Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The art world’s great custody case
The original architect of the National Gallery is unimpressed by its impending facelift. But whose building is it, anyway, asks Elizabeth Farrelly.
The current National Gallery debate is little more or less than a classic custody tussle. Architecture is always mixed progeny, with at least two – client and architect – and probably more, assisting not only at birth but in conception. Grrrruesome. Even thereafter, architects occasionally get all anal, hanging around to select every little thing down to carpet, cupboard handles, furniture, paintings.
Normally, though, and quite rightly, the architect moves on once the birth pictures are taken, leaving the infant edifice in full care and control of the client, loving or otherwise.
But later, much later? The question now exercising many a professional mind is this: what rights, if any, should the original architect have when, years or even decades later, the now mature building needs amendment. Whose building is it, anyway?
The National Gallery of Australia (NGA), designed by Col Madigan in 1968, completed in 1982, modified rhythmically since and now threatened by the knife once again, is not the only example. The Opera House is another, as well as John Andrews’s former American Express tower (modified), Ken Woolley’s State Office Block (demolished) and a number of high-modern houses by Woolley and Seidler.
With the architect still alive and posterity yet in the wings, this is not really a heritage question, although the protagonists including Madigan do at times paint it that way. It’s more about copyright, now known as intellectual property, or even moral rights, as the latest Copyright Amendment Act is parenthetically tagged and colloquially known.
Morality is probably going a bit far, though. At stake are ownership and aesthetics, not child abuse. The act, as amended last year, requires architects to be consulted “in good faith” before their buildings are substantially altered. This is so vague as to be profitless for all except the legal fraternity and, if given teeth by the courts, may yet prove to be an own-goal for the profession by providing a real disincentive to employ an architect, or buy her product, in the first place.
How infuriating, after all, to own a weekend cottage (opera house/office tower) and not be able to add a child’s bedroom (front door/sun-shades) if you want or need to. So why now? A number of factors are at work here. A true custody tussle must involve buildings that are old enough to be unfashionable but young enough to have extant architects. And it happens that this particular gap in the cloud layer is now hovering over the high-modern period which, especially in architecture, spot-lit auterism the idea that the director’s cut is the only one worth a toss.
In architecture, this meant that an already ego-driven profession became almost totally engulfed by prometheanism, or hubris as an art form. As Madigan himself noted in his 1983 Walter Burley Griffin lecture to the Institute of Architects: “The Gallery and High Court reacted strongly against the asphyxiating order of conformity and responded to the halcyon optimistic spirit of the early ’70s. They are contentious buildings. Some will love them, and the mythical vulture will attack them as it attacked Prometheus chained to the rock by Zeus for stealing fire from Heaven.”
The idea of Canberra designing an entire city virtually from scratch nestled easily with such a world view. And here, arguably, is the germ of the National Gallery’s problem. Already by the 1960s, although sweet FA was actually built, Canberra was positively tidal with successive waves of fashionable planning thought. The mid-century wave, driven by British planner Lord Holford, who replaced Burley Griffin’s relatively dense urban streets with the ubiquitous airy freeway, had carried in its backwash a committed South African, Roger Johnson.
Johnson, part of the international Holford diaspora, proposed to place across Canberra’s “land axis” that runs across the lake from Capitol Hill a vast National Place several football fields’ worth of open space with (whaddya know) parking under.
This National Place would function, inter alia, as the address court for the main buildings of the parliamentary triangle, including the National Library, the Archives building, the yet-to-be-conceived Science Centre, the High Court and the National Gallery.
Based on this, the High Court was set magisterially upon a five-metre podium, and the Gallery designed to be entered via a concrete footbridge that spanned from this notional National Place across the one-way road system fronting the gallery. This entry sequence was never going to be the building’s finest moment. Footbridges, frontal roads, windy colonnades and separation of levels have felled finer modern monuments than this. And in any case surprise Australia’s great National Place never got built. Never was, never will be, having been morphed and then rinsed away entirely by successive planning tides.
