Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Treasure in the woolshed
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
The winning idea for a national gallery took inspiration from a simple (if rather smelly) Australian icon, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
You (and, for that matter, I) may see the art-visiting public as sheep, though I would never say such a thing out loud. In the case of the winning design for the National Portrait Gallery, though, it was the normally diplomatic winning architect, Richard Johnson, of Johnson Pilton Walker, who produced the metaphor. The Australian woolshed, he said, exercised an “iconic power beyond its mere scale”. And he’s right. It’s true.
Ask Philip Cox, whose 1969 book on the rustic vernacular was instrumental in kick-starting his vast and prolific practice. Or Glenn Murcutt, whose forms hover habitually between woolshed and tramcar. Indeed, I’m rather partial to a good woolshed myself, with its distinctive veil of cobweb, its aroma of ironbark, wool fat and tar.
But the essential feature of woolshed-as-icon is its dominant roof, right? I mean, sure, there are runs and pens and things to give the sheep that desirable air-traveller feeling, but a shed without a roof is not a shed, is it? Shed as in rain, hail, snow. Whereas the thing about Johnson Pilton Walker’s winning National Portrait Gallery proposal is that, of the six short-listed schemes, it is the only one without a dominant roof. Without, indeed, any visible roof to speak of.
So why the lapse into shed metaphor? It may of course signify nothing more than the sweetly pastoral flavour of our great federal city, the only world capital where you can be late for a meeting with the PM because your high heels got bogged in a paddock. (On the other hand, as any levitation above the city reveals, there’s a lot more surface car parking in central Canberra than all other uses put together, including grass and trees.)
Then again, the woolshed iconography may be a simple, primal appeal to the inner hayseed that sleeps and chews grass in us all. Certainly, I don’t think it signifies an urge to fleece the incoming public. Or pull the wool over their eyes – or from them. Hardly. And there is absolutely no suggestion that Johnson may be tainted with Kiwi blood. So the metaphor mystery remains.
Still, it was a tempting design proposition: a pretty, wooded site near the High Court and the national gallery, a $70 million budget and requirements in the brief for natural light, connection to landscape, human scale and a sense of Australianness, whatever that means. That none of the designs turned up with corks around their brims is probably down to luck and the distinction of the competitors.
Culled from an open registration of interest in July, there were six in all, a strong field that included three Sydney firms – Johnson Pilton Walker, the winner; Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp; and Peddle Thorp and Walker; two from Melbourne – Denton Corker Marshall and Sean Godsell (with PTW Melbourne); and one from London – Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners. Or, cut another way, one safe and reliable (PTW), three smart and interesting in an established kind of way (JPW, DCM and FJMT), one young(ish) and mildy risky (Sean Godsell – with PTW Melbourne safety-pinned on) and the regulation foreigner, Nick Grimshaw, who sits next below the great Lords Rogers and Foster on the British “high-tech” ladder.
And yet all five, apart from the winner, proposed a dominant flattish roof, much like Lindsay Clare and James Jones’s winning Queensland Art Gallery scheme from a couple of years back, only less heroic. Or like a shade-cloth slung in the desert, giving enough protection for culture to grow. This may not be such a far-fetched metaphor, under the circumstances, but it’s no woolshed.
Of the five also-rans, Denton Corker Marshall’s was to my mind the most poetic, its roof a gleaming horizontal mesh described by its authors as “impossibly thin silver metallic plate, completely perforated with a series of irregular openings”, moth-eaten here and there and supported on a thicket of spindly legs. The dappled light this produced on the gallery floor and the shimmer of the whole gave it the quality of a tarp thrown lightly across saplings, every inch a gallery for the bush capital. It had none of the heft and pomp, though, of the parliamentary triangle, and the plan, it must be admitted, lacked the winner’s elegant simplicity.
Godsell’s was another bold idea and another metal-mesh roof – this time, true to form, in rusted steel. (Godsell, you recall, is the man who designed the see-through steel mesh house in Melbourne, of which his wife famously – and, I thought, sweetly – said, “and after a short space of time I got very used to changing in the cupboard”.) The thing about Godsell’s plan, though, is it was underground, with only the top metre or so – that is, the rusted mesh – sticking up to stub your toe on. Which is weird. As if Canberra needs to economise on ground space so it can – what – have more surface car parking?
No, there was in the end no question that the winner was the winner. One of Richard Johnson’s signature skills is getting the diagram right. He did it at Governor Phillip Tower and the Museum of Sydney, he did it at the Art Gallery of NSW’s Asian gallery and he’s done it here. It’s very simple: five fingers of space, three of them single-storeyed, top-lit galleries, one a double-height, open-ended entry foyer and the fifth stacked full of administration, bookshops, cafes and the rest. Between each of the fingers is a glazed transition-space with views onto the savanna.
Inside, there are exposed plywood-clad roof trusses and a certain native austerity in the use of materials. But that’s not the real similarity between the new National Portrait Gallery and the noble woolshed. The likeness is in the diagram. It’s not the way the woolshed looks that makes it an icon, but the elegant relationship between how it looks and how it works. Between form, in the old adage, and function. And it’s the same here.
It’s a simple diagram that just happens to provide staff privacy, easy out-of-hours use, effortless connection to landscape, an obvious direction for future expansion, the ability to build in stages (should it come to that), a clear entrance, a vast billboard facing the street and, above all, clarity of route for the art-going flocks. A diagram whose very simplicity reveals a practised sophistication of thought. Ruminate on that.
TWO PHOTOS: Elementary elegance … the facade and (top) foyer of the National Portrait Gallery in Johnson Pilton Walker’s winning design.