Many years ago, I got into quite a bit of trouble when I suggested that the building of the National Gallery of Australia should be converted into a railway station and a new purpose-built gallery should be created for the display of the national art collection.
As a piece of architecture, I like the building - it is monumental, imposing, and unashamedly modern and can be described as cathedral-like or fortress-like. It stands out against the flatness of the artificial lake with a vertical thrust with its passive off-white palette. Its main drawback is that it is a shockingly designed building for the display of art. It looked best when I first saw its interior in mid-1981, before a single artwork had entered the building. The majestic flow of spaces, unexpected angles and viewing platforms make it an exciting building to navigate - something approaching a mystical, spiritual experience.
On the outside, especially when seen in conjunction with the sympathetically designed High Court - another building that does little to humanise justice and make it accessible to people - the gallery has the grandeur of an abstracted sculpture that, with a certain force, imposes its will on the surrounding landscape.
When the gallery opened to the public late in 1982, the art critic Robert Hughes, in a memorable turn of phrase, commented that the scale of the interior managed to reduce even Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles into a glittering postage stamp. Gallery directors for the subsequent 40 years have had to "fight" the building, some cladding the walls to save the artworks from the dust of the bush-hammered concrete, or installing mezzanine floors to break the tyranny of scale, others fighting with the air conditioning vents that seem to eject debris ... and then there are the leaky ceilings.
The scale of the walls and ceilings make sustainable climate controls very expensive and proper lighting a challenge. Tall-spaced galleries may excite the eye, but they are a nightmare to manage and require specific artworks to make the space functional. Founding director James Mollison, as a masterstroke, displayed Fernand Léger's Les Trapézistes on the gallery's staircase wall, while current incumbent Nick Mitzevich comfortably accommodated Judy Watson's huge scroll-like paintings and adapted the Sarah Lucas display from the huge expanses of Beijing to the equally huge spaces in the Canberra gallery.
Sadly, the architecture of the gallery is not fit for purpose and other major 20th century Australian public art galleries, such as the National Portrait Gallery, have opted for more functional spaces where collections can be displayed to its advantage.
How did the gallery get it so wrong? The beautifully researched essay by Philip Goad for the first time systematically unravels the gallery architectural project. In popular mythology, Mollison has always been blamed for the building, something he strenuously denied. In fact, he had very little to do with it.
In 1968, the commission for the new gallery was awarded to Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Partners with Colin Madigan leading the team and Christopher Kringas, Renato Giacco and Michael Rolfe assisting. The person spearheading the operation and guiding the brief was James Sweeney, an American director who had his own set ideological agenda.
Goad writes, "In many respects, the design of the National Gallery at this point - spatially - could be argued to represent in concrete terms the high point of an American fuelled cultural Cold War, but about to be realised on the shores of and in the capital city of one of the United States' most favoured Pacific allies. Sweeney's politics and his ambitions for art in this regard cannot be ignored. In the Australian-American War Memorial (on Kings Avenue and flanking the Russell Defence Offices can be seen as earlier Cold War overlays to the idealism of Griffins' plan for Canberra, the National Gallery can be seen as another, arguably more subtle, assertion of American influence on post-war Australian life."
Goad is sympathetic to Madigan's vision and ambitions, and systematically documents the development of the design and illustrates this with numerous archival photographs. So when the building was completed in September 1981, it stood 23 metres high, comparable to a six-storey building. The early landscape planting of native trees in the sculpture gardens are reaching maturity and to some extent soften the impact of the building.
Time does impose its own traditions and now it is difficult to imagine the gallery without that imposing monolith. However, somehow one can speculate on how the life of our gallery may have been easier and more effective if we had not been swept up in American Cold War politics.
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