Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

Deco Nouveau: A New Life For An Old London Movie Theatre

I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to a wonderful restoration-conversion project in London, where an old Art Deco-era cinema has found new life as an hotel. This article gives an overview of the project, as well as a link to a video featuring Jason Flanagan, the lead architect from the firm of Flanagan Lawrence who worked on it.What is particularly interesting about this design however, although this fact is not mentioned in the video, is that it has nothing to do with what the original building looked like.

Today we look at the lines of the exterior facades on the former Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion and say to ourselves, “Art Deco,” but at the time it was built the cinema was supposed to be in the Italian Renaissance style. One takes this description with a grain of salt, of course, since as anyone who has been to an old movie palace built in the early part of the 20th century knows, stylistic mish-mashes were quite common in these places. Here there would be some Chinese Chippendale, there some Hispano-Moorish, over there some Italo-French Rococo.

Nevertheless when it opened in 1923, this cinema made quite an impression, for both the exterior and the interior of the building won design awards from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects). It was named as Best London Street Façade of the year, described as an “imposing structure of brick and stone in which the former material especially is used with great imagination.” It also won a Bronze Medal for Best Interior Design, due in part to having over two miles of carpet, and solid silver light fixtures. This was occurring at a transitional time in the entertainment industry, when films were becoming longer and more elaborate, and the stars of the silver screen were becoming the trend-setters in society, so that movies were no longer something raunchy or silly shown only in gaming arcades or at the seaside.

What is particularly interesting here is that the interior of the new hotel is not a retrofit of the original. In fact the original interior was bombed out by the Luftwaffe during World War II, and the place was essentially abandoned until 1955. The ruined interior was ripped out, and a more utilitarian interior put in its place, rather than attempting to restore the original. Thus when Flanagan Lawrence began work on the building a few years ago, they did not have an historic interior to try to preserve, only an historic exterior.

The end result is neither a recreation of the 1920’s original, nor a restoration of the 1950’s replacement, but something contemporary that references both eras. During the day the interior atrium is somewhat reminiscent of a building in which the advertising men of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Mad Men” would feel at home, all wood paneling and simple, curved geometry. At night however, when those panels are illuminated from within, the effect is to create dazzling, rippling bands of gold stacked up to the ceiling, like a stage set waiting for a Busby Berkeley production featuring The Rockettes, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dancing down the middle of the room. I must confess, I never went to Shepherd’s Bush when I lived in London, but to see this interior in the evening, and have a cocktail at the bar, I just might, if I lived there now.

Such conversions of lumbering structures that have lost their way are never easy. However in this instance the architects did a tremendous job of bringing new life to a sad shell of a building. Kudos to Flanagan Lawrence for doing such a great job.

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Phone Booth Friday: Superman’s Changing Room in the Digital Age

As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying a little experiment on the blog where Fridays are reserved for posts about superheroes, since a number of my readers and followers are interested in this area of popular culture.  Thanks to a suggestion from one of you clever readers, I’ve decided to call this weekly installment, “Phone Booth Friday”, appropriately enough.  And to begin the official launch of this feature, I thought we’d take a look at Superman’s changing room itself, an object which in many parts of the world has largely ceased to serve its original purpose.

On Wednesday, London launched the first of a series of phone booth conversions, turning some of the city’s iconic red boxes from payphone shelters to green-painted, solar-powered charging stations for mobile phones and other devices.  With the advent of digital communications, many of these familiar pieces of London streetscape have fallen into disuse. Some are sitting in phone booth “graveyards”, waiting to be scooped up by collectors and designers seeking to find new uses for these objects.  In fact, roughly half of all phone boxes which once dotted the British landscape have disappeared over the last decade.

London is not alone, of course, in finding itself with a surfeit of phone booths it no longer needs.  Here in America, removal or repurposing in many cities is taking much longer, in part because there are so many phone companies responsible for the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of these objects.  There are still an estimated 10,000 phone booths on the streets of New York City alone, and various proposals floating around regarding what to do with them.

Although it’s good to see new and innovative ideas are bringing life back to some of these now largely superfluous bits of technology, one might also conclude that with fewer phone booths out there, the last son of Krypton might find himself in a bit of a quandary when he needs to spring into action. The old-fashioned, full-length phone booth is hard to find in many American cities anyway, as compared to the open, half-length style still to be seen in places like airports and train stations.  Except interestingly enough, the automatic association we all make regarding the phone booth as Superman’s changing room is not entirely accurate.

Originally, the phone booth was not an essential part of Superman’s modus operandi.  The first example of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman occurred not in the comic books, which were first published in 1939, but rather in a cartoon short from 1941.  In fact the use of the phone booth as part of one of his comic strip adventures didn’t appear until 1942.  As this article points out, over the years both in print and on film, Supes has changed clothes in all kinds of places; on the 1950’s TV series, for example, he most often used a broom closet at The Daily Planet, or an alleyway, and never once used a phone booth.

So rest assured, good citizens, whether from a repurposed phone booth, a storage cupboard, or behind a dumpster, there will always be somewhere for Superman to do what he needs to do to leap into action.  The more critical problem today, quite frankly, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras both inside and outside of buildings, on streets, highways, intersections, and so on, which run the risk of giving the entire game away.  Plus, you can imagine the size of the speeding tickets.

Superman Phone Booth