Architects vs Prince Charles: if the column goes, we go

Why Robert Venturi threatened to walk out after royal objection to false column on Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery

by Martin Bailey  |  1 May 2015
Architects vs Prince Charles: if the column goes, we go
Gesture architecture: from left, Neil MacGregor, Prince Charles and Jacob Rothschild at the National Gallery
Today it houses one of London’s best permanent collection displays, but the 1991 Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery in London was almost scuppered when Prince Charles and the other trustees opposed the architect of the new building, Robert Venturi.

The row was over a false Corinthian column that the US architect wanted as a decorative feature on the Trafalgar Square façade of the new extension. The gallery’s trustee minutes for 1986 to 1987, which have just been made public, reveal that Venturi threatened to resign following criticism of the column by Prince Charles and other trustees. Jacob Rothschild, then the chairman, warned his fellow trustees that this threat should be kept confidential and “must not be known outside the building”.

Prince Charles had been appointed a trustee of the National Gallery by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in January 1986, at a key point in the fierce architectural debate between traditionalists and Modernists in Britain. The prince had already made his personal views very clear in reacting to an earlier proposal for the gallery extension: the scheme of Ahrends, Burton & Koralek (ABK), which included a high-tech tower looming above Trafalgar Square.

In his speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects in May 1984, Prince Charles famously described the ABK proposal as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, comparing it to a “municipal fire station”. Four months later the secretary of state for the environment, Patrick Jenkin, refused planning permission.

The following year the National Gallery trustees won the financial support of the three Sainsbury brothers (John, Simon and Timothy) for the proposed extension and sought a new architect. The Philadelphia-based firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, known for its Post-Modernist designs, was awarded the contract. Later that year, Prince Charles was approached and asked whether he would join the National Gallery board.

Window of opportunity

The first meeting Prince Charles attended was in November 1986, and on this occasion he and Venturi were in agreement. The minutes record that “the Prince of Wales said how much he liked the window towards Canada House that the architect had proposed”. This large window would have faced Trafalgar Square at the end of the long central suite of galleries in the new extension.

Other trustees disagreed with the prince: they believed the view from the window would distract from the art; that sunlight might cause conservation problems; and that a blank wall would provide a spot to display a key painting. Opponents of the window got their way, to the annoyance of Venturi. The wall is now the backdrop for Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo’s altarpiece of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1475).

The next meeting Prince Charles attended was in March 1987, when the question of the column came up. Prince Charles told the board that “a column as an architectural feature should act as a support”. The artist Bridget Riley, another trustee, presented a paper that also argued that the exterior column should be removed. All the trustees ultimately agreed. Neil MacGregor, who had just taken over as director from Michael Levey, did favour the column (as the director he attended board meetings, but without a vote). At their meeting in June, also attended by Prince Charles, the decision to suppress the column was confirmed.

Venturi was furious with the board’s decision, since he felt that his proposed column, a decorative feature partly embedded into the façade, made an appropriate visual link with the portico of the National Gallery, which dates to 1838, the nearby Canada House and Nelson’s Column.

The final straw

The argument over the column was the final straw that nearly ended Venturi’s direct involvement. The trustee minutes record that John Rauch, Venturi’s partner, had “passed on a request from the architect that the scheme should be handed over to another firm since their firm wished to withdraw”. Rothschild told the board that one option would be for “a firm of British architects” to take over, with Venturi “acting as a design consultant”.

Largely because of Venturi’s resignation threat, the trustees relented and finally agreed to the inclusion of the column. Later, in 1987, relations between architect and gallery improved and in March 1988 the Prince and Princess of Wales laid the foundation stone. Building work began—without the window, but with the column.

The building was opened by the Queen in July 1991. That year the National Gallery published a book on the Sainsbury Wing. Prince Charles wrote in the preface: “The debate will now rage, I’m sure, about how good a building Mr Venturi has given us. I will leave that to others to decide—though I will say that I think the interiors are very promising.” This was faint praise, and he pointedly did not comment on the exterior.

Denise Scott Brown, Venturi’s wife and professional partner, later described the column as “like a toothpick through a sandwich, it pins down the façade’s layers”. Despite the fierce row in 1986, few visitors today are even aware of the single column. In April, Scott Brown confirmed that her firm had indeed “wished to resign” in March 1987. She still feels the decision to leave out the window at the end of the central galleries was “a sad mistake”.

Although the cost of the extension has never been officially disclosed, the minutes record the figure: it was slightly more than £33m. The full cost was paid for by the Sainsbury brothers. Housing the collection of paintings dating from 1250 to 1500 on the upper floor and the temporary exhibition space in the lower basement, the Sainsbury Wing immediately became an indispensable part of the gallery. As for Prince Charles, he attended only three of the 17 trustee meetings between 1986 and 1987, confining his recorded comments to architectural matters.

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