Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Inside job avoids edifice complex
Melbourne’s NGV revamp resists pressure to produce an icon, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Cluck if you will, but it’s no longer just about art. Gone are the days when a museum lived or died by its collection alone; now, the gods demand packaging. So while the National Gallery of Victoria’s international collection may be, as the director, Gerard Vaughan, chants in sackcloth monotone, the best of its kind in the southern hemisphere after all, it’s not such a big claim, for a $2 billion bag boasting Rembrandts and Warhols in the plural that’s not really the point. Not the whole point. An A-list museum, these days, must not just have icons, but be one.
Frank Lloyd Wright started it. As the New York architect Robert Stern has said, “After the Guggenheim, who cares about all the art in the museums if the building itself isn’t thrilling?” And he didn’t mean Bilbao.
Wright had spent a lifetime denouncing the city as “a place for banking, prostitution and little else”. Perhaps, subliminally, he recognised architecture as a perfect amalgam of the two. In any case he had always loved New York and had two secret hankerings to build in Manhattan and to do a spiral when he was blessed, aged 80-odd, with a chance at both. The Gugg was the result, and although artists loathed it from the outset how, after all, can you seriously contemplate a picture on a skateboard ramp? the pilgrims have flocked. This is called success, in our pop-whipped age. Hence Bilbao, and following.
So the first question for any architect or client taking on such a project is now the relationship one: which will wear the pants, the building or the art? Should the architecture mould itself to the collection’s internal logic? Or must the art accommodate the whims and fancies of a drop-dead building? Of course it’s futile to ask this outright, since any architect with half a bedside manner will say “both, it’s a symbiosis thing”. Which is why a good client is a sceptical one.
At the NGV, however, according to both client Gerard Vaughan and architect Mario Bellini, the art was leading, all the way. It’s unusual, as a strategy. Admirable. Unfashionable. Very, very un-Melbourne. And whether it works depends on your point of view.
Bellini, commissioned by the NGV after an invited-interview process, trained as an architect in Milan and was instrumental in the 1970s rebirth of Italian design-chic (Gio Ponti, Gae Aulenti and the rest). But no top-flight buildings attach themselves to his name. He is better known, in the Italian manner, as a designer. And, as a designer, he’s right up there: lighting for Erco and Artemide, bendy rubber calculators for Olivetti, the famous “Cab” chair for Vitra and the Kar-a-Sutra vehicle for Citroen with Cassina and Pirelli. Perhaps it is hardly surprising, then, that his NGV revamp, unveiled last week, seems more entranced by material and detail than by spatial quality despite its $168 million price tag.
To some extent, this micro-emphasis was a given. The original building, an extraordinary neo-fascist number complete with moats and embrasures and clad in dour Melbourne bluestone, is less than flexible. Designed by Roy Grounds (author of Canberra’s equally jawdropping Academy of Science), it is late modern in timing but classical in plan, being symmetrically arranged around three internal courts, with a full-frontal “mousehole” entrance and the Great Hall at rear. It is also supremely forbidding.
Gallery staff loyally emphasise the building’s “favourite landmark” status and see its likeable lunacies the walk-through water wall and Leonard French’s stained-glass Great Hall ceiling as “key destination points”. It is memorable, heroic, even symbolic, but the penumbral imagery is more of the thumb-screwing, nail-pulling kind than any adumbration of delight.
In response to this dilemma just about any provincial gallery, as well as city government, development agency or sage institution, would have gone the icon route. Icon in the noughties is what “vision” was in the ’80s: the thing to do when you want attention. As Paul Finch, the deputy chairman of Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, said recently, “The icon is the ultimate in media architecture; it’s the Lara Croft of architecture.”
The London-based architect David Chipperfield put it even more succinctly: “Form doesn’t follow function any more. Form follows image.”
The NGV has valiantly withstood this global virus. Bellini’s brief was to extend the gallery area, rationalise circulation, redesign the exhibitions and connect front to back. He wasn’t asked to reduce the building’s austerity and he wasn’t asked unlike just about every architect for any museum/shopping centre/office tower over the last decade for an icon.
For this strength of mind alone, the NGV should be congratulated. But has it, in walking backwards, gone too far?
Bellini’s solution is, in many ways, the obvious one. Out of respect as well as exigency, he has left the exterior, and the “key destination points”, virtually untouched. The reflection pools at the front have been de-cluttered and the water wall gently reshuffled to replicate the original experience without the “Uh, where do I go in?” confusion that went with it. But the A rchitecture happens inside.
The nub of it is: fill in the two side courts with gallery space; reorganise gallery circulation into two doughnuts around them; glaze over the central courtyard; and create a new garden link from the Great Hall.
It’s a reasonable strategy perhaps the only one for so landlocked and rigid a building. Glazing the centre court not only makes the space useable but declares up-front its jurassic scale. (So primal it makes you wonder whether the trendy off-axis steel-mesh screens thrown gaily about were altogether necessary).
But infill has its downsides. The main virtue of internal courts is the potential to bring light, air and orientation to selected points along the gallery route. Bellini’s infills are elegantly executed: two three-storey cuboids, slightly twisted within the square courts, clad in silver-grey timber with textured-glass overlayer. Accessed by bridge and ramp, they swell at roof height to allow a spill of daylight down their surfaces, with roof lighting, too, to the Warhols and Bacons at top. The rub is, though, they do fill in those courts.
It is tempting to sense a rule here somewhere. There are worse offenders, like the Australian Museum’s so-badly-stuffed courtyard. But perhaps infilled courts, like glazed-in verandas, are generally to be avoided. Especially where the surrounding spaces need all the help they can get.
For the existing galleries are simple solid troupers, on the whole, in a uniform sage green, doing a decent but prescription job. Nothing less, nothing more. Arranged to a linear chronology, from Egyptian and pre-Columbian through Rembrandt and Cezanne to Hirst (Damien) and Galliano (John), they do offer occasional moments of drama, such as the lovely little Decorative Arts Passage, threaded on high along
one side of the Great Hall like an out-take from some monastic library. Or the three-room enfilade at either end of the building, each focusing on a chosen work Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, which is pretty well up to it (just slightly shrunken by the attention) and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ St Genevieve triptych, which isn’t. And the detailing strong gunmetal portals and finely crafted display systems is a delight. But the galleries themselves are deeply internalised, oddly disorienting and less than sassy, spatially speaking.
So, what part should museum architecture play? Strictly behind the throne, or a little more front-of-house? For me it’s a balance thing. You might admire a gallery that can keep its hands off the pictures, but still hope for a certain surprise, enchantment or delight. The kind and degree of delight that enriches an art experience without eclipsing it.
In part it’s a quantity versus quality thing. Perhaps, just perhaps, the NGV would have been better advised to leave a few of its also-rans in storage in order to enjoy a little more blank space on the page.
TWO ILLUS: Bellini has redesigned the landlocked building’s interior.
Right: The gallery’s deputy director, Tony Ellwood, with Madonna and Child .
, by Agnolo Gaddie.
Photos: John Gollings, Craig Abraham