"But whatever its virtues the winning proposal, jammed right up against the carefully symmetrical façade of the Gallery, can only appear impolite and offensive..." writes Joe Kinsela on Sydney Modern.


I was in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1978 and was amazed by the dramatic landscapes of that fine city. At one point as I looked down from the Royal Mile, leading up the slope to the famous Castle, I saw in the valley below a classical building that, in scale and character, reminded me of Sydney’s art gallery in the Domain. Next day I found out that it was the Scottish National Gallery.

In 1904, when the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) was being designed by the Government Architect of the day, Walter Liberty Vernon, it was suggested that he take as his model the Scottish National Gallery. Upon learning this fact recently, I knew at once why I was reminded of Sydney’s gallery which, while not in any way a copy, has the same Classical spirit. Our gallery sits invitingly in the green slopes of the Domain, just as charmingly as Edinburgh’s does in its green valley. Having the advantages of golden stone and sunshine, Sydney’s is probably even more beautiful.

We visit Vernon’s building to see works of art. The way the gallery sits above Woolloomooloo Bay, approached via the Domain or along Art Gallery Road from St Mary’s Cathedral, means that we take for granted the beautiful sight of Ionic columns in pink stone outlined against the deep blue of Sydney’s sky and harbour.

On a recent visit to the Gallery, I learned that an enormous addition is being planned, to be called “Sydney Modern”. A model is on display, and a photo-montage of how it might look. I was shocked by the details of the proposed changes.

The addition, seeming to me to be a series of vast concrete shelves, would collide with, not meet with, our existing building and would obliterate its visual connection with the tree-studded northward slopes of the Domain. The delightful group of palms near the corner would give way to an insistent projection of the new building right up to the roadway. The proposed extension has twice the floor expanse of the present building. Its appearance is an exercise in bad manners. The fault, I imagine, rests not with the Japanese architects, but with those who set up the terms of the design brief. This is the direct responsibility of the Trustees of the Gallery and its Director. Where was the insistence upon a small carbon footprint, where was the optimised use of natural lighting? They have gone all out for BIG, time-travelling back to the 1970s’ architectural indulgence, disregarding any aesthetics constrains.

Everyone should view the model of proposed additions exhibited in the gallery. Driven by a vacuous corporate-speak vision-statement on the Gallery website, this proposal fails to consider or understand the genius of Vernon’s elegant building. A new main entrance is to be in the extension, on the north-western side. We are told that the existing portico will be retained “as a ceremonial entrance”. This conjures up a Cinquecento painting by Raphael of a processione Ducale (procession in an Italian ducal court): do the trustees and director propose to walk in procession wearing splendid robes of office? Will there be pageboys to hold the corners of their gowns, laughing damsels filling goblets of wine while bouncers (in there fig leaves) hold aside heavy curtains at the door?

The description of Sydney Modern tells of views over the Harbour. What can be the purpose of that? The views that matter in a gallery are views of paintings, sculptures and other works of art.

Though I grew up in country NSW, I love coming to Sydney. The glowing stonework of the fine old buildings in their bravado Italian styles and grand cathedrals in English Gothic style, little cottages with iron-lace verandahs, all these made by the hands of artisans, whether stonemasons, bricklayers, plasterers, tilers or metal-workers. Fashioned by skilled hands (quite unlike modern building methods) they can be likened in process to creations by artists and sculptors.

The issue here is not just heritage. We visit Sydney to enjoy not only its history but the exciting new architecture that rural areas rarely provide. We who love contemporary architecture despair when the new fails to relate to its surroundings or to take into account nearby traditional buildings. On the other hand we celebrate when new work successfully complements older buildings and townscapes.

At this point it is important to be reminded of the character of Sydney’s gallery – if those responsible for its function and proposed extension do not take cognisance of its present virtues, then we must elaborate them, define them in this article. The gallery was originally proposed as a “Pavilion in the Park”, to be encountered in the greenery of the Domain. The scale of this Roman-style building is perfectly proportioned to the human figure and serves to invite the visitor in. The entrance is via gently-graded steps to the temple portico; long wings terminate in semi-circle pavilions. Bronzes in bas-relief and the names of great artists define the building’s purpose.

Inside is a handsome vestibule with coffered stone domes and pillared niches, an admirable example of structural stonework in the Roman manner; then through the arches one arrives at a “brute” style addition (c. 1970) that declares itself in the face of the more traditional gallery spaces opening to the right. This stylistic conjunction is handled with subtle genius, a tribute to its architect, Andrew Andersons, who completed other additions here in an unapologetic late 20th Century style. A delightful building, Sydney’s gallery is the most handsome and welcoming of any in Australia.

The Sydney Modern addition will cover more than twice as much floor-space as the present building. Details about the internal disposition of spaces and services are not yet available, but the additions, we are told, will allow large crowds to attend receptions and delight in views of the Harbour. Requests for interviews with the Director of the Gallery and the State Premier were both declined. It is possible to imagine the winning design for Sydney on another site, revealing its innate beauty. The design is similar in character to the same architects’ applauded 21st Century Art Museum in Japan, which stands on a green-fields site. But whatever its virtues the winning proposal, jammed right up against the carefully symmetrical façade of the Gallery, can only appear impolite and offensive. And it assumes the right to spread over a large amount of publicly owned land in Sydney’s Domain.

Fairfax Press has already published opinion pieces from (former Prime Minister) Paul Keating and Andrew Andersons (former Assistant Government Architect responsible for three major additions to the gallery between 1968 and 2009). Both criticise the outlandish size and character of the proposals, and the lack of information about its services.

Keating points out the logical fallacy of the new gallery space offering harbour views – the only views any art gallery needs are views of its collections and exhibitions. He is concerned that the great size is intended to allow not for a greatly expanded collection, but for large crowds invited to corporate functions who come chiefly to maintain their connections in the business world.

Andrew Andersons points out that the intended expansion encroaches heedlessly into the public spaces of the Domain. Statements supporting the Sydney Modern project make comparisons with recent extensions to state galleries in Brisbane and Melbourne without noting that both GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art) in Brisbane and NGVA/Potter (National Gallery of Victoria – Australia/Ian Potter Centre) in Melbourne are in separate buildings off-site from their mother institutions. As GOMA was being built, full details were shared with the public as soon as the plan was announced, revealing the disposition of services and spaces. Andersons also pointed out: “In London, the Tate Modern is at the opposite end of the city from the Tate Britain.”

In response to my call, Andersons invited me to his Paddington house for coffee and a chat. On the issue of an off-site campus for Sydney Modern, he made the intriguing suggestion that the project could find all the space it needs under the new Headland Park at Barangaroo. This immense below-ground area has natural lighting from above and room for a number of floors; it is located beside the growing arts precinct of Walsh Bay. It is awaiting a tenant. An expected advantage here is the planned new underground railway station to service the Barangaroo precinct, which will bring growing crowds to Sydney Modern if it is built under Headland Park.

The principle must be, not to impress the Big End of Town nor to develop a Sydney Modern to compete with Melbourne or Brisbane, but to bring art to the community in the most practical and enjoyable way. As the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich said while under suppression during the Soviet era: “Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it … Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”


Image: The Art Gallery of NSW entrance. Courtesy the writer. 

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