Bathed in Beige

Gillian Darley

While London’s National Gallery is heading for its 200th anniversary, branded NG200, the Guggenheim in Bilbao is celebrating its 25th. The stone treasure chest on Trafalgar Square and the titanium snail shell on the banks of the River Nervión may have little in common, yet the different ways in which the two galleries are looking ahead, architecturally speaking, are instructive.

Frank Gehry’s attention-seeking building, which rose out of the industrial wastelands of the Basque city in the 1990s, was contentious for its swirling postmodernism but even more so for its presumptions of culture-led regeneration. It seems to have won both arguments. Over time the building had been subdivided, light was deflected if not blocked out, and the work, a major collection of (mostly) mid-20th-century art, called the shots. Now the reverse is true. To celebrate its quarter century, the building has been thrown open. In the words of one curator, it has undergone a ‘deep peel of the interior’.

The ambition of the soaring central atrium, criss-crossed by walkways and wrapped by high level terraces, is plain to see. There are frequent views into and across the labyrinthine building around it; skylights have been stripped clear; intervening partitions and walling removed; and the logic of the collection is now far more in in tune with the exigencies of Gehry’s design. Where daylight falls, there are no vulnerable exhibits, while technology has transformed the delivery of artificial light. Some measures have been radical. Sol LeWitt’s immense wall painting, with the agreement of the artist’s estate, has been reinstated elsewhere, where it isn’t exposed to strong natural light.

Outside, along the riverside, a confident linear park unpeels, the Guggenheim a flagship to a green stretch of playgrounds, cafés, running and cycle tracks and more.

In London, meanwhile, the National Gallery is busy unpicking Venturi Scott Brown’s moody but effective entrance to the Sainsbury Wing, listed Grade I. Asked to make this the sole entry point to the entire gallery, the New York-based Selldorf Architects, much in favour with major commercial art galleries, have diminished it to little more than an underwhelming hotel lobby, sheering away much of the ceiling to accommodate a mezzanine coffee bar, bathed in beige. Their failure to grasp the classic dark-into-light progression that Venturi Scott Brown achieved is astounding.

The multiple objections to the pallid Selldorf scheme include a letter signed by eight former presidents of the RIBA (though the current president has offered his muted support). The outcry earlier this year has provoked a few nip-and-tuck changes, and led to a chat with a reportedly unhappy Denise Scott Brown. It’s clear that Selldorf were a poor choice but, worse, that their brief was hopeless.

There’s said to be a masterplan on the shelf, drawn up by Edward Jones, with a flight of entrance steps rising from Trafalgar Square to the central portico. Why not? NG200 could be moved too. It is, cleverly, unspecific.