and loved by millions, is one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Situated on London’s Trafalgar Square, it holds what is regarded by many as the most perfect collection of paintings. This is the UK’s collection in the Western European tradition, spanning the late 13th century to the early 20th century. Now, the National Gallery is rapidly approaching a key moment – its 200th anniversary – just three years away.
As much as the coronavirus crisis presents the Gallery with new challenges, its history is all about looking forward and serving upcoming generations. This remains essential if the Gallery is to thrive by engaging its audiences, both physical and digital, during the 21st century. Great art is transformative, healing, and enables and supports well-being – so the Gallery is determined to be at the forefront of the UK’s, and the cultural sector’s, recovery.
In this spirit of optimism, the National Gallery will celebrate its Bicentenary in 2024 with a series of high-profile initiatives known collectively as NG200, some at its home in Trafalgar Square as well as around the UK and online.
Among these, the NG200 Project will enable the National Gallery to redefine its visitor experience so that it lives up to the quality of its collection, and it will also create a world-leading Research Centre.
In 2018 the Post-Modern Sainsbury Wing became the Gallery’s main entrance – the Wing was able to remedy security, accessibility and logistical problems that could not be met by the historic Portico entrance in the Wilkins Building. From a curatorial perspective, this made sense, as the Wing’s top-floor galleries initiate a broadly chronological journey through the collection.
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.
The project will address the visitor’s arrival experience via the public realm in Trafalgar Square and through the Sainsbury Wing. It will create a strong sequence of positive first impressions through arrival, security, wayfinding and non-collection areas to the Gallery’s interconnecting top floor, while also providing new orientation and information space.
Along with these entrance spaces, the project scope includes reconfiguring some support spaces and also creating a world renowned Research Centre, likely to be in the main Wilkins Building; the Research Centre will support the Gallery’s work as a global thought-leader and its growing research community.
During works in 2022/23 the Gallery is committed to keeping its main collection open – all the galleries are outside the project scope.
The finished re-design, which should be informed by the Sainsbury Wing’s and the Wilkins’ Building’s Grade I listing, needs to be a creative and sensitive re-imagining of supreme architectural quality that inspires visitors and the Gallery’s staff, and creates a more open, accessible and enjoyable environment.
This offers an opportunity to rethink the Gallery’s public face to Trafalgar Square – to provide greater presence for the Sainsbury Wing within the historic setting, and link it visually with the Wilkins Building, famous for its distinctive grey cupola and Corinthian porticoes. A thoughtful sustainability strategy will also be crucial to reduce the Gallery’s carbon footprint.
Accordingly, this selection process sought an architect-led multi-disciplinary design team to deliver the £25 – 30 million (construction value) project. The project will be phased over five years, with an initial phase timed to deliver by May 2024.
This selection process was run under the Competitive Procedure with Negotiation in accordance with UK procurement regulations.
To enter, design teams were required to read the Design Brief and the Conditions, fill out an online form and upload documents detailing their company information, proposed team composition and relevant experience.
The first stage of the competition attracted entries from 55 international teams. From these submissions, six teams were shortlisted in April 2021.
The second stage included a period of project research, design analysis and critical thinking – undertaken as a negotiation with the National Gallery. During the selection process the Gallery was not seeking designs – but rather an architectural analysis and approach that expressed the NG200 Project vision, focused on the initial phase of works with a masterplan strategy for additional phases to be considered as part of the overall vision. Each finalist team received a contribution to expenses of £10,000 at the conclusion of the process.
The Selection Panel met in June 2021 to interview the finalists and selected the team led by Selldorf Architects as the winner of the process.