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

If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

The Iron Lady WAS For Turning – When It Came To Great Art

Recently released papers reveal that, during her tenure as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher became personally involved in the effort to obtain one of the world’s most important private art collections for Britain.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was begun by the German industrialist Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza back in the 1920’s. During the Great Depression, he began snapping up art from American and European collectors who had fallen on hard times. When his title and collection passed to his son Heinrich, the new Baron began to collect even more works of art, until eventually the collection was second in size only to that of Queen Elizabeth II.

It is difficult to fathom just how vast an array of paintings we are talking about, in terms of scope and quality. The collection includes works by Fra Angelico, Van Eyck, Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and many, many others. If it were the national collection of a single country, it would be the pride of its citizens; as a private collection put together for the pleasure of one non-royal family, it is one of the greatest ever assembled, and unlikely ever to be duplicated in our time.

In the 1980’s, the Baron and his 5th wife Carmen Cervera, a former Miss Spain, realized that they did not have enough room to store and display all of the art in their collection. They began searching for a permanent home in which to house it, and a number of international cities were put on the couple’s short list. Countries fell over themselves trying to persuade the Thyssens to sell them their collection, and thanks to some significant, personal wooing by Baroness Thatcher, at one point Britain looked to be the front-runner.

British government documents show that, among other things, Baroness Thatcher sent personal notes to the Thyssens, to try to sweet-talk them into sending their collection to the UK. She invited them to visit her at Downing Street, when they were in London for the opening of an exhibition. Her cabinet appeared split over her desire to secure the collection for Britain, including future PM John Major (who was against it). Opinion was also split among the journalists, historians,  and curators whom Thatcher consulted privately, as to whether the country ought to purchase the art.

In the end, much to the disappointment of the Iron Lady, most of the collection went to Madrid. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, or “Thyssen” as it is called for short, opened in 1992, and is thus celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The Baron’s wife thwarted the Prime Minister’s plans, to benefit her home country. Interestingly enough however, the museum is currently having a bit of a problem with its patroness, as indeed Margaret Thatcher did 30 years ago.

After the Thyssen opened, Carmen began assembling her own great art collection, a skill which she learned about from her (3rd) husband. Her cache of nearly 500 paintings was subsequently lent to the Thyssen for a period of ten years. That period expired several years ago, but has been continuing on one-year renewals ever since. This might be coming to an end, unless the Spanish government and the widow can come to some sort of a more permanent arrangement.

The takeaway from this is that Baroness Thatcher clearly understood the power of truly great art. No, she was not a modern-day Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet the fact that she realized the value of this collection so much as to become personally involved in the effort to bring it to her country, even when art critics and political partners advised her against it, ought to make people pause before repeating the old canard about conservatives having little regard for art.