Tony Whitehead of Defence Estates salutes the functional, effective Walsall Art Gallery but finds the Sainsbury Wing spineless
I think the New Walsall Art Gallery is a wonderful building: iconic but restrained. Living as I do in the West Midlands, it’s always pleasant to take friends there. The glass and stainless steel-clad reception area at the base means that the facade’s terracotta tiles seem to float above it. It’s close to a canal, so the effect suits the site really well. Although the glazing appears random from the outside, its functionality becomes apparent when you’re inside and the windows frame unexpected views – rather like Tate Modern does, but more effectively. Even everyday views become interesting in the way they’re framed. Birmingham has the big art galleries, but Walsall has its interesting, quirky collections, and the building suits them wonderfully.
I’m quite often in Whitehall for meetings, and on my journey to them I tend to pass through Trafalgar Square. The Sainsbury Wing is maybe an easy hit for a blunder – its history is well known. It’s beautifully built, and the scale-height massing and use of natural stone are appropriately deferential to the National Gallery. But it always looks sad and ineffectual, as if it’s cowering in the corner, saying “I’m not really a classical building, don’t hit me”. It’s the antithesis if the in-your-face, confident assertiveness a classical building is meant to possess.
Tony Whitehead is head of architecture and construction policy for Defence Estates