Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
‘Life’ in Darlo has whole new meaning
The ghosts of Darlinghurst Gaol may have found a liberator, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s not an obvious fit, Australia’s oldest fine-arts institute, in our largest ex-jail. Jails are designed to punish, seclude, confine; art to excite and explore. Liberate, even. Both may be challenging, but where jail separates, art connects. And while the National Art School (NAS) has survived more than 80 years’ confinement within those great Darlinghurst walls it hasn’t been exactly high profile. So figuratively invisible, as well as literally, that most of us still don’t even know the difference between the school and East Sydney TAFE, or whether there is a difference.
All that’s about to change. The NAS, says its director, Bernard Ollis, still teaches “the traditions of art practice”, as well as theory. Still “recognises drawing as a foundation of all artistic development”. Still teaches studio. But by the end of next year TAFE will be gone from Darlo and the NAS will occupy the entire extraordinary honey-coloured site. Not only that, but the NAS will be building itself a new Tzannes-designed public gallery, to show student work as well as the school’s permanent collection (including the odd Whitely, Lancely and Coburn, currently holed up in an understair cupboard somewhere). Even more crucially, perhaps, the new gallery will peep over the wall and, heritage-freaks willing, remake acquaintance with the world.
It all began way back, when the 1970s creation of the colleges of advanced education hived fine arts off to the University of NSW (now the College of Fine Arts in Paddington) and design to Sydney University (now Sydney College of the Arts at Rozelle). For 20 years the NAS rump, widely despised as old-fashioned and craft-bound, was left to starve in a TAFE garrett. Only arts-community agit-prop, including letters from Robert Hughes in New York, eventually persuaded Bob Carr, then Opposition leader, that an independent state-funded art school was a cause worth a candle.
In 1996, as Premier, Carr honoured his promise by agreeing to fund the NAS independently from TAFE. Finally that promise is bearing fruit. After expressions of interest produced a shortlist of three top-drawer Sydney architects, a mini-design competition was held. The winner was a standout but – partly because they are A-list architects, and partly because their approaches could hardly be more different – a three-way comparison makes instructive viewing.
The shortlistees were: Durbach Block (DBA, designer of Commonwealth Place, Canberra), Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW, designer of the AGNSW’s new Asian Gallery, and the Opera House refurbishment) and Alexander Tzannes Associates (ATA, Centennial Drive and Federation Pavilion, Centennial Park).
Their substrate, as given, was pretty remarkable. Commissioned by Macquarie from Greenway in 1820, the new Darlinghurst Gaol fell foul of Commissioner Bigge who, trusting ex-convict Greenway even less than he did the governor, effectively erased both. The jail was built, albeit slowly and with convict labour, up to (and past) its 1841 opening – if opening is quite the word. The design, while it may have left inmates unimpressed, was remarkable; an astonishing daisy-wheel pattern based on 19th-century reformist theory from the British Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline.
This strong, radial geometry echoes Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon (1787), only inside-out. Where Bentham arranged his cells annularly around a central tower, on the basis that the permanent possibility of unseen surveillance would keep convicts honest, the Darlinghurst version radiates long cell-blocks from a detached central tower, affording external surveillance only. Within their cells, this implies, the prisoners were their own people. Which makes what might otherwise be taken as good old NSW doziness look like premature enlightenment. Uh, us? Really?
Whatever its theoretical basis, the Darlo jail had, even for a prison, an extraordinary plan (only Berrima Gaol is similar). As an art school campus it is more extraordinary still. And while the prison’s reformist edge may help explain its ease of conversion to fine arts studio, there remains the curious mix of education’s most down-dressed discipline with one of the most formal geometrical moments of Sydney architecture.
So dominant, in fact, is the jail’s geometry that for any architect bent on intervention, the first and paramount decision is which geometry to follow – the rectilinear walls or radial cell-blocks. And it is here that our three contenders diverge.
JPW’s Richard Johnson took the most buttoned-down, modern approach: for each site a minimal concrete and glass pavilion set in an apron of distinctive concrete paving – and yet organised to produce a collision of geometries, postmodern-style (see Hans Hollein et al). Elegant, but generic; smooth but not compelling.
DBA’s solution was more Gehry-esque, proposing on each site a loose, free-form building, set diagonally across the corner, bringing both rectilinear and radial geometries into play. The schemes were all but identical, each with a glazed ground floor, stone-clad upper gallery and south-facing saw-tooth roof, giving perfect studio light. Nice building, nice spaces, but geometrically tentative, with no particular feel for place.
Alec Tzannes was the only one to propose two wholly unlike solutions. One, Site A, was a copper-clad, glass-topped bullet-shaped building, an analogue-twin to the old lantern-topped prison cookhouse and clear participant in the radial pattern.
Tzannes’s Site B, on the other hand, clings to the perimeter walls, stepping delicately around the last remaining watch-tower and doffing its cap to the ghost-filled painting court regarded by Tzannes as “the heart of intellectual life on campus”. Overtly contemporary in style and material, and rising like a beacon over the wall, it has nonetheless that “always been there” feel, so neat is the fit. Tzannes describes the proposal as “a bit obvious”. It is – in a gently self-evident way that marks it the rightful winner.
The unlikeness of his schemes is immaterial, perhaps, except insofar as it supports Tzannes’s longstanding claim of responding intimately to place, and of caring as much for space as form. This is pretty much the core creed of urbanism, and virtually everyone pays lip service. But few live by it.
Not that either scheme will actually be built, as is, since the competition was to choose an architect, not a design. But such responsiveness bodes well more the briefing and design process.
In other ways, too, the choice of Tzannes seems apt. As a self-confessed “failed artist”, whose lifetime friendship with Immants Tillers persuaded him he didn’t have what it takes, Tzannes was so taken with the brief, and the lunatic geometry, that he took on the competition himself rather than leave it to his 50-strong practice.
In their student days, Tzannes and Tillers “dressed strangely and made conceptual pieces, performance works”, railing at their teacher, Lloyd Rees, for his commitment to teaching the skills and the practice of art. Now, though, Tzannes is a firm believer in the craft – of art, as well as architecture. A believer in the idea that skill, far from being an intellectual prison, is an emotional and sensual liberator. “Skill empowers people; not to teach young people skills,” he argues, “is shallow.”
So it looks like the NAS, having stuck with the Atelier model full-circle, may have picked its moment, selected the spot in gallery-land central and found its man. Time (please, gentlemen) to flee the lock-up of intellectual fashion; I, for one, look forward to seeing their lights climbing on over the wall. Good show.
TWO PHOTOS: Alex Tzannes produced two options for the National Art School project, Site A, left, and Site B … which doffs its cap to the ghost-filled painting court as if it’s “always been there”.