Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
UNDERSTATEMENT SHOWS THE GENIUS
SOMETIMES it seems that architecture is at its best when most tightly constrained – whether by diminutive budgets, intransigent clients, impossible sites or a dearth of materials. Better still when the discipline comes from within, from the architect himself.
But, like any quasi-Calvinist doctrine, this is only partly true. Constraints are constructive only so long as the architect continues confidently to struggle against them: capitulation, the loss of confidence, can devastate a building as thoroughly as any under-fettered ego.
This double-bind is perhaps most pertinent in the design of what Donald Horne has called the cathedral of our time, the art museum.
Here the architect must subjugate his ego not only to the requirements of a bureaucratic client, a sometimes querulous curatorial staff and an unknowable, million-headed public, but also to the demands and egos of the works on display, the building’s essential denizens.
It is a considerable task, but the best architects make it look easy. The two latest extensions (1972 and 1988) to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, both designed by Andrew Andersons, are a case in point.
The gallery, pre-extensions, was an exercise in standard late-Victorian neo-classicism. It was decent, but not special. The two extensions have transformed it into one of Australia’s most distinguished buildings and established Andersons (until recently Assistant Government Architect) as one of our most accomplished architects.
Other galleries are more virtuosic, turning more tectonic tricks, making more personal statements, more loudly. But the NSW gallery, having rediscovered the great art of understatement, succeeds where they do not. In this, self-discipline is the key.
The external constraints were not unusually stringent. The client was not difficult, the staff were (and remain) enthusiastic. It was a project backed by political will. Art galleries are popular with politicians and it was”easy”, says Andersons, to persuade the Government that its $30 million would be well spent.
The site was perfect – mature parkland with splendid harbour views.
The primary external constraint, however, was history. The original building on the site had been designed, from 1885, by John Horbury Hunt but was never completed because of public outcry at its ugliness.
Hunt was dismissed, and Walter Vernon, Colonial Architect, invited to submit an alternative design. Vernon’s building, by and large, was built featuring local sandstone on a rusticated trachyte base. It was constructed room by room (partly demolishing Hunt’s red-brick legacy) until 1909. The resulting gallery was little different in principle from the familiar Victorian museum. Visiting exhibitions came from abroad maybe three or four in a lifetime.
The mid-1960s, however, saw the beginning of the world gallery-boom that has since transformed the nature of overseas travel.
Suddenly the gallery was so much too small, its web of dark Victorian rooms so inflexible that any temporary exhibition would necessitate the removal of most of the permanent collection.
The first extension opened in 1972, on the site of what remained of Horbury Hunt’s rather unprepossessing saw-tooth-roofed structure. The new wing was designed by Andersons, from the office of then Government Architect, W.H. Farmer, in 1969. It was to provide the kind of column-free, white-walled, infinitely flexible “universal space” that has since become so essential to the ideal gallery.
Christened the Captain Cook wing, it sat with confidence and delicacy in the embrace of the old. Inside and out, its presence was everywhere evident, and unashamedly different, yet it touched the older building with a gentle respectfulness that dignified them both.
Pre-cast concrete and plate glass provided restrained counterpoint to rusticated stone; light-washed walls and sudden sea views to those dark confined interiors, newly repainted in rich Victorian colours. The glazed coffee bar which seems to hang in the main space became one of Sydney’s most pleasurable oases – and not just because of the coffee.
An architect has, broadly speaking, two possible approaches to history – or to any existing context. He or she must choose either to fit in as unobtrusively as possible, or to heighten by contrast. The former course may require greater scholarship, but the latter demands greater skill, and is much the more difficult game, since to play it well asks for imagination as well as sensitivity.
In his first extension to the NSW gallery, Andersons had played this difficult game with consummate skill and resounding (because so elegantly understated) success. When, in 1984, it came to designing the second extension, however, his problem was two-fold: how to respond equally to the pristine clarity of his own earlier work and to the sombre, if slightly pompous, civic gravity of the original.
His ideas had changed over the intervening 15 years, but to play the difficult game again and produce something boldly different from either existing wing would, he felt, produce a messy tripartite mongrel. It was a curious situation. He decided to modify his current predilections to more nearly match his own earlier product.
Just how much Andersons’ ideas had changed in the meantime may be estimated from a comparison of this latest gallery extension with the Macquarie Street wing of the State Library, also designed by him, at roughly the same time.
Andersons contests the classification, but the new library has detectably post-modern tendencies. It is symmetrical, colonnaded and historicist, if not overtly decorative, its intention not to emulate those eminent elderly neighbours but to translate their language into a more current idiom.
In some ways this seems reasonable, since, as Andersons points out, the entire street is colonnaded. In fact, however, the library responds in scale and form quite specifically to the diluted 1940s neo-classicism of the Mitchell, rather than, say, to the lacy good manners of Parliament House, or to the more Milanese modernism across the street.
