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National Portrait Gallery Architecture

Architectural Tour of the National Portrait Gallery

When an architect like Jamie Fobert has spend five years immersed in a project as impressive as the National Portrait Gallery, you know that it's worth seeing the project with him. I was privileged to join this tour, as arranged by the Architecture Foundation. Jamie Fobert took time to explain the challenging project from his competition win to completion, showing his obvious passion for every aspect.

The Grade I-listed building was built in 1896 as a permanent home for British portrait art. Fobert explained that in the 19th century, Charing Cross Road was undesirable. Therefore, the building was designed with a relatively small entrance squeezed against St Martin's Place. The key gesture of Fobert's competition-winning proposal was to create a welcoming and large public space to the north and, radically, open up three big windows to create an inviting new entrance. These openings are now flanked by bronze doors by Tracey Emin. Her artwork, comprising a collection of female heads engraved into the metal, is a counterbalance to the row of (male) busts set within the arches above.

The new public space facing Charing Cross Road

Despite the project needing listed building approval, it was interesting to learn that Historic England were supportive of controversial interventions such as this. Fobert explained that a key consideration is to allow listed buildings to remain relevant, even if that means amending their fabric, layout and use.

The architects collaborated with many specialist consultants including heritage specialists, Purcell, structural engineers, Price & Myers and services engineers, Max Fordham. Jamie Fobert was keen to point out the exquisite display cases, designed by Nissen Richards as part of their permanent exhibition design.

On arrival, the display of plinths is an arresting initial view

After describing the exterior design, Jamie Fobert led us through the internal public areas, learning spaces and galleries. It was inspiring to hear that through an almost surgical opening up of the existing building, the architects had created as much new area for visitors as the whole of the Tate St Ives, also designed by them.

Fobert was not in charge of the massive re-hanging project but clearly he has immense appreciation for the refreshing changes to the display. As he noted, the National Gallery is a place that shows great art, the National Portrait Gallery is a place that shows great (or controversial) people. On this visit, I was most interested in seeing the architecture but I look forward to many future visits to see those people.

with Jamie Fobert

August 21, 2023
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