Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Subsection: Arts & Entertainment
Watch this space
Brutalism meets beauty in the National Gallery’s new wing, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
The National Gallery saga is another of those Australian specials where a competition winner is selected, announced and appointed with hope and fanfare, then progressively undermined, cherrypicked, usurped and dumped, not always in that order. In this case, the politics is further complicated by the building’s original pedigree and by its architect’s ”heartbreak” at the result. So the critical question is: does the result make all this agony worthwhile?
Brutalism is one of the 20th century’s least-understood architectural styles, especially in Australia, where so little is worthy of the name.
Without doubt our three finest examples are Robin Gibson’s Queensland Art Gallery, Ken Woolley’s Fisher Library (his State Office Block was another) and Col Madigan’s High Court. Most of the rest simply justify the public’s conflation of brutalism and brutality.
Madigan’s National Gallery (completed in 1982) was designed to twin the 1980 High Court and a handsome pair they undeniably make.
But the gallery was always the second twin, less muscular, less assured and less coherent than its older sibling.
While the High Court sits proud and unequivocal at the head of its ramped forecourt, the gallery took visitors through its side umbilicus.
While the High Court held itself around a grand interior space, the National Gallery seemed all arms and legs, with no particular front or back and no spatial focus.
It was always a complicating factor that the NGA envisaged most of its guests arriving from the lakeside or from a grand, elevated square (the never-built National Place) and therefore oriented its grand stair in that direction.
Everybody, in consequence, whether arriving by car, bus or foot, got lost, with most visitors using an unprepossessing concrete stair from the basement car park. Hardly the thing for the nation’s principal art edifice.
So it was no surprise when, in 2000, the then director, Brian Kennedy, announced a design competition to rethink the entrance. It was won by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, with a strongly modelled six-storey atrium space that linked all levels and reoriented the building south, towards King Edward Terrace.
Sensible, you might think. Obvious, even. However, the proposal caused an uproar and fell foul of the then new moral rights legislation, drafted to protect ”integrity of authorship”. Eventually, in 2004, a new architect was appointed.
At first, Andrew Andersons AO had Madigan’s blessing but this happy situation was never likely to last. Further, because the threatened legal action never eventuated, we still don’t know what rights an architect has to protect his or her work from modification.
The new director, Ron Radford, came aboard in 2005 with a much boofier attitude. ”It’s not about Col Madigan any more,” he declared and immediately expanded the brief to include a suite of new galleries – really an entire new half building specifically briefed to display the NGA’s astonishing and underexposed collection of indigenous art.
Five years later, we can judge the result. ColMadigan AO, now90, says he ”still thinks it’s a terrible mess” that has ”ruined the ambience of the two buildings and the cultural precinct”.
But is it really this bad?
The new extension had three main tasks. These relate, respectively, to form, space and attitude but all hinge on questions of respect: howto dock amicably with the existing architecture; how to provide the resulting whole with a new street ”address”; how to create logical, legible and deferential hanging space for this collection.
The first of these is the new building’s least successful aspect. Brutalism was a particular discipline; rude but capable, within that rudeness, of immense subtlety. The best of it, like the mid-century work of Swiss group Atelier 5 and London’s Howell, Howell and Amis, leavens its square-jawed muscularity with delicacy of perception, delighting in the play of solid and void, of massive and glassy, of rough and smooth.
Andersons has done this stuff in the past – such as his 1971 addition (under the then government architect, Ted Farmer) to the Art Gallery of NSW, wherein the restaurant hangs into the entry foyer with just the right mix of passivity and aggression. Since then, however (in the 1988 State Library extension on Macquarie Street or the buildings on East Circular Quay), his manipulation of concrete has been somewhat less assured.
His new extension has moments of similar weakness; moments that true brutalism would never tolerate, such as the strangely limp-wristed origami-fold column near the new main entrance, the diagonally jutting landing at the staff entrance (like a poor man’s Museum of Sydney) or, most conspicuously, the circular cutout in the porte cochere, where a single super-tall column hits the centre of a plexiglass bubble.
That’s just icky.
Cruelly exposing the feebleness of these gestures is the adjacent genius of James Turrell’s Within Without, not 20 metres distant. It’s hardly commonplace, anywhere, to find yourself face-to-face with the G word and especially unexpected in Canberra. However, there it is.
Undeniable. Un-go-past-able. Unphotographable.
The thing is brilliant.
Heart-stopping. Hairs-onthe- back-of-your-neck territory.
You gotta be there.
This, and the fine-honed natureculture landscape in which it sits, makes a hard act to neighbour.
However, from there on in, Andersons’s building gets better and better.
On the question of entrance and address, it is clear and honourable.
A tad corporate, perhaps, in both scale and material but the blackmarble portal set into its grey-glass screen beneath the lofty white cantilever makes a gesture that is bold, graphic and dignified.
There have been grizzles about its size and it’s true, this could still be mistaken for a side entrance, especially given the university hall/ upscale supermarket language of the rest.However, it is a distinct improvement on wandering around wondering just how to get onto the bridge.
As for the interior, here the building really starts to sing. It’s ironic that Andersons’s first modification to the NGA was for the then director, Betty Churcher, and involved blocking out the light that Madigan had let wash down the rough concrete walls. Ironic because the guiding principle of this new extension, made possible by a blend of new techniques and new thinking, is to let light in.
In the foyer, which (like the earlier TZG scheme) gathers all gallery levels into a single unifying space, the full-height west-facing glass screen is backed by a translucent sheet of Queensland marble that glows as the sun heads to afternoon.
This is lovely, giving the space a warm, closeted quality that belies its size and openness.
Similarly charming is the way the space folds itself around the art. The Aboriginal Memorial, for instance, the forest of spirit poles you will recall from earlier days, is the only artwork on the ground floor. It now occupies its own, customised space – a top-lit dome (that unavoidably recalls the Turrell) with real-world eucalypt forest as backdrop, just beyond the glass.
From that moment of entry you are now, but for the first time, in no doubt that this is Australia’s gallery and that Australia is not just a colonial entity but a land with its own, particular spiritual resonance.
The same sense of immense and intense respect for these indigenous works – with a refreshing emphasis on them as art first, indigenous second – informs the dozen new galleries upstairs.
The plan is deceptively simple: a grid of galleries aligned enfilade, with natural light at each end and diffused top-lighting throughout.
The large galleries are the brightest and each has a small, secretive, lowlight area attached possum-like at one end, where delicate works such as the Hermansburg Torres Strait collections can be seen without damage or distraction.
The effect is breathtaking and although this is enhanced both by the excellence of the hang and the quality of the works themselves, the gallery spaces – which clearly draw on Andersons’ experience at the AGNSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art – are truly lovely.
Radford was right to insist on making Aboriginal works the frontispiece of the museum and to insist on its reorientation towards the road.
Sadly, Madigan may never set eyes on what they have done to his beloved building but my sense is that the reverential enclosure of these luminous works would soothe his misgivings.
For the sheer deference these spaces show for the works they present for our scrutiny is endearing beyond words. We may not have known it but now that the building exists, it is plain: this is a building of which we have always been in need.
FOUR PHOTOS: Stunning display … Ramingining artists’ The Aboriginal Memorial , 1987-88, in the new entrance of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Photos: John Gollings Bold beauty … (from top) the undulating ceiling in the National Gallery’s shop; the marble “curtain” on the inside of the west wall of the new building; the new, more obvious entrance.