Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
An impossible lightness achieved
It’s not just the Buddhas who are basking in enlightenment at their new Asian Galleries home, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Galleries choreograph light; Asian architecture, traditionally, shapes shadow. Are the two distinct?
Not if the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Asian Galleries are anything to go by. Architect Richard Johnson, of Johnson Pilton Walker, has hung above the ‘Loo, the Domain and the Whiteley matches a great luminous box in which light spills like butter over long-closeted stone Buddhas, while the more friable fabrics and prints remain cocooned in shadow.
It’s hardly a new idea, gallery as lightbox. For a century, architects have struggled for new and poetic ways of bringing daylight into galleries while curators, broadly speaking, have fought to keep it out, or heavily controlled.
The lightbox is an appealing metaphor, anyway, with a broad and pleasing array of penumbral allusions. At best, it is also a gorgeous object. But allusion, or even novelty, isn’t the primary point. Architecture lives or dies by the elegance with which it fits idea to problem. Followed, of course, by the quiddity of execution. At AGNSW the metaphor seems rewardingly apt and convincingly realised.
Remember how it was? The architecture said it all: traditional art turn right (Vernon wing, all sandstone arches and old rooms); modern art turn left (very flowing and planar); Asian art down the escalator in the dungeon. It was a succulent dungeon, punctuated by mysterious pools of light and colour, but the combined effect may as well have stuck a “scholars only” sign over the door.
Now all that is changed. And light is the driver. As Anne Flanagan, AGNSW’s manager of exhibition and buildings, points out, Asian art contrasts directly with its Western tradition in the shape of its light-tolerance spectrum. Where the West’s habitual emphasis on painting gives a pronounced mid-spectrum bulge, Asian art comprises mainly sculpture or works on paper: the very robust, in light-tolerance terms, and the very delicate, with little in between. This insight was fundamental to the brief.
Thus, instead of the usual tug-of-war over daylight-giving racks of complex masking-and-filtering devices, Johnson was asked to admit direct daylight quelle horreur! but to parasol within it points of darkness for the more fragile family members. This liberty was a fabulous gift, architecturally speaking, of which Johnson has wasted not a jot.
There were five parts to the brief. As well as a new Asian gallery, AGNSW wanted a function space and restaurant (including a refurbished downstairs cafe); a new temporary contemporary gallery over the existing concourse; a new conservation wing; and a rationalised admin area. No small ask for $16 million.
But (and I never said this) tight budgets bring out the best in architects. AGNSW is now a case in point. Set above the old Asian gallery and behind the Vernon, the new gallery is, from the main entrance, all but invisible. Only a tantalising new glassiness draws you on. This seamlessness was deliberate, Johnson taking pains to simplify rather than complicate the much-mended building. Where structure needed a new column, for instance, he replicated the grey pebblecrete of Andrew Anderson’s 1970s-brutalist addition, rather than start anew. It makes sense, since as well as evincing genuine respect for the earlier work, such a strategy preserves the specialness of the new lightbox.
And it is pretty special. Despite technical as well as budgetary challenges, the new gallery makes it look easy. Classically Asian, it establishes a relationship with the existing concourse that is neither frontal nor perpendicular, but draws instead on notions of slippage. Sidling its entry axis in with a delicacy that invites without commanding, it blesses the concourse with something it never even knew it lacked: light.
The new Asian gallery is a perfect square-within-a-square. Its walls, aligned progressively to filter light and views, define a perimeter zone that, at three metres wide by six metres high, is proportioned like a narrow Sydney terrace, and a generous inner sanctum. Within the narrow edgezone, the Buddhas and steles of AGNSW’s permanent collection get sun on their backs for the first time in a while; while the inner square, still gulping diagonal views through its cut-out corners, will house temporary exhibitions like Dadang Christanto’s breathtaking They Give Evidence.
But German architect Mies was right. God is in the details (except when he’s not). And with glass buildings especially, the question is always, how? How do they avoid over-lighting and heating? How do they hold it up? How, above all, do they conceal the mess?
Mies would almost certainly approve of this one. The idea is simple, and the execution, if anything, simpler. There’s no glass in the roof partly for solar reasons, partly for cost, partly because that’s where the services are, tucked into a 2-metre ceiling void. So there’s precious little mess to hide. But the walls are composed entirely of regulation glass curtain-walling, two layers in the translucent parts, one (with a layer of plasterboard) everywhere else. Within that, each layer of glass is a three-part composite: clear low-iron glass to the outside, a white interlayer, and standard greenish glass facing in to the cavity (which also acts as a return air plenum). So far, so simple. It’s a very square business. Each wall comprises four six-metre modules; each module comprises nine sheets of glass gridded into a square aluminium perimeter-frame; each sheet is a two-metre square. Within each module the glass joints are silicon-sealed and pinned, at the free corner of each sheet (draw it), by a lotus. The dreaded lotus.
The lotus grew from the swamp of process; a small working group (Johnson, Flanagan and Director Ed Capon) pursuing an exhaustive prototyping exercise. This enabled testing and selection for glass-types and combinations, refinement of the air-conditioning detail and in response to a client desire for subtle symbolic content evolution of the lotus.
Like any common-or-garden patch-fitting, the stainless-steel lotus screws together to fix four glass corners. From a distance, that’s all it is. Close up, though, this is no ordinary patch-fitting but a layered composite of polished and semi-matted stainless steel, designed to evoke the 16 petals of the lotus and reflect light in a number of directions. Like any self-respecting design, the lotus is an exercise in multi-tasking; apart from holding the building together with a minimum of fuss, it provides circumspect symbolism, forms the Asian Galleries’ graphic logo, and for a modest sum you can own one, too.
It’s neat, it’s elegant, it’s apt. It respects the original fabric while opening the gallery front to harbour views it was born to. It gives us light and shadow as architecture’s conjoined twins, Yin and Yang. Plus it makes the art so, well, visible. No bad thing, perhaps, in a gallery?
ILLUS: Out of the shadow .
a Ming dynasty figure of bronze and gold in the new Asian wing of the art gallery.
Photo: AFP/David Hancock