Client File - Alix Gilmer

Alix Gilmer, the director of the Inspiring People project, speaks about her role in the transformation of London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Words By Pamela Buxton

What was your role in the transformation of the National Portrait Gallery?

I joined in February 2020 just before lockdown as project director for the delivery stage of the Inspiring People project. Jamie Fobert Architects (architect) and Purcell (conservation architect) had already been appointed and the team were already well into the project, with the construction contracts about to go out to tender. The project encapsulated the capital works to the building and the interpretation design, and also quite a large programme of community partnerships.

Had you previously worked as a design client?

I’ve had a lot of experience working with architects and designers on capital building projects that involved both conservation and new build. My previous job was at Bath Abbey working on a Heritage Lottery Funded project. Before that, I was at the National Trust for over ten years.

Internally, the gallery has undergone a long overdue refurbishment and reinterpretation of its entire collection. Image Credit: Gareth Gardner/Nissen / Richards Studio

How did the overall vision for the Inspiring People project come about, and what were the main objectives?

Our aspiration was to completely transform the gallery, and create the best experience we can for all our visitors. One of the key things was improving access to the building. Before, we had a relatively discreet historic entrance to the building. JFA have created a new entrance and forecourt and a new entrance hall. The forecourt is a new space for both visitors and the general public and it was wonderful to see people using it – it seems like it’s been there forever. Internally, we wanted to refurbish the galleries which was long overdue and redisplay and reinterpret the collection. There is also new gallery space for the contemporary collection. As well as new shops, café and restaurant spaces, we have a new learning centre so we can offer a much better learning experience for schools, families and community groups.

Alix Gilmer, Inspiring People project director, National Portrait Gallery   

How important were the architectural and design interventions to realising that vision, especially the reintroduction of more natural light?

This has been key and has completely changed the experience for our visitors. The reintroduction of more natural light was a key part of the architectural vision (windows and rooflights had been blocked up over the years) and we have also returned parts of the East Wing that had been turned into offices to gallery use. We feel we have really been true to the vision of the original architect, Ewan Christian.

How was the design team commissioned?

Jamie Fobert Architects and Purcell were appointed via an OJEU open competition, and Nissen Richards Studio was appointed in 2020 by open tender, with Jamie Fobert involved in the selection process. We liked the work Nissen Richards Studio had done before, and felt they had a real understanding of the building and its collections, and felt that they would work with us in a really positive way.

While the gallery has always had access to a historic yet discreet entrance, a new one was created complete with an entrance hall. Image Credit: Olivier Hess

How important has Nissen Richards Studio been to transforming the visitor experience? What have they brought to the project?

Nissen Richards worked closely with the gallery and collaborated with JFA in the look and feel of the internal spaces – in the selection of paint and fabric finishes, selection of materials and the design of showcases. The result is that all the galleries really work as a whole – there is not a disconnect between the architectural and interpretative design.

You worked with Alex Cochrane Architects on the shop. How and why were they chosen, and what was the aspiration for that space?

The new shop has been a huge change – it’s now on the corner of the building on Charing Cross Road and is a much more visible, lighter and welcoming space. Alex Cochrane Architects designed the retail across the gallery – the shop just inside the new entrance and two smaller shops connected to exhibition spaces. They were selected through an open tender process and they had not worked on a museum or gallery before. We were drawn to their intelligent use of space and also their approach to complimenting the specific period architecture of the spaces.

The Tudor galleries are accentuated through the placement of the portraits and their colour scheme. Image Credit: Gareth Gardner/Nissen / Richards Studio

What do you feel works particularly well design-wise at the new NPG?

It’s so much more welcoming. It’s fundamental that people are made to feel welcome as soon as they go through the door, particularly those who don’t traditionally go to galleries, and the whole ground floor really works well. I also think the Tudor galleries are amazing, especially the use of colour and the vistas through the galleries. Also the placement of paintings, and the transitions between the different galleries.

The building is so much accessible. This was a key consideration in how we think about the building overall, from step free entrances and lifts right down to the angle of audio visuals used for interpretation and font sizes.

The overall visitor journey has been completely transformed – it does feel like a different place, somewhere that everyone can use and enjoy.

Open spaces greet guests as soon as they enter, encouraging them to feel welcome from the get-go. Image Credit: Jim Stephenson

What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of working as a design client on this project?

The new forecourt was definitely the most difficult aspect, and required collaboration across a lot of organisations. Personally, I found working through Covid was also quite challenging, as it was very hard for internal teams to work collaboratively when we weren’t able to be on site as much as we’d like. But one of the successes of our project is that it despite this the result does feel like one cohesive design – so often you can visit places and see that this isn’t always the case.

The most rewarding aspect has been working with all the expertise on the design side –everyone both externally and internally brought such passion and commitment to the project. As well as JFA and Nissen Richards, Max Fordham (MEP engineers) were brilliant, as were Purcell (heritage architects). I’d also like to mention the main contractor, Gilbert-Ash, who was fantastic.

Natural light was a key part of the design schema, encouraging a more relaxing environment for visitors. Image Credit: Jim Stephenson

Are there any more design projects to come at the NPG?

That’s it for a little bit – we’ll now be focusing on the day to day operations and we have a small in-house design team who design the exhibitions.

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