Jamie Fobert and Purcell expand and rationalise the NPG with inventive rearrangements and a conversation with the past
There was something quaintly unassuming about the National Portrait Gallery’s former main entrance off Charing Cross Road, which belied the riches within. Hemmed in between the road and the National Gallery, it announced itself with only modest fanfare. But it’s hard to imagine many visitors being too nostalgic for the past when greeted with the gallery’s new, improved arrival sequence, the most publicly-visible part of a complex refurbishment led by Jamie Fobert Architects with heritage architect Purcell. Finally, the NPG has an entrance and new forecourt more befitting of an institution of its status. And like most successful interventions, it instantly looks comfortable, as if it was always meant to be that way.
Designed by Ewan Christian, the grade I-listed building was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1896. Jamie Fobert describes the National Portrait Gallery as ‘the great historic building Londoners never knew they had’. It’s hard to disagree – I can’t have been the only one to have walked past its wide north elevation countless times without appreciating – beneath the decades of grime – the fine Italianate design or indeed even realising that it was the NPG.
This lack of visibility informed the brief, which called for the gallery to better address the city and open up to the public, while resolving long-standing access difficulties and making the most of its Victorian architecture. According to NPG director Nicholas Cullinan, it was a building that ‘kept you at bay’ – in particular many of the windows had been covered up over the years, and it had ‘begun to feel a bit fragmented’. Instead, he wanted a more welcoming building that retained the human-scale character that its research revealed was popular with visitors, but felt more like part of the city. Rather than looking to reinvent itself through showy gestures, Cullinan talks about ‘listening to the building’ and achieving a conversation with the different stages of the building’s past, a challenge that the design team was clearly keen to take on as part of the NPG’s £41.3 million Inspiring People project.
First, JFA and Purcell had to get to grips with the rather curious orientation of the original building and its subsequent alterations, before steering a new path that met contemporary visitor needs while respecting the past.
When designing the NPG, Christian sought to navigate the site’s edge condition location between the set piece grandeur of the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square with Westminster beyond, and the slums to the north. Charing Cross Road was a new addition, cutting down through Soho before bending next to the gallery at St Martin’s Place close to the Square. This was surely one of the reasons for placing the NPG entrance not on the relatively grand north elevation facing the slums, but on the south east nearer to the more reputable public spaces and institutions. As a result, the gallery’s original entrance always felt like something of a side entrance, although its positioning allowed it to connect the main run of galleries housed in the north wing with a second strip of galleries in an East wing flanking the National Gallery. Other extensions followed – the Duveen wing in the 1933 and Dixon Jones’ Ondaatje Wing of 2000, which infilled a service courtyard to create a new inner hall and improve circulation.
With the opportunity to close the gallery for three years and temporarily remove the artworks, the latest refurbishment was finally the chance to grasp the nettle and resolve the gallery’s many issues. The result gives 18% more public space and is, says Fobert ‘a huge extension without building a huge extension’ – there is no showstopper new wing here. Instead, careful replanning has led to the reclamation of some 960m2 of underused space, most markedly in the Weston (formerly East) Wing. Shops and hospitality areas have sensibly been relocated to prime perimeter locations, with the former’s long-covered up windows opened to the city once again.
Fobert talks about reclaiming the building and certainly the design team has done this by looking to Christian’s building for inspiration, whether stripping out unsympathetic additions to reveal original details, creating new designs informed by the past, or seeking to open up the building to natural light as he originally intended. But they have not been afraid to make big changes when required.
The biggest of these has been the creation of a new entrance on the north opening onto a new granite forecourt. This major intervention – achieved by turning three windows into 4m-high doorways and building a short bridge over the perimeter lightwell – works wonders in providing a new orientation towards Charing Cross Road. Rather than impair the integrity of the Italianate facade, the new entrance acts as a focal point while drawing attention to the spruced up stonework – now several shades lighter. Importantly, the new entrance also provides step free access – unlike the original. A particularly nice touch is the incorporation of 45 portraits of women by Tracy Emin into the bronze entrance doors, a pleasing counterpoint to the all-male array of esteemed artists portrayed in roundels above the first floor windows.
Fobert says that achieving the new public space was the biggest challenge of the whole project, given that the gallery site stopped at the lightwell in front of the north facade – the forecourt itself is owned by Westminster Council. The effort involved in achieving this – including freeing up space by relocating the statue of actor Henry Irving to face theatreland – has been well worth it, enabling the gallery to properly engage with the city for the first time. This extends to the basement of the north wing, where JFA has cleared a clutter of sub-divisions and reinstated a double-height space as part of an extended learning centre. These now open onto a modest perimeter courtyard, further strengthening the relationship of the gallery with its surroundings.
The new main entrance takes visitors past the new shop and through a spacious new entry hall to the Ondaatje Hall. Here, the new entry route links up with the axis from the retained original entrance – a new curved welcome desk nicely addresses both. Following a change in access requirements, JFA was able to reconfigure the Ondaatje wing to create a new display for recent acquisitions, and harmoniously ‘cloak’ the escalator to the upper galleries.
There have been significant changes to the Weston Wing, where galleries that had been repurposed for many decades as back-of-house offices have been restored to public use. Now, the wing houses a ground floor café and basement restaurant with restored galleries above, along with a new staircase and lifts.
Throughout, JFA took inspiration from the site and the building for the detailing – the bend in Charing Cross Road is referenced in the design of new staircases and the walnut benches in the gallery. Meanwhile, the frequent use of chamfers in the original design is picked up in the gallery display cases, and the mosaic detailing inspired the terrazzo ‘rugs’ in the new entrance. Excavating the basement storerooms revealed several long-forgotten plaster prototypes for the external roundels, now installed within the shop. A previously concealed beautiful mosaic floor in the East Wing, also forgotten, was discovered and meticulously repaired by Purcell to form a feature in the new café. Throughout the galleries, the original floor has been revived so that it once again looks like the teak that it is, rather than, says Fobert, the oak it had come to resemble. Meanwhile the new logo was inspired by a sketch that was found in the archive by the gallery’s founding director.
The design team also looked outwards for inspiration, opening up the building to provide a visual link with the city – not only in the new shop but in many of the permanent galleries. These have been splendidly redesigned in collaboration with interpretation designer Nissen Richards to reinstate the original cruciform arrangement by removing infilled arches. Natural light has been carefully re-introduced wherever possible, with the second floor windows reopened. Sequences of bespoke, new gallery wall colours appropriate to the chronology of the display aid intuitive navigation. The rehang is accompanied by new showcases, plinths, gallery seating and interpretation.
There’s no getting away from the eccentricities of the plan. But the overwhelming impression is of a more welcoming gallery that succeeds in bringing the artwork to visitors in a way it didn’t before. As Purcell chairperson and regional partner Liz Smith says, you don’t have to seek it out any more. Instead, it comes to you long before you reach the galleries, whether as the centrepiece display created by Nissen Richards in the new entrance hall, or as part of the Emin-adorned doors even before you’ve crossed the threshold.
The design team’s assured, thoughtful approach pays dividends in this quietly impressive transformation. It feels like the NPG is no longer fighting against the constraints of its own building. Instead, the gallery has found a way forward by looking to its past as it seeks to renegotiate its relationship with the city.
Total public area after the project 6298m2
Construction cost 28m approx
Architect: Jamie Fobert Architects
Heritage architect: Purcell
Interpretation designer: Nissen Richards Studio
Retail architect: Alex Cochrane Architects
Structural engineer: Price & Myers
Services engineer: Max Fordham
Project eanager: Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor: Gilbert Ash