Sydney Modern: A Crystal Palace Full of Dreams

Sydney Modern is the latest architectural addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The building, designed by the awarding-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA, cost a reported $344 million. This project has been at the centre of controversy since it was first announced by the then-Director, the late Edmund Capon, and the controversy continues.

My first memory of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) was visiting the gallery as a young fellow in the early 1960s, with my father. Striding across The Domain towards the Walter Vernon building, with its honey-coloured classical columns, confidently poised between the city and what was then a working harbour, we were greeted on the steps by the then-Director of the gallery, the painter and photographer Hal Missingham. A close friend of my father, Missingham gave us a guided tour and spoke at length with some passion about his plans to improve the quality of the collection (still an issue), and to expand the gallery by building a new wing; that extension is now known as the Captain Cook Wing.

So, it comes as no surprise when I hear about a museum director harbouring the same ambition: to expand the size of their gallery, to increase the hanging space, or even, in the case of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to not only build a completely new museum but also to relocate it – although the latter instance could be viewed as a director’s ambition on steroids.

This brings us to the recently opened Sydney Modern. The first thing that struck me, even before I saw the building, was the placeholder name, “Sydney Modern” – a twist on the Tate Modern in London. It is as if A. A. Phillips’s “cultural cringe”, the term he coined in his 1950 essay to describe Australians’ “self-perceived intellectual inferiority complex towards their own culture in the context of British culture,” does not exist. Why not name the building after a prominent Australian cultural figure or, as rumoured but not realised, use an Aboriginal geographical place name from the Gadigal language? Why use reductive terms, such as “modern” or “contemporary”?

Over the past three years, I have watched from my rooftop in Potts Point as the building emerged. Actually, it is a misnomer to describe Sydney Modern as a single building, when in fact it is a series of interlocking pavilions that cascade from the entrance on Art Gallery Road down the slope to Woolloomooloo. This project echoes many of the key architectural strategies regularly used by Kazuyo Sejima, a principal of the Japanese architectural firm SANAA, which designed Sydney Modern. Several of their signature elements are used in Sydney Modern, including floor-to-ceiling windows, floating rooflines, and the use of gardens and green spaces. Curiously, their best building, in terms of museum design, is the New Museum in New York. It does not have many of these key features, which is precisely why it is a successful art museum.

The first iteration of Sydney Modern was announced by the late Edmund Capon, and was then inherited by the current Director Michael Brand. From the outset the SANAA design was controversial, with former Prime Minister Paul Keating in a radio interview with Linda Mottram on 702 ABC describing Brand as “. . . just another property tart like all the others. Aren’t you supposed to be selling art Mr Brand?” Keating’s objections, along with those of several prominent architects, were driven by factors including the original scale of the project, how it interfered with the northern facade of the Vernon building, and the amount of public green space that would be consumed. There was also widespread criticism that the design was primarily about creating revenue-generating private function spaces. However, Brand persevered with both the design and its various modifications (several suggested by Keating) and, importantly, with fundraising. Brand and his team raised a stunning $103.5 million from private benefactors, with the New South Wales Government providing $244 million. These figures make Sydney Modern, according to rumours, one of the biggest, if not the largest, public–private funding partnership of the arts in Australia’s history. Regrettably, with all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into raising so much money, and the best intentions of all involved, including the internationally renowned architects SANAA, the actual result is, at best, confused.

You enter Sydney Modern at street level, walking into what is essentially a glass box reminiscent of a modern-day mausoleum, albeit with wonderful views of the harbour. Perplexingly for an art museum, there is no art at this entrance, only a semi-circular pop-up bookshop full of the usual trinkets. To your right is a doorway that leads to a traditional white cube space, housing the Yiribana Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection; this was previously located in the basement of the Vernon building. Moving deeper into the building there is an impressive, at least in scale, atrium that allows you to look down to yet another pointless space that is dominated by two escalators. Were the architects paying homage to M. C. Escher’s lithographic print House of Stairs, 1951? At some point in the design process, the architects appear to have had a “lightbulb” moment, realising that metres of glass walls were not going to create suitable spaces for the display of artworks. Possibly, this is what produced a series of white cube galleries tucked away on the lower levels, appearing to take their architectural cue from the church crypt. The most impressive part of Sydney Modern is the majestic Tank, a 2,200-square-metre chamber with 125 columns supporting the ceiling, originally built during World War II to store fuel for Allied ships. Ironically, the only part played by the SANAA architects in relation to the Tank is the design of the spiral staircase, which allows access.

Over the past decade, the New South Wales Government, in the best tradition of neoliberal economics, has demanded that the AGNSW and other state-funded entities make what they laughingly call “efficiency dividends.” This Orwellian term means making significant cuts to the gallery’s operating budget. This policy places directors such as Brand in an invidious position. Given that Sydney Modern has now increased the AGNSW’s size by seventeen thousand square metres, how does this institution fund the significant increase in staffing, maintenance, and overall operating costs that has resulted? What is necessary in this country is a shift in state and federal governments’ cultural policies to ensure adequate funding of our museums, libraries, and archives. The leaders of our cultural institutions should not need to be constantly begging from the well-heeled. Given the current political and economic climate, Sydney Modern is the future: part art museum, part entertainment centre, part carnival, and part food court.

As I was walking away from Sydney Modern along Art Gallery Road, I thought I spied something out of the corner of my eye, not unlike the glint or fragmented image caught in the beveled edge of a mirror. In that moment, I am sure that I saw Frank Lowy with a stepladder and drill under one arm, and a large, bright -red neon Westfield sign under the other, heading towards the building.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

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