The View from Woolloomooloo
22. April 2021
Aerial: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
New details have been released for the Sydney Modern Project, SANAA’s expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales that will be the Japanese architecture firm’s first building in the Southern Hemisphere when it is inaugurated next year.
An all-white, antiseptic thinness lies at the heart of the buildings designed by SANAA, the practice of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, among their other museums, are elegant if generic white frames for the display of contemporary art. Just when it seemed that a new wave of omotenashi-style architecture — most visible in Kengo Kuma’s focus on craft, wood, ceramics and brown, cozy atmospheres — would supplant the ephemeral style of SANAA, Sejima and Nishizawa are taking their distinctive brand Down Under.
View from Woolloomooloo: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
When the competition result was announced in 2015, SANAA’s design was called "intrusive" and criticized for "colliding" with the sandstone facades of the main building designed by Walter Vernon in the late 1800s. But these reactions have cooled off in the meantime, not least because SANAA is envisioning a “civic campus“ that brings together art, architecture, and landscape. An art garden, for instance, is meant to "create seamless indoor and outdoor experiences," in the architects' words. The idea of combining the enjoyment of fine art and gardening is quintessentially Japanese, but the idea of housing art permanently in a museum is not. The museum has come full circle, though, since the first works to enter the collection of Art Gallery NSW, in 1879, were ceramics and bronzes gifted from the Emperor of Japan.
Lower Level 1: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
The Art Gallery NSW is located east of central Sydney, on sloping parkland adjacent to the Royal Botanic Gardens. The institution has a layered building stock that dates back to Vernon's original, which was built in stages between 1896 and 1909. Extensions by Andrew Andersons in the 1970s and 80s followed, as did a new Asian gallery designed by Australia's most famous museum architect, Richard Johnson, in 2003. SANAA's building will sit in contrast to the neoclassical main building: it will be ultra-light and ultra-white, staying loyal to their brand. But their building is attentive to the topography: a series of pavilions will cascade down towards Woolloomooloo Bay, recalling their Grace Farms River Building in Connecticut. The low-roof pavilions will sit lightly on the land, following the terrain’s 20-meter difference and preserving trees, sightlines, and the site's contours.
Gallery 2: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
The 344 million AUD expansion will be connected to the existing Art Gallery NSW via an "art garden" overlooking Sydney Harbour. After 1958, a freeway separated the Royal Gardens from the museum until a land bridge was built in the late 1990s; the museum will turn this land bridge into the art garden. A shaded plaza will lead to the new building’s entrance, from where visitors can see down into the atrium and some of the exhibition spaces spread across different levels. The Aboriginal gallery will be on the entrance level, with a glazed wall facing the existing building and views of Sydney Harbour.
Studio: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
Circulation will follow organic paths, with visitors led downward, bringing them closer to the water and, at the lowest level, a repurposed oil tank. Three roofs will be accessible, creating terraces and highlighting the integration of art, topography, and landscape. The building will be "green" in other ways: the Green Building Council of Australia has awarded the project a preliminary 6 Star Green Star rating in anticipation of a water efficient building with rainwater harvesting, solar panels, and green roofs.
Oil Tank Gallery: Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2021
The main gallery is 5.5 meters (18 feet) tall, but the most exciting space might well be the vast underground hall repurposed from a WWII naval oil tank. This gallery, with a grid of columns supporting the 7-meter (23-feet) high ceilings, will be used for large-scale installations, providing public access to this unique space for the first time.