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Architect Jamie Fobert at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Fobert's work melds the the historic with the contemporary.Olivier Hess/Supplied

The new entrance to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery is built on thin air. You approach its palazzo-like façade from Charing Cross Road, cross an elegant public plaza and pass through doors decorated with bronzes by Tracey Emin. In your last few steps, you probably didn’t notice that the plaza, which began on solid ground, has transformed into a bridge. Its seamless carpet of granite takes you across a deep moat and into the museum without fanfare.

With this, you’ve passed into the hands of the Canadian-British architect Jamie Fobert. The $70-million revamp of this national institution opened in late June, designed by Fobert’s studio with heritage experts Purcell and exhibition designers Nissen Richards. All galleries have been restored and relit, a whole wing reopened to the public and the basement rearranged for a gleaming new educational space. It’s been a thorough surgery on a complex building that dates to 1896.

Fobert’s artful hand is everywhere. But to see it requires a close look. The first step is into a broad lobby space where a cluster of busts look out from their plinths, among them a cheerful Nelson Mandela. The floor is paved with textured concrete studded with hunks of golden-veined marble. That paving is a clear homage to the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, whose work, like Fobert’s, intentionally mingled the historic and the contemporary.

“I’m not interested in an architecture that strikes out against its context, that looks for distinction between my work and others,” Fobert said, sitting on a bench in the gallery’s main lobby as visitors streamed in from the street. “I’m very interested in ambiguity and continuity.”

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The new main entrance hall at the National Portrait Gallery features busts, including one of Nelson Mandela, and a floor paved with textured concrete studded with hunks of golden-veined marble.Jim Stephenson/Supplied

Where Fobert’s design removed sections of the façade’s granite and limestone to turn windows into doors, the stone is cut on the diagonal, recalling chamfered corners in the building’s original design. Fobert echoes that detail again in new corners he has added for the building’s giftshop.

Fobert’s sensibility was formed in part through his architecture studies at the University of Toronto in the 1980s. Fobert “has always been intrigued by the design features of the existing buildings he has been asked to renovate,” said George Baird, the eminent architect and critic who was Fobert’s thesis adviser, said via e-mail. “His approach to modifying them has always been extraordinarily subtle.”

Fobert went on to a successful career in Britain. He moved to London in 1988 and spent eight years with the architect David Chipperfield, who won the Pritzker Prize this year and whose firm is now designing a major project for Parliament Hill.

He has found remarkable success with cultural projects: his office renovated the Tate St. Ives in Cornwall in 2017 and Kettle’s Yard, an art museum in Cambridge, in 2018.

The National Portrait Gallery presented a greater challenge. The institution sits, physically and culturally, in a strange position. On display are portraits of art-historical importance and also depictions of famous people: Tudor monarchs, and a mediocre drawing of the Brontë sisters by their brother. It is a populist counterpoint to the more prestigious National Gallery, and its building is an L-shaped appendage around the edges of that institution.

Designed by the relatively obscure Scottish architect Ewan Christian, the portrait gallery has been improved and reimproved several times. The gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, describes the result as “a conversation between each of the building’s different epochs.”

Jamie Fobert Architects’ contribution to that discussion is thoughtful and beautiful. It emphasizes astute use of space – increasing the public areas by 16 per cent by reshuffling and consolidating back-of-house functions.

It also attends to the experience of its guests. For the galleries, Fobert and Nissen Richards designed new walnut benches that provide generous and comfortable seating for people with mobility issues.

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The Blavatnik Wing at the National Portrait Gallery in London.Jim Stephenson/Supplied

And most prominently it delivers public space. Outside the new main entrance, a statue of the actor-manager Henry Irving has been shifted a bit; he is still facing toward the nightlife of the West End but now stands away from the gallery. This allows the new plaza, designed by Fobert, to bring public life right up to the institution. For this space, Fobert’s office has designed a set of steps and a bench with a double curve, a compositional stroke that mimics the line of Charing Cross road nearby.

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Fobert’s sensibility – a poetry of small gestures, sensitive to history – reflects a strong current in contemporary architecture that is, however, largely absent in Canada. Commercial and residential architecture here favours big gestures and delivers sloppy, unconsidered details. And museums? Think of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, whose flashy Daniel Libeskind renovation will likely get rerenovated.

“That project says, look at me,” Fobert says of the ROM. “Our work is the antithesis. You don’t even need to notice it. But actually, it’s generous. Everyone is well served. There’s something in the language of the architecture that means everyone is relaxed.” Whether the guests notice it or not, they are architecturally in good hands.

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The new staircase for the Mildred and Simon Palley Learning Centre by Jamie Fobert Architects.Jim Stephenson/Supplied

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