A year after our competition winning success, this exciting collaboration with Jamie Fobert Architects has reached its first key milestone as full planning and listed building consent has been secured to improve Ewan Christian’s Grade I listed C19th-century gallery.

Learning Centre Area Proposal. © Jamie Fobert Architects

Purcell was delighted to win this international open design competition and to begin its first significant collaboration with Jamie Fobert Architects. The National Portrait Gallery was looking for a design team that could tackle the brief’s architectural challenge: to open up the Gallery, to make the Collection more accessible and welcoming and to bring the buildings, technical and managerial infrastructure of the Gallery to the highest standards.

This challenge played to our mutual strengths, focussing as it did on a Grade I listed building, set within a very tight and constrained urban site. The timing was also perfect, with Jamie Fobert Architects drawing to a close a decade of work on significant gallery projects: Tate St Ives in Cornwall, Charleston, Kettle’s Yard. And Purcell extending almost 30 years of experience of working on multiple phases of refurbishment work at the neighbouring National Gallery.

Winning Ideas

The essence of our competition winning proposal to radically reposition the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) within its established setting, stemmed from the identification and response to one of the most enduring compositional constraints of the existing buildings

The NPG’s reliance on Ewan Christian’s principal entrance and stair means that while the buildings benefit from a range of galleries that have fine qualities in themselves, as a combined experience these individual suites of spaces struggle to relate to each other in a harmonious way. Today, this not only frustrates the NPG’s ambition to enhance the visitor experience, but also limits its ability to address the most clearly articulated architectural aim of the project: to physically open up the Gallery and to make the Collection and programme more visible, accessible and welcoming.

As an unavoidable pinch point in Christian’s C19th composition, located at the knuckle between the East Wing and Palazzo, the entrance is constrained on all sides. Internally this relates to changes in level and a general lack of breathing space, while externally the almost non-existent forecourt and narrow pavement add further pressure.

Despite these constraints, these spaces have served as the building’s principal point of entry and orientation for over a century.

The Dixon Jones intervention of 2000, The Ondaatje Wing, went a long way to provide a new point of orientation at the heart of the building, however the Gallery remains compromised by its reliance on the existing entrance and stair.

This key observation informed all aspects of our competition winning response, which was presented to the jury as a series of six interrelated studies and recommendations: Two addressing issues relating to poor legibility and disorientation; two considering the enhancement of existing suites of rooms; and two more that provide new spaces that were identified as priorities.

Developed proposals

Learning Centre Proposal. © Jamie Fobert Architects

With the benefit of intelligence unavailable at the time of the competition, the design process began with a rigorous reappraisal of the Gallery’s current condition, which identified a number of more detailed constraints and opportunities. These included the gallery’s significant frontage along St Martin’s Place often being mistakenly seen as part of the neighbouring National Gallery; the lack of level access at the main entrance that results in a segregated experience for able-bodied and disabled visitors; congestion within the existing entrance hall due to bag searches and inefficiency of revolving doors; the underuse of the existing external space to the north, where there is little opportunity for the public to sit or gather; the lack of capacity in the learning studio which, despite being first of its kind in a UK museum, has to cater for activities, lunches and storage within a single space, can only accommodate one group at a time, has no designated toilets and lacks any presence or visibility to public areas; the underuse of the East Wing, originally designed as gallery space, which is largely inaccessible to the public, with staff offices on the first floor, informal storage on the second and the majority of its windows being closed, obscured or shuttered; and, after twenty years of wear and tear, the existing gallery spaces that have become dated in their choice of colours and materials, tired in condition and have poor lighting.

With these factors in focus, our initial design proposals were re-prioritised and five key objectives were agreed.

Identity and access: To enhance the identity, profile and physical presence of the National Portrait Gallery, making the building accessible and welcoming to the widest and most diverse audience - with a new forecourt that enhances the setting of Christian’s north elevation and the Sir Henry Irving Memorial Statue, providing level access into a new entrance hall that leads into the main hall in the existing Ondaatje Wing while providing three times as much space in which to welcome and provide choice to all visitors.

Outreach and engagement: To create a fit-for-purpose Learning Centre which will transform the experience of its users - by reopening Christian’s original double height kitchen and external light well to accommodate separate wet and dry studio spaces, dedicated WCs, lockers, cloakroom and adequate breakout space, indoors and out.

Architecture and spaces: To preserve and enhance the architectural qualities of this fine Victorian building and Grade I Listed heritage asset, and to bring back to public life areas long closed and unappreciated, in particular, the East Wing - by stripping out unsympathetic interventions in order to restore the Victorian galleries, and by extending the café into the adjacent vaults.

Collection and galleries: To enable an ambitious, engaging, comprehensive and unified re-display of the collection, top-to-bottom, from the Tudors to now - by re-hanging and reinterpreting the entire Collection in fully restored and technically upgraded galleries.

Viability and resilience: To ensure the Gallery’s ability to be sustainable, and to increase opportunities to generate income, safeguarding its future - with a more prominent shop and improved independent access to the rooftop restaurant.


Shortlisted for the AJ100 Collaboration of the Year award, our success in the National Portrait Gallery design competition shows the reward of adopting a cross disciplinary approach to design.

Collaboration is key to architectural practice, representing as it does an architect’s ability to draw diverse groups and processes together. This is especially true for Purcell, where our team’s architects, masterplanners and heritage consultants find great reward in managing the creative dynamic on our projects. This was certainly the case on the Inspiring People competition in relation to the creative collaboration that existed between us and Jamie Fobert Architects. From the outset we sat around the table as a one team, sharing our collective experience and using it to scrutinise the brief, study the DNA of the existing building, consider the Gallery’s place in the city and understand the essence of the project.

Through this, conventional boundaries between the role of design architect and heritage advisor were blurred, as winning proposals emerged that were based on a form of design confidence that had been accumulated through a rigorous understanding of the building’s history and a sensitive approach to a wide range of contextual attributes. Through our prior engagement with the site, Westminster City Council, Historic England and other relevant stakeholders on the production of a separately commissioned Heritage Statement and Conservation Management Plan, combined with our own extensive experience in gallery design, we are delighted to have contributed to the team’s thorough understanding of the Gallery’s spatial order and its place in the city; and ultimately to how Jamie Fobert’s skilful proposals acknowledge the building’s past and better prepare it for the future.


Purcell has been appointed to lead the project team in adopting BIM Level 2 processes on this project. Collaboration is always a key component of any successful project, and adopting BIM Level 2 principles aligned to the clients brief has ensured a well-coordinated outcome for this project.