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Purcell and Jamie Fobert Architects are collaborating on The National Portrait Gallery’s most comprehensive restoration and transformation project since it opened at its St Martins premises in 1896. The scheme, named Inspiring People will adapt the Grade-1 listed building ensuring its sustainable future as a vibrant, world class institution.

The National Portrait Gallery represents the largest collection of portraits in the world – paintings of individuals who have shaped the nation, ranging from the Tudors to Ed Sheeran. Its home at St Martins Place was the first purpose-built gallery of its kind, designed by the celebrated Ewan Christian and opened in 1896, yet modern pressures such as rising visitor numbers and an ever-growing collection had reached a critical point. Bold action was needed to adapt and upgrade the building to ensure the National Portrait Gallery’s sustainable future.

Inspiring people project

Learning Centre Area Proposal. © Jamie Fobert Architects

The Inspiring People project was launched in 2017 to address this, made possible by £9.4 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and led by the nationally acclaimed design team, Jamie Fobert Architects and Purcell.

The proposals will radically re-orientate the Grade-I listed building, creating a new architectural identity for it and the immediate public realm. A new visitor’s entrance and forecourt will enhance accessibility and create an entrance sequence that can fully celebrate the institution’s prominence and popularity – whilst respecting the building’s heritage fabric. Step free access will also be at the eastern entrance, and the East Wing will be restored and reopened to the public for the first time in the building’s recent history, with new gallery spaces and café.

Key aims revolve around restoring the historic features, improving visitor flow and experience, and creating world class environments for the collection. By removing old and redundant services within the building, the efficiency of both public and private spaces can be unlocked. Accordingly, a great deal of consideration has been given to the existing fabric, to sensitively integrate services that will promote the latest technologies and future sustainability of the building.

Nick Chantarasak, Senior Architect
New Entrance Hall Proposal. © Jamie Fobert Architects

The monumental task of removing all paintings from the walls – for the first time in its history – has allowed construction to begin, the latest development that precedes the complete refurbishment and rehanging of the whole collection.

THE CHALLENGE

Ewan Christian’s design for The National Portrait Gallery was shaped by the extremely awkward and constricted site; a constriction that continues to hinder the gallery’s expansion today.

Space is a tantalising rarity within and surrounding the site, demand from a growing collection and visitor numbers having outstripped the original design almost immediately after it opened. Framed by The National Gallery and two main roads, the footprint offers little to no room for expansion, so all changes needed to adapt the existing spaces and material – and the building’s Grade-I listed fabric limited anything but the most sensitive approach.

A century old architectural oddity created a central pinch point by placing the principal entrance and stairway between the East Wing and Palazzo. This footprint, already hindered by a non-existent forecourt, congests entrance and exit points, ticketing halls and visitor facilities, and hinders level access.

The gallery spaces within needed refurbishment and reconfiguration as individually beautiful but illogically disjointed galleries struggled to create a harmonious experience for the unwary visitor. Key facilities including the learning centre, toilets, and cloakroom lacked essential space.

These constraints not only frustrated the National Portrait Gallery’s ambition to enhance visitor experience, but also that most clearly articulated architectural aim of the project: to physically open up the building, and to make the collection and programme more visible, accessible and welcoming.

THE SOLUTION

Understanding underpins design and sensitive change. As heritage consultants and architects Purcell have, under a separate commission, written a Conservation Management Plan for the main building and the office buildings opposite. This explored the history and relative significance of the various parts of the main building and analysed a wide variety of issues and opportunities presented by the building.

This expert knowledge of significance, as well as careful heritage analysis of views of the building, actively informed Jamie Fobert’s skillful proposals for sensitive change, which acknowledge the building’s past and better prepare it for the future.

The proposals aim to return natural light into the building; balancing the complexities of displaying the artwork in controlled, stable environments alongside the user benefits from seeing out of the gallery spaces and enjoying natural sunlight.

Nick Chantarasak, Senior Architect

THE DESIGN TEAM

Collaboration is key to architectural practice, representing as it does an architect’s ability to draw diverse groups and processes together. At Purcell, 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 worked as one team, sharing our collective experience, and using it to scrutinise the essence of the project.

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.

Following the start of construction on site, the artwork will now travel across all the United Kingdom and further as part of the NPG’s National and Internal Programmes, part of the vision of the Inspiring People project, to improve outreach and engagement.

Once works are completed, we look forward to welcoming the nation’s collection back to London, framed within the renewed, prestigious spaces at the National Portrait Gallery.

Elizabeth Smith, Regional Partner and Head of Architecture

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