Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Postmodern practicalities put the door back in the forefront
Canberra is Australia’s front room. It’s our national display cabinet of inherited cut crystal and unasked-for china figurines, our airless trophy room of monument, tokenism and metaphor, designed not for use, but for show.
You’ve been there. Arrived, agog for that glittering blockbuster that infuriatingly goes to Canberra but not to Sydney. Looped and prayed your way through the road system designed to please the gods, not humans, parked in the low-browed subterranean car park, straggled up the narrow concrete stairs and marched impatiently up the dog-legged ramp before plunging headlong from brilliant sunlight into the foyer’s gloom to confront Matisse or whatever.
You may not have wondered, then, just why Australia’s pride-of-place national gallery needs to traumatise you before you start. Or whether it could be done differently. But the gallery hierarchy has. They’ve wondered long and often. So long and often that now, after several goes, they’ve dropped a boulder of controversy into the architecture profession’s normally placid waters.
The debate, pitting great against good, is essentially architecture as art versus art as commerce. On one side, there’s the building’s architect, Col Madigan, getting on now but feisty as ever, who won the 1968 competition and built it over 14 years. On Madigan’s end of the rope are Glenn Murcutt and Professor James Weirick, both eloquent and passionate in defence of the building as it is and of Madigan’s right to design changes. On the other end are the appointed architects, Peddle Thorp’s Andrew Andersons and the landscape architect Adrian McGregor, plus the gallery’s director, Ron Radford, and the gallery hierarchy. Arguing that Madigan doesn’t “get” contemporary gallery needs, they want more galleries (for 2000 of the gallery’s 140,000-odd objects) and, especially, a front door.
It’s no surprise. The gallery’s brief history chronicles the troubled triangular relationship between 20th-century architecture, city design and museology, all trapped in a single brutalist fortress. Brutalism, at its best, combined bold forms, high contrast and breathtaking subtlety; rhythmic, textural and assured. At worst, admittedly, it was just brutal. But the gallery, let it be said, is a good building.
One thing for which brutalism cared not a jot, however, was front-ness, in doors or anything else. Extraordinarily, for a while this didn’t seem to matter. The populace could come or not come, frontways, sideways or down the soil vent, for all anyone cared. But now that postmodernism has put frontality back, as it were, in the missionary position; now that public institutions live or die by their door count, a front door is rather of the essence.
Other buildings have had the surgery. Sadly, like any facework, it can go horribly wrong. Robin Gibson’s handsome-but-frontless brutalist Queensland State Library was recently done over by the otherwise accomplished Brisbane firm Donovan Hill. Now, it’s just like they forgot to remove the bandages.
The national gallery, comparably handsome, has an undeniable orifice problem. And it’s not like there’s pedestrian flow to speak of. Out on the lakefront, only metres – worlds – away, walkers, cyclists and Korean weddings stream past. South, on the parkway, Canberra’s thrusting metropolis roars on. But around the parliamentary triangle itself, which Burley Griffin would have crammed with bustle, you can walk half a day and not set eyes on another living soul.
Here in their lonely lakeside paddock sit Madigan’s two great, heroic fortresses, the gallery and the High Court. Gloriously disdainful, fabulously vast (yet dwarfed by the still vaster spaces around them) and radiantly alone, they are totem buildings in a token town. It’s the great Australian metaphor; emptiness within emptiness within emptiness.
But there are other problems, too. Like, oh, I remember now, the art. Can you hang art in spaces 15 metres high? Here, and perhaps only here, successive directors – James Mollison, Betty Churcher, Brian Kennedy, Radford – agree. No. Impossible. Even works as confronting as Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles or David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon shrink and quake in such caverns. As Mollison, the founding director, says, it is “a very difficult building in which to make art look more important than the space”.
Not that the national gallery, back then, had any collection to speak of. The building’s boofed-up nature responds more to Burley Griffin’s super-scale cityscape than to anything as mundane as display. Design control, says Mollison, rested with Madigan and James Johnson Sweeney, a New York art consultant who, as director, had presided over construction of perhaps the most unhangable museum ever, Frank Lloyd Wright’s wild, spiralling Guggenheim.
Few directors these days are so accommodating. Most, with their key performance indicators bleeping, demand a clear entrance, usable walls and a legible route. The new scheme will deliver all these, plus a crowd-pleasing James Turrell Skyspace in front, streetside.
All white marble and escalators, it may smell and feel like an airport. It may spend $60 million to achieve little that simply opening the existing loading dock roller door wouldn’t. But starting with an arse-about building in an empty paddock recalls that old Irish way-finding joke: “Bejaisus mate, if that’s where you’re trying to get, I wouldn’t start from here!”