So it came about that for 20 years most people – 97 per cent, according to an NGA survey – never even noticed the bridge but parked in a “temporary” car park and approached the gallery via the narrow tradesmen’s stair and/or ramp that leads from it. What bridge, where? The grand stair down to the lake reeks similarly – sadly, in view of its presence and dignity – of neglect. And the building, in consequence, lacks what architects call address.
That much is circumstantial. In truth, though, the internal circulation is at least as bewildering; possibly more so. Widely misunderstood as forbidding, utilitarian, and (by implication) cheap, this is in fact a hugely expensive building in terms of both time and money complicated and minutely crafted, by both designer and tradesman, with all that external concrete carefully bush-hammered by hand.
It is also intensely romantic, from the expressionist open-castle metaphor of its formal imagery to the multiplicity of slots, porticoes, skylights and embrasures which once punctuated its spaces with unexpected views, glimpses and chunks or washes of light. This, along with the raw, earthy smell of naked concrete and the complex spatiality, made the building in its original state enchanting as well as infuriating, explorable as well as frustrating, lovable as well as illogical.
Of course, the NGA hasn’t been in its original state for quite some time. Gradually, during the Churcher years, the skylights were filled in, the tall volumes mezzanined, the concrete masked with plasterboard. It’s easy to see why. In a gallery, when push comes to shove, art wins. Quite right, too: architecture must content itself with second fiddle. In the process, though, the building’s identity its robust and fearless eccentricity was all but whited out.
The current proposal by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, who won the job in competition last year and may well, by now, be wishing it hadn’t, is principally about fixing the entrance/address problem. It also adds a couple of gallery spaces along the south face, a small auditorium and some offices. In passing, too, it will restore some of the original light-and-material joie de vivre of the original as many as the director, and the art, can tolerate.
Address is created by attaching a sextuple-height glass box to the south-west corner of the building, thus making a pragmatic virtue of the “temporary” car park. So far so sensitive. The old stair/ramp system goes but, on the whole, the existing building is unscathed, its bullish materiality only dramatised by the sheer glass skin. The great new space wraps reverentially around the building’s old external wall, heightening its presence by establishing the march of the double columns as a kind of proscenium to the whole.
Unfortunately, perhaps, it’s not quite as simple as that. Nothing ever is. The west-facing glass needs shading, so an ingenious system has been invented using staggered and heated/cooled zinc panels within a transparent glass sandwich to reduce heat gain at the same time as pretreating the building’s air. Trouble with ingenious is it doesn’t usually look that great. Here, the simple transparency is suddenly lost.
The other downside is the way the extra stuff gallery and admin space clogs the cragginess of the south side, filling in and blanding-out its boofy love-me-or-hate-me idiosyncrasies.
Madigan is not happy. Distinctly and vocally not happy. And although, again, it is easy to see why, perhaps he never will be. Madigan professes himself comfortable with change in-principle, and has lectured on “design as a creative evolutionary process”. But this particular proposal he likens to the destruction of the Afghani Buddhas. In the end, though, Madigan’s emotional status is not the point. After all, it was his baby, but it’s not his building. Question is, what’s best for the gallery?
Answer, a gallery needs a front door considerably more than a fish needs a bike. Tonkin’s proposal is still under development: perhaps a way can yet be found to simplify it further still, enhancing its already considerable respect for the existing by pulling away, opening up, simplifying and aerating the addition so it would be both closer to the original, in spirit, and more physically distant.
This would almost certainly increase the expense but also the acceptability. After all, it’s not set in concrete not yet.
THREE ILLUS: A space that’s intensely romantic …
the interior of the National Gallery as photographed by Max Dupain when it opened in 1982, main photo, and the ramp that’s been doubling as a formal entrance.
The new look …
architect Peter Tonkin with a model showing the new entrance.
Elizabeth Farrelly’s critique of the National Gallery proposal (SMH, July 4, 2001) stated that Roger Johnson was South African.
In fact, at the time of his work in Canberra, Johnson was a British-born Australian citizen.
The Herald apologises for any misunderstanding generated by this error.