Two staircases - reflections on the English and formality

Edward Jones considers Dixon Jones's efforts to redesign the entrances to two major London public buildings.

It is often used as a term of endearment that the English have a preference for informality over the jackbooted sensibility of some of their continental neighbours. In political and social life this might have much to recommend it, and certainly in the Picturesque of the English Garden Tradition of the 18th Century. However in the world of architecture and urbanism this can occasionally provide a license for absent mindedness.

Two examples of this tendency come to mind with national Institutions in London which we have recently been involved with as a practice: the approach to Wembley Stadium and the approach to the National Gallery In Trafalgar Square.

In the debate between the picturesque and the classical, symmetry and straight lines rekindle, for some, retarded thoughts of the École des Beaux Arts planning leading inevitably to the ghost of fascism.

Dixon Jones' Webley Stadium Steps (2021)

Anything that subverts this tendency in the liberal consciousness is to be encouraged.  And so at Wembley Park, the axes of the original Olympic Way of 1924 is out of alignment with Foster’s new Stadium of 2003 by a mere 5 meters! These two major axes pass each other apparently indifferently: for some a source of irritation to be resolved almost apologetically; for others a triumph of the informal - no jackboots here! - or excused as absent-mindedness and better forgotten!

Dixon Jones proposal for new steps at the entrance to the National Gallery

If the condition at Wembley is immutable and fixed, the National Gallery’s denial of its central relationship to Trafalgar Square is hopefully temporary. The combined impact of Covid, the new East Wing entrance and the tyranny of stairs have have been taken as reason to transform Wilkins’s familiar portico from an entrance to an exit - at least for those that can manage the steps! The all time-hallowed role of the portico has been regrettably reversed!

If our recently completed steps at Wembley might be said to have gone some way in reconciliation of this misalignment,they now provide a credible approach and grounding to Norman Foster’s great Stadium. Our proposed steps at the National Gallery remain in abeyance. Here there remains a ‘presence of absence', with Wilkins’s steps compressed into the  Portico behind its defensive wall for those arriving and departing from a now non-existent road. Apart from reconciling the ambiguity of entrance to the Gallery, they would also provide a glorious place to sit and enjoy one of London’s great vistas looking south down Whitehall. ‘Meet you on the steps' - dare one say not unlike those outside the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue in New York, but with a much better view.

Edward Jones was a founding director of Dixon Jones Architects