Inside, the library is quite different – cool, unpretentious, deliberately domestic in its materials and furnishing, with pleasantly green vistas and unobtrusive lighting.
No trace here of the self-conscious formalism that marks the building’s street presence. This is an honest-to-God modern building, caught in historicist caparison. The facade is oddly disingenuous – opaque, despite its transparency. This wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago – not from so sure a hand as Andersons’. The very lack of correspondence between inside and out is itself the stamp of the post-modern era.
THE NEW gallery extension, by contrast, has no post-modern markings. Externally – and this is only partly explained by its role as rear-extension-in-the-park rather than civic-building-in-urban-street – it is as uncomplicated and unadorned as its predecessor. Inside, there are small softenings, gestures that represent 15 years’ maturation of that early modernist dream. The small trapezoidal galleries, departures from the orthogonal geometry, the reduction in scale of the waffle-slab ceilings, the square, centred roof terraces with their over-scaled balustrades, based on James Stirling’s renowned Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The gestures are there, but they are subtle.
Generally, the new building remains faithful to its earlier sibling, maintaining the supreme simplicity of space and material – white paint, travertine and glass, with the occasional sliver of stainless steel – and departing from established principles only to extend them.
One such principle is to do with “museum fatigue”, a familiar syndrome attributed variously by the experts to excessively hard floor finishes and over-zealous air-conditioning systems. Andersons, however, blames the phenomenon primarily on the simple exhaustion of continuous looking and learning – an attribution with which even the hardened gallery-goer will concur.
His solution, evident in the first extension and furthered in the second, is to provide breaks – simple devices such as bookshops, coffee shops and, above all, views to the outside.
Here the provision of “extra” spaces – milling, viewing, pausing spaces -imparts a sense of effortless magnanimity reminiscent of Mies (“without clarity there can be no understanding”) van der Rohe’s 1968 National Gallery in Berlin, and of even some of Aalto’s sublime public spaces in Finland. Simple, unadulterated, unbespoke public space is a rare delicacy, in these dollar-conscious times. There is a second book stall and coffee bar looking on to garden and green harbour, and even a place where gaggles of uniformed adolescents can be gently marshalled and reordered without upsetting the patrons. Not to mention the small miracle of an outside, north-east-facing, planted sculpture terrace.
Inured to institutions, of course one expects the door to be locked, but it isn’t, and opens on to huge harbour views, dappled sunshine, real air. (The magnificent salt-and-rust intimacy of this view is under threat from Pivot Group’s rather ill-mannered hotel proposed for Woolloomooloo Bay and supported, surprisingly, by both the Maritime Services Board and Office of State Development. But they can’t take the air.)
In the art of gallery design the inside/outside relationship has long been contentious – ever since modernism began to make art popular, and to remove the walls that surrounded it. The altercation has generally been about walls, which, after all, are necessary for hanging paintings on, and about light.
Lighting is the key – and Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas (1972) the acknowledged apotheosis – but it is difficult and problematic. Architects are conditioned to want, on behalf of their public, to bring light (and landscape) into buildings; curators, on behalf of the paintings, are conditioned to keep it out.
The compromises that have been reached are not always, or even often, satisfactory, natural light having been either excluded, as not worth the bother and expense, or so filtered, refracted and generally mangled on the way in that it is hardly worth the bother after all. (See, for example, Stirling’s Stuttgart, or London’s Tate – fluorescent tubes above muslin would surely have done as well.)
There are, of course, galleries which do solve the problem – Bo and Wohlert’s supremely poised little Louisiana Gallery (1958) outside Copenhagen, for example, and Renzo Piano’s recent Menil Gallery in Houston. Both bring some daylight through the roof but rely primarily on a policy of according daylight and views mainly to the rest-spaces, while the works themselves are lit to prescription by simple spots.
This allows even sunshine – that standard guarantor of curatorial apoplexy- safely into the building, and usually means you can actually see the pictures, too. It is the same elegant principle that Andersons has employed here. Like all flashes of genius, it’s obvious when you think about it.
There are few buildings one does not yearn to change in some detail: this is one of them. Andersons, however, feels differently, admitting with characteristic modesty that if the first extension had never happened, the second would have been different. “Kinder,” he says, “to the old building” -perhaps more like the library.
But architects are not always their own best judges and here one would have to quibble. He could hardly have been kinder, without capitulating. And it is a symptom of success that already the gallery is working once again to capacity – ready perhaps for the next extension.
Consensus is rare in architecture, but consensus we appear to have. Staff, architects and public (voting with their feet) agree: it’s a damned good gallery. A feather in all our caps.
Illus: View from the vestibule of the Art Gallery of NSW … first extension provided infinitely flexible “universal space”.
Picture by MAX DUPAIN