National Portrait Gallery reopens after three-year refurbishment
22nd June, 2023

The newly refurbished National Portrait Gallery reopens its doors to the public today after a three year wait.

Price & Myers provided structural and civil engineering services as part of a design team featuring Jamie Fobert Architects, heritage architects Purcell, environmental engineers Max Fordham and contractor Gilbert Ash. The refurbishment represents the biggest redevelopment since the building opened in 1896.

The major architectural and structural intervention involves the relocation of the entrance, from a discreet doorway facing St-Martins-in-the-Field church, to a grander expansive doorway facing north along Charing Cross Road. At the time of its construction in the 19th Century, the lower reaches of Leicester Square adjacent to the Gallery featured a slum, so original architect, Ewan Christian located the entrance accordingly. Jamie Fobert’s design gives the Gallery the arrival sequence it deserves, while providing for accessibility requirements and a more prominent street presence.

Structural engineers, Luke Spence and George Reed facilitated the entrance relocation by designing a 9m opening that drove through 750mm thick, load-bearing walls using steel box-frames (below). For Luke, the project was not without its apprehensive moments.

‘There were more than a few squeaky bum moments on the day the load was transferred from the temporary works and on to the new frames. In the morning, I watched the manually operated jacking process with nervous anticipation. I was absolutely buzzing when it was complete. I brought all of my team down to watch the process, including someone who had just started with us that day, their first as a professional structural engineer! It was a big day.’

The result is a dramatic entrance volume that draws the visitor into the space, one that befits the importance of the institution.

For both engineers, the National Portrait Gallery is a deeply personal one, inextricably linked with their family lives. Luke’s first daughter was born the day the team won the design competition, and George nearly missed the nerve-racking experience of the steel beam load transfer.

‘My son was born just as work started on-site and I took some time away from my shared parental leave to visit the site on the day the box frames were installed. It’s been a privilege to have been involved from conception of the project through to opening day. I’ve been involved with every structural detail, from the entrance hall frames supporting over 200 tonnes of Grade I-listed fabric to sculptures being fixed to Gallery walls.’

Another technically challenging element of the design was the exposed concrete staircase linking the basement levels of the expanded Learning Centre. The stair was cast in-situ, over a polystyrene void former, to achieve the swept soffit which tapers from the inside supporting wall to the edge of the treads. Each tread is Inlaid with stone nosings, and gently curved steel balustrades and handrails complete the otherwise wholly structural concrete element. The language of exposed concrete links several discrete structural interventions – the tapered link bridge which connects the forecourt to the new entrance hall, box frames forming new openings within the learning centre, and a concrete slab within the East Wing café, arched to echo the adjacent brick vaults.

The National Portrait Gallery features the world’s greatest collection of portraits. Over 1,000 are now on display as a result of the refurbishment. They tell a story of Britain and its historical figures, in a collection that spans six centuries.