New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Annabelle Selldorf

Monday 19 July 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
So firstly, congratulations for winning the NG 200 project for the bicentenary of the National Gallery. Where were you when you heard? And how did you celebrate?
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
Thank you. First of all, I can't begin to tell you how excited I am. To be selected for this project is deeply, deeply meaningful to me, for a variety of reasons. And maybe it's worth saying that when we participated in the competition, even if it is not one that's particularly about creating schemes, I think I share with every architect the sense of exhilaration that comes about for thinking about something and one becomes very attached to it. And so, when you don't win it - and I have plenty of experience with not winning competitions (laughs) - it is quite painful. And because you have spent so much time thinking about this. And in this particular case, of course, the competition was formidable, and I know that everybody gave it their all.  I'm not gleeful about winning over others. Nevertheless, I'm simply thrilled to work on this beautiful project. And where was I? Well, I've spent most of the time during COVID, in a very remote place, in Maine. And I did, what I do every morning - I placed myself in front of the computer and start my Zoom calls and what have you. And now this has been some 10 days or so after the interview.  I had begun feeling very teary and dreading that we would be hearing that somebody else had won. And just as I started to - I'm giving you the long version, sorry! Just as I started my call, my partner, Lisa Green, called me and said: ‘Did you see it?’ And I was like: ‘what did I see?’. Well, there was an email from Malcolm Redding, and in a very sort of laconic way, it said 'we are very pleased to tell you that you've been selected to go forward with this project'. And I think there was a scream of excitement that could be heard along the eastern coast of America (laughs) Because, well, that's how we found out, and then later I spoke with [the NG’s] Dr. Gabriele Finaldi. And I can say that I was just delirious with happiness.
 
David Taylor  
And was there champagne to be had?
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
So: this was on a Friday; the following Monday was my birthday. The weather was terrible. But on Monday, the sun came out. And there was an entire day of just happiness and celebrating, and Champagne was definitely a part of it.
David Taylor  
Great! Now, it's obviously very early in the process, but what are your early thoughts about how you will proceed? And indeed, what do you think got you to the top spot - if that wasn't relayed to you?

Annabelle Selldorf
Well, I think it's actually a very complicated project. We have two listed buildings standing side by side and they're listed for very different reasons and are from a very different time. And the very fact that Sainsbury wasn't designed to be the main entrance, there are sort of considerations about having a greater sense of openness and welcome for the public. So there are thoughts about the public realm and the threshold and the welcoming, and not a lot that you really can do. In my mind, it's a series of careful interventions that will have a transformative effect to the reading of these structures. And in a strange way, I think that this is not about making a new architecture, but really understanding how people move and how light works and what our perceptions are as visitors. And how with incremental but therefore, cumulative effect we can create something that is the ultimate goal for a project of this nature, and it is bringing people to art and making them feel that that there isn't any obstacle on the way there.

There are many considerations; they pertain to absolutely every aspect of the building and in general, my approach is to perhaps do less rather than more, but do that in such a manner that it brings out the best in an existing structure.  I am not self-effacing, in that attitude, if you if you can see what I mean. It's not about adding Selldorf Architects to Venturi Scott Brown and to Wilkins, but rather being within and working with all of that. In the process of this few months of the competition, we got to know the National Gallery very well. We've spent a great deal of time walking in and around the building, mostly virtually. And my appreciation of the urban setting of Sainsbury has changed; I had never really thought so much about what the relationship of the Sainsbury Wing is not just to welcomes but to Pall Mall, to St Martin's, and I think we'll be able to make a good difference in sort of clarifying and highlighting these relationships to obviously, of course, Trafalgar Square as well. 
David Taylor  
You said you visited mostly virtually, so presumably you had a few physical visits over the last months or so. What were your observations of the city in this quite strange period, compared to where you are?
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
Well, I would say that there's been a kind of exuberance in New York, as we have come out, or mostly come out, of this protracted long time of isolation. And to the point where you think: is everybody kidding? There are traffic jams again? (laughs) I noticed that something not so dissimilar happens in London as well. As much as London and New York are different from one another before COVID I think, they're still different now. But what unites everybody is that desire to come out and be together again. And that's very palpable. I found the people just are so much more ready to engage and to be friendly, and wherever you go to sort of have a sense of welcome, and sort of careful optimism.
 
David Taylor  
And did that at all inform your approach to the competition?
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
Yeah, and that's not per se COVID-related. I think that if you work as we do with public institutions, especially art institutions, it's got to be all about people and getting people who may be shy of going to museums, making museums more accessible, and taking away the obstacles that could be in the way for them doing so. And you said something in the very beginning, before our interview, you used the word 'humane', for the conversation that you and I are having. And in a sense, it is the desire to have a lot more humanity, in the public sphere. If you bring that attitude, and if you mean it, that translates into perception and experience. And the more conscious we as architects are of facilitating that, from the simplest experiences of crossing the threshold, but also providing spaces where you can just be, or providing bathrooms and cloakrooms that feel good, and where you're not constantly having to purchase something, or be observed or something. All of that has to be part of an overall consideration towards safety and security. And there is probably a little bit of a contradiction in that, right? I mean, when you go to a museum, and you bring your backpack, somebody is going to look at your backpack. So: how do you negotiate those kinds of things?
 
David Taylor  
Well, thank you very much this, I think the five minutes is just about up. Fascinating. And I imagine from now on, you're going to be over here in London much more. Are you going to be opening an office over here?
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
Well, we're working with Purcell as our partner and I think that, yes, we will be there all the time! And hopefully we can use their facilities, and there will be a lot of back and forth. There's a lot of learning we all have to do, and we've only just begun conversations with the team from the National Gallery. So, I'm very much looking forward to getting the team set up and bringing everybody together.
 
David Taylor  
Well, congratulations again. And thanks for sparing me some time. 
 
Annabelle Selldorf  
It was a real pleasure. Thank you, David.

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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