Stacked pavilions and multiple circulation routes create views and variety in SANAA’s ambitious museum extension that demonstrates a blossoming Australian culture
While the Sydney Opera House has become a defining image of Australia, you could be forgiven for not having heard of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The museum predates the Opera House by more than a century, but its eclectic ensemble of existing buildings does not have the same impact as the iconic sail-like roof of the Opera House. However Sydney Modern, the AGNSW’s new space designed by Japan-based practice SANAA, aims to change this.
AGNSW’s historical evolution can be read in parallel to Australian national growth and cultural development. Its first dedicated building was a brick enclosure with an iron roof known as the ‘art barn’. Built to house the genesis of the collection, it was emblematic of the original British colonial settlement. By 1896 the ‘art barn’ was encased with a classical facade by Walter Liberty Vernon, whose public practice was influential in progressing what became known later as the federation styles. Then the museum was expanded again with modernist extensions in the 1970s and 1980s, reflecting the optimism of the nation’s burgeoning international aspiration. Together these buildings form an intriguing ensemble but, like much of the colonial and economic development of Sydney, overlook pre-colonial history.
Today, Sydney is attempting to acknowledge its earlier history better and is encouraging greater inclusivity as the community shapes its society for the future. This aspiration has helped frame the project brief to SANAA.
Channelling some of the practice’s signature style, the new gallery building is a collection of generous stacked pavilions that cascade down the site’s sloped topography. Gently curved pavilion roofs and minimal facades share genetics with SANAA’s earlier museum for Le Louvre in Lens, but nod to the specifics of this site through the topographic response, use of locally sourced materials and the shade provided by the oversailing pavilion roofs. The building form enables the interlinking of internal and external spaces, allowing a broader range of artistic mediums to be displayed and spaces suitable for the proper display of aboriginal artwork – including permanent, dedicated gallery space.
The brief to embrace a wider demographic audience is achieved not only programmatically. Where the classical portico of the original galleries now feels outmoded and uninviting, the design of the new building actively opens up to the city. The pavilions appear to sit snugly into the naturally sloping site around Woolloomooloo Bay, but are actually founded on the roofs of two existing industrial structures. Oddities from previous eras, the road-box over the Cahill Expressway and a forgotten maritime storage tank now create the terraced foundation for the new building. This found condition has enabled SANAA’s stacked pavilion concept and generates a form which unfurls towards views across Sydney harbour, but as it is brilliantly intertwined with the internal programme, it is perhaps best understood in section.
At street level, you encounter only the upper pavilion and Art Garden. The upper pavilion’s transparency and orientation offer glimpses of art pieces in the interior galleries and across the gently curved roofs of the lower pavilions beyond. Not yet complete, the Art Garden is an external space displaying large-scale art pieces, with no boundary between it and the street. Kiosks help with wayfinding and ticketing.
The museum’s architecture encourages public engagement. Externally the building works hard to achieve this through intrigue and transparency, while interior spaces intend to provide a stage from which visitors can respond to ideas posed to them by the displayed works.
Visitors enter the museum via the upper pavilion and its curved glazed canopy. A tube entrance vestibule exaggerates the sense of change in passing over the threshold into the building but this is one area where the execution of the detail work is poor, with clunky welding, glass specification and metalwork detracting from the intended experience. Taking in the project across a number of visits, it becomes apparent that the quality of the concept and execution of the construction detailing diverge in places. As a result, some spaces, surfaces and materials feel less successful, although this does not take away from the overall impact of the project.
SANAA’s design is complex. It would be easy for this building to confuse visitors with unintelligible circulation or to function poorly as a gallery. However, there is a control to the architect’s work. The design hinges on the masterful central circulation space – an unconventionally shaped atrium formed in the space between the stacked pavilions and descending along the site’s sloping topography, but always allowing for sight lines back to the entrance.
Internally the upper pavilion’s geometry shifts in plan, switching from the main structural grid to a new, oblique angle, which shapes the edge of the central atrium void to align with the industrial structures below. The upper pavilion acts like a forum at the point in which people meet and reconvene. Key to this is the atrium void as it enables visitors to observe views from the heart of the building: from the head of the atrium you can orient yourself and determine your prospective path through the pavilions that step down below you. It is an ‘open world’ visitor experience. From here there is a choice of five routes: the atrium void, intimate stair, rooftops, Yiribana gallery and the lift shaft.
The main visitor flow takes you down escalators through the atrium void. Meandering back and forth down to the lowest level, you deviate from the main path to enter each of the gallery pavilions. The route becomes cyclical, like an Eddy spinning you into each gallery and then back into the main flow of the atrium. You would have to try hard to get lost.
In the upper pavilion, adjacent to the large escalators, is a curious circular handrail. Initially easy to overlook, this is the head of a narrow cast concrete spiral staircase and takes you down a level, across the landing and down a second rectilinear accommodation stair. These are brilliant small-scale circulation devices away from the main crowds of visitors, which offer interesting opportunities for linking exhibitions across different levels. Cleverly the staircases will also enable the AGNSW to run multiple events concurrently, without closing off swathes of the galleries.
A glimpse of the rooftop exhibition spaces can be seen the street, but when you enter the upper pavilion the terraced roofs spread fully across two aspects, drawing you across the atrium void and back outside. This route leads you across exhibition areas on three of the lower pavilion roofs, including a terraced one which lends itself to presentations, before dropping down a staircase to the garden at the lowest level.
Immediately to the right on entering the upper pavilion is the dedicated aboriginal works gallery. This is the first of the limestone clad pavilions and is an adaptable, square gallery with a functional ceiling grid and simple display partitions – although unusually there are large areas of glazing which preclude the usual approach to solar control. The west-facing glazed corridor provides a visible link between the gallery, art garden and street. Meanwhile, picture windows facing the harbour view offer relief to an otherwise purely formal gallery space; devices perhaps to attract a new generation of visitors.
The lift shaft
The final route begins with a bridge across the central atrium that brings you to the glazed heads of the lift shafts. These are relatively conventional but form a central pin within the plan. As the stacked pavilions wrap around the shafts differently, the landing experience changes at every level.
Culminating the various routes is ‘The tank’. This is a vast exhibition space contained in the maritime storage tank, on which the rest of the Sydney Modern now sits. Primarily accessed via a spiral staircase from the base of the atrium, the chill of the pitch-black enclosure contrasts starkly with the open, well-lit spaces above. It offers the AGNSW an unconventional display space which suggests opportunities to experiment with different curating options. It is the end of the journey through the museum, but when leaving you can uncover any of the routes in reverse to return to the upper pavilion. It is deliberately not a dead end.
The Sydney Modern project has ambitious aims. The first step has been SANAA’s excellent building which attracts and engages with the AGNSW’s audience, but which can also facilitate the institution’s evolution. With the new building AGNSW also has a stage from which pose a broader range of important questions to its visitors. Just like the earlier buildings, Sydney Modern speaks of the environment and era in which it was conceived. Time will tell if the intended cultural progression and eventual societal impact will come to fruition.
Andrew Rixson is associate at Allies + Morrison, London
Total project cost AU$344 million
Client Art Gallery of New South Wales
Executive architect Architectus
Contractor Richard Crookes Constructions
Structural, civil, hydraulic, fire and acoustic engineer Arup
Facade engineer Surface Design
Mechanical engineer Steensen Varming
Landscape architect McGregor Coxall and GGN
Building certification and accessibility Group DLA