Designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London divided opinions even before opening in 1991. Here, Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, recalls how the project became a cherished landmark, and responds to the other questions from our architect's version of the Proust questionnaire.

What was the greatest achievement in the design of the Sainsbury Wing?
It houses some of the world’s most precious art and sits at the center of Western culture, peered at by Lord Nelson at the center of Trafalgar Square. It was a very tender project.

What problem/brief was the project attempting to solve?
Opening the paintings to a wide world of people, helping each person to have an I-thou relationship with at least a few paintings, and protecting all the paintings from physical harm and the sun’s rays.

What attracted you to the project?
The National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing is a modern building, but it is also part of the intertwined paths of classical architecture between Italy and the Anglo-Saxon world. Palladio is an English and American hero with a greater importance here than in Italy. His pediments, columns, and famous window passed first to England then to America, where they adorned plantations, mansions, and, via Mount Vernon and Monticello, made their way into the vernacular.

Palladianism is as American as Levittown. The gallery’s design embodies our own sorties down classical paths. In responding to architectural ancestors ancient and modern, we played with cross-cultural traditions and meanings and defined context as more than the physical environment. And of course we were attracted to a project with so much potential for rule-breaking, modern and of the Sir John Soane kind.

What was the public reception like to your proposal?
Few architects in England liked it, but people stopped us on the streets around it, and on the Charles Bridge in Prague, to thank us for designing it.

What was your most memorable moment of the project?
One was when we left London for Pakistan and Bob sat scribbling overnight on a British Airways menu, and as we landed showed me ballpoint sketches summarizing weeks of our thinking and research that led to the design competition parti that the client eventually chose.

A sketch of the Sainsbury Wing
Robert Venturi; University of Pennsylvania; Architectural Archives A sketch of the Sainsbury Wing

What was the most rewarding part?
As always, struggling with the design. One of the most rewarding was ensuring that direct light did not touch the paintings, but that the galleries would still receive needed light.

What turned out better than expected?
As a result of connecting Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, the existing galleries, and our extension, we found we had created a welcoming setting for the several million visitors to the gallery each year. But also, to our surprise, a setting that welcomes and protects protests and assemblies. If you saw the recent protest at the visit of President Trump, you saw our façade hanging over it. The frontage of the Sainsbury Wing is our Peace Park.

What didn’t work out exactly as planned?
Some things the client wouldn’t allow—a window at the end of the main gallery was the greatest loss. From it, the vista of Pall Mall, set in the art, would have seemed like fairyland.

What’s the best description of the finished building?
Charles Holland called it “a love letter to London.” We would add, “a mannerist love letter,” with nods to Soane, Lutyens, Summerson, and the clubland Classicism of Pall Mall.

Peter Cook/View Pictures

What is the greatest ambition you have yet to achieve?
In pushing ourselves to widen the view from architecture’s window, Bob and I have understood that there’s more to functionalism than merely relating the bathroom to the bedroom; and as well, that communication is a function of architecture.

I work now to show that functionalism doesn’t end with the front door. What happens from across the porch, and across the street, and all the way to China? Many architects, quoting Le Corbusier, define the outside as an aesthetic problem only. When we take this approach to work in the city, we share a responsibility for urban mistakes that cities make worldwide. I am still trying to find, through architecture, photography, and planning, ways to reach architects who have great reluctance to see urban relationships as part of their concern for function, and as a means of helping architectural relationships to work.

What’s one building you wish you had done?
Philadelphia Orchestra Hall.

What’s the one design/project that got away?
The Transportation Square Office Building in Washington, D.C. We won it in a Redevelopment Land Agency competition, but it was turned down by the Washington Fine Arts Commission headed by Gordon Bunshaft, who hated our scheme. It would have been one of our most challenging projects and an early boost to our career.

What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
The challenges that face the world: sustainability, climate change, and meeting the needs of poverty-stricken populations.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
I became a modernist at the age of two when my parents built an early Modern house and I saw the plans, blue prints with white lines. In kindergarten, I decided that I too would be an architect like my mother. But in first grade I wanted to be a teacher. Then to study language, to work in a library, to do research, travel, and write, all those things. I wanted to be all sorts of things depending on whom I admired. From four years old, people said I asked too many questions, and a perceptive teacher friend of our said that I might eventually be a researcher. At about 14 I reverted to architecture, and at 40, I realized that everything I wanted to do I had done—through architecture.

What jobs did your parents have?
My mother studied architecture but could not continue with it. She also lived in the wilderness and worked as a miner. My father dropped out of college at 18 and went north, learning to be storekeeper in Zambia. Returning to South Africa with a family, he worked with a cousin who was a stock broker and became involved with development. As a developer he built apartment buildings, office buildings, and movie houses.

What would you have been if not an architect?
A maker of some sort, a designer, researcher, and teacher. But one of my joys is seeing an emanation from my mind physically on a site.

What keeps you up at night?
What is Philadelphia going to do for work? How to help designers take logical steps from doorsteps to the world. This is urgent. We can’t say yes to Herbert Gans and Jane Jacobs and no to the social relationships they ask us to understand and protect.

What is your favorite building?
Which is your favorite child?

What is your most treasured possession?
My family, dog, home and yard, iPhone; and four nearly written books.

When and where were you the happiest?
The loss of many hoped for things: both my husbands—one while very young and the other while very old—have shown me the complexity of loss. How can I look back on the times when I was enormously sorrowful, and find myself thinking of them now as times when I was also in some respects happy? I did not recognize it at the time, but now, life is again like that. Though I’ve lost my dear husband, there is much that contributes to happiness in my old age: for instance, the Pritzker petition, which I see as my Pritzker Prize. Especially being able to work with and welcome people who want to talk with me.

What is your greatest fear?
That I will not complete the books I have underway.

What does architectural misery mean?
Designers of buildings that ignore everything modernism stands for, don’t want to know about the forces at work, and confuse urban renewal with human removal.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Believing that context is a sheet of white paper.

Which artists do you most admire?
Some samples: Bach, Scott Joplin, John Donne, Klezmer, Ruscha, Lichtenstein, Braque, Feininger, and Cartier-Bresson.

What’s the last drawing you did?
The relation of the Gill Precinct, Scripps House, Prospect Ave, and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art on a map of La Jolla.

Which architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Benjamin Franklin, Robert Venturi, John Soane, Mary McLeod, Robin Middleton, Josef Frank, and Julian Levi.

Which living person do you most admire?
Who is the nearest to Nelson Mandela?

Which books are you currently reading?
I’m currently writing.

What do you hope the Sainsbury Wing's legacy is?
Historic England has named it an archetypal postmodern building and in its listings placed it with England’s most-loved cathedrals. I hope this will help to preserve it—perhaps even return some changed items and add some we recommended without success. And in propelling this art toward a wider world, we wish for it a future of understanding and relating cultures more than providing symbols of national power. I hope people will leave it with warm hearts.