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"Never so serious" : Venturi's Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London

Calder, Barnabas (2009) "Never so serious" : Venturi's Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, London. In: A Modernist Museum in Perspective. Studies in the History of Art, 73 . National Gallery of Art, Washington [D.C.], pp. 183-199. ISBN 9780300121599

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This fascinating book is the first critical examination of the East Building, I. M. Pei's celebrated addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Distinguished contributors consider this iconic building from various historical vantage points, from the evolution of its design to its place in 20th-century museum architecture.

Item type: Book Section
ID code: 14201
Notes: Published in Washington [D.C.] : National Gallery of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press : New Haven. Review: When John Russell Pope's National Gallery opened in 1941, prominent Modernists assailed its classical form as hopelessly outdated. Popular notions at the time, however, held that Modernism could not be monumental, a notion that Modernist architects would soon challenge. By the time I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery opened in 1978 -- Pope's is now known as the West Building -- the tables had turned. Modernism had certainly built its monumental structures by then, but the movement had also spawned a generation's worth of thoughtless and dehumanizing architecture. The style's best years seemed to have passed. Pei's angular gallery remains one of his triumphs, honored by the American Institute of Architects in 2004 with its "25-Year Award," which goes to buildings that have stood the test of time. A Modernist Museum in Perspective (National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press), a collection of essays about the East Building, recounts some of this history and puts it in context. In the late 1960s, when the East Building was commissioned, Pope's West Building was "arguably the most distinguished structure on the Mall," but the building "seemed a magnificent anachronism whose scale and detailing reflected a time gone by," writes Neil Harris, an emeritus professor of history and art history at the University of Chicago, in his opening essay. "It could no longer serve architects as a model for designing new museums of art." One of the themes of the book is its exploration of what that model museum has become. In an essay called "Adding On," Marc Treib, an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, examines some prominent museum architecture and the problem of additions. Unless its collection is static, every museum will have to consider growth, he writes. How can a museum building maintain a sense of whole -- or should the building be more like a collage? Using a parent-child metaphor, he writes, museum additions can be seen in three ways: Oedipal, in which the "child" addition tries to assert its own identity; Confucian, in which the addition respects the "parent" building; and a hybrid that has elements of each. Santiago Calatrava's 2001 museum addition in Milwaukee is a particularly "muscular" version of the Oedipal. Treib considers the East Building of the National Gallery, while stylistically distinctive from the West Building parent, essentially Confucian. Through matching cladding and appropriate scale, it is a "very well-bred and considerate child" that complements the original. More than anything, A Modernist Museum is concerned with the legacy of the East Building. Barnabas Cal-der, a lecturer in architectural history and theory at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, considers that legacy through the history of a very different structure: the 1991 Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of London. At the time of its commissioning and construction, public sentiment opposed a Modernist interpretation. The design, which incorporated classical elements, fell to Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown, and despite their best intentions, "the result has many furious detractors and relatively few admirers," Calder writes. "Pei, who exemplifies some of the Modernist traits singled out for criticism by Venturi and his colleagues in their written work, produced a gallery that has been loved from the start by architects, critics, and visitors." Anthony Alofsin, an architecture professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who is the book's editor, argues that the East Building has been largely neglected by architectural historians, probably for complicated political and stylistic reasons. In short, the building fell between the end of one architectural era and the beginning of another. In the minds of some critics and historians, the building's Modernism may have represented the "establishment" of the chaotic late 1960s, Alofsin writes, and by the time the building opened, postmodernism had begun to supplant minimalist Modernism as the favored style. "It has emerged since its opening as a kind of dowager empress, venerable and fixed, preserved without change even though times change, technology changes, and we see how art changes," he writes. In these anxious times, "perhaps we need a grand building that stands solid and immobile for certainty, or at least the illusion of certainty." *** The word "sustainability" has a widely accepted definition, outlined by the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development, as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. You might say that things that are sustainable can go on forever. But as concern over the environment spreads, "sustainable" and "green" seem to be applied to a whole range of products and activities that have little to do with (and may even be hostile to) the basic tenets of the sustainability movement -- to the point where the significance of the term itself, at least to the layman, is threatened. Adrian Parr addresses this theme in Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press), in which she attacks Hollywood environmentalism, sustainability in politics, and "the greening of junkspace." The convergence of popular culture and the sustainability movement has given corporations an opportunity to "ecobrand" their products -- an opportunity "empowered by the emerging culture of activist investment," she writes. But that branding often makes no more than superficial gestures to sustainability. The oil com-pany BP may have its slogan "Beyond Petroleum," but the company still gets exemptions to the Clean Water Act to dump sludge, she writes. Despite its sales of compact fluorescent light bulbs and organic food, Wal-Mart is still a gargantuan retailer that promotes sprawl, drives out local businesses, and subsists on a fundamentally unsustainable retail model. The United States military may lessen its environmental impact through its sustainability goals, she says, but its activities run against the very spirit of sustainability. In the latter half of the book, Parr outlines some challenges to sustainability -- trash, disaster relief, slums, and poverty. Trash, for example, is a symptom of a disposability culture -- the burden of which is often borne by the poor. The future of sustainability lies not with Wal-Mart or greenwashed products like the Hummer O2, Parr argues, but with the fate of the disenfranchised.
Keywords: architecture, national gallery of art, washington, historical buildings, Architecture, Architecture
Subjects: Fine Arts > Architecture
Department: Faculty of Engineering > Architecture
Depositing user: Miss Claire Hyland
Date Deposited: 21 Jan 2010 14:19
Last modified: 11 Dec 2015 02:24
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