This week's Building Design has an article celebrating (or rather "defending") the Sainsbury Wing designed designed twenty years ago by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. That a small-ish gallery building, albeit on a prominent site, completed over two decades ago should still need defending is itself pretty instructive. To a large extent the Sainsbury Wing was caught up in the cross-fire between architects (or at least the modernist majority of architects) and Prince Charles and the emblematic demise of ABK's previous scheme for the site. But that alone doesn't account for the visceral dislike the building conjures up for architects. Venturi Scott Brown may have inherited something of a poisoned chalice with the Sainsbury Wing commission but they still managed to add a toxic brew of their own.
As Ellis Woodman notes in BD's article, the building was memorably described at the time as "picturesque, mediocre slime" by the Architectural Review, a spectacular and, it has to be said, impressively venomous piece of criticism. Robert Venturi even admitted to a perverse respect for the rhetorical skills of British architecture critics in an essay recalling his building's poor reception. In BD, Denise Scott Brown offers an eloquent and reasoned explanation for the Sainsbury Wing's design process. This description has a level of lucidity that most architects would struggle to get anywhere near, but what most struck me about it was how the building's much discussed 'contextual' qualities come across less as stuffy traditionalism and more as a kind of love-letter to the city of London.
Rather than simply being about 'fitting in' - always a pretty miserable and reductive constraint on new buildings - the Sainsbury Wing's genuflections to the surroundings are more like a vividly recollected montage of the city in which it sits. The clubland of Pall Mall, the art deco of Leicester Square's nearby Odeon, the neo-Egyptian ornamentation of Leo Sullivan's office building on Shaftesbury Avenue are all recalled There's also, of course, Lutyens (the grand stair and internal 'external' wall), Soane (the galleries) and Wilkins, the architect of the National Gallery, whose stolid, unremarkable classical details are cut-up, collaged and represented on the crooked facade of VSBA's extension. And this is the thing that critics like AR's Peter Davey with their impressive levels of invective failed to spot. Because the building uses languages derived from non-modern sources, no one noticed the radical things that were being done with them. Go back and look at that rippling facade again and you will see how very odd it is, how the huge, dark openings at ground level look as if someone has cut random chunks out of a classical elevation. You will also notice the strange, ghost windows that come in and out of focus and the single, fluted corinthian column that sits, seemingly randomly in the middle of the elevation and which Denise Scott Brown likens to the plastic pin holding together a club sandwich.
What probably baffled Venturi and Scott Brown most about reactions to the building is that the English architecture that formed the basis of their love-letter to London - the mannerism of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, Soane, Lutyens and, later, James Stirling - would so appall contemporary English architecture critics. Ultimately, these brilliant architects were all, in a way, outsiders. Because mainstream English architecture is nothing if not literal, suspicious of illusion and theatricality and pragmatic to a fault. Paradox, perversity and visual wit are present in the history of British architecture, along with vulgarity, brutality and the grotesque, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Venturi and Scott Brown's heroes were the wrong ones. Not only that, but by using them deliberately wrongly, by mixing them up and playing them off against each other, they compounded the original crime and offended the straight traditionalists into the bargain.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Scott Brown's 'defence' though, is her description of the building as a backdrop, not just to nights out in London's West End but to political protest and to the civic space the building overlooks. This is a remarkable statement not least because it downplays the formal significance of the building in a way that architects very rarely do. Scott Brown's nuanced understanding of the political role of civic space and the importance of people and events in shaping urban experience cuts across architecture's obsession with form and iconic signature. In the best sense then the building fits-in, making a contemporary contribution to the city that is subtle, critical and knowing, but also gentle, generous and self-effacing at the same time. The more you look at the Sainsbury Wing the richer and more compelling it seems. But you also don't have to look at it at all.