SYDNEY MODERN: Joe Kinsela’s right of reply

In the current issue of Artist Profile (AP 36), artist Ben Quilty takes architecture historian Joe Kinsela to task for his article doubting the proposed Sydney Modern development at the AGNSW, which featured in AP 35. Here, it’s Joe’s turn to reply in the debate.


Ben Quilty in his response to my article in Artist Profile 35 has suggested that the design of our charming Sydney gallery was “appropriated from a gallery in Scotland”. The similarity derives from style; that they are of the same type of building, in the Classical Revival genre. In my view, Edinburgh’s gallery is a handsome though stern example of the Roman Ionic style, while Sydney’s is fine, with a deeper portico – its semi-circular pavilions making it altogether sweeter and more inviting than its distant companion. In my article I remarked on the similarity of Edinburgh’s situation to that of Sydney: the Scottish National Gallery on green sloping grassland in a valley with a lake (now drained) nearby – this for me sparked the recognition. I note that when Edinburgh expands it does so into nearby or other buildings off site. Now this idea would be something to appropriate.

Throughout the 19th century various styles and traditions were brought into use for building the expanding cities around the world, as they experienced the huge growth of that era. The Gothic (medieval) style was used chiefly for academic and religious buildings, and some residential purposes – in Sydney we see the Gothic style magnificently displayed in our cathedrals and churches, in Sydney University and many public schools, and a sort of “domestic Gothic” in the houses and terraces of Stanmore and Petersham. The Classical and Italianate were preferred for public buildings and mainly for commercial structures and banks; and generally in shops, cottages and terraces of the inner suburbs.

Among the best, we have our very grand Town Hall, GPO and Government offices, such as the Colonial Secretary’s Building and the former Lands Department, and court houses and galleries, all in the Classical style or the Italianate style derived from Classical proportions and detail. Sydney’s buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries may be compared for charm and beauty to any in the world of their time, the Gothic designs by Edmund Blacket and William Wardell being exceedingly fine and scholarly, the Classical or Italianate imposing and well-built in Sydney’s glorious local stone, with Government Architects delivering the best examples.

Adelaide and Melbourne have similar types of institutional buildings. In Melbourne new art galleries and a new museum have been built over the last five decades, leaving Joseph Reed’s French Renaissance Classical building (c. 1860) to serve entirely as State Library. In Adelaide the Art Gallery seems to be a smaller version of Sydney’s and dates from 1900, while the museums are charming Romanesque-style buildings of the 1880s. Both Adelaide and Melbourne have very grand parliament buildings, making the point that New South Wales never quite got around to replacing its temporary Colonial quarters from 1815. Melbourne’s Supreme Court with its domed library is second only to the Four Courts in Dublin, while the Victorian Parliament (incomplete) is one of the grandest in the world, with incomparably rich interiors. Adelaide’s Parliament House is the largest marble building in Australia.

There is a distinct type of museum or gallery building developed during the 19th century, usually in a Classical style. These generally have impressive entrance foyers leading to spacious exhibition areas with overhead natural light access. Many cities overseas have similar-styled institutional buildings. The Australian Museum in College Street is just this type, a Roman Classical façade of a monumental character. This museum, founded in 1829, is one of the oldest institutions in this country; the grand College Street façade in the Corinthian manner with ‘High Victorian gravitas’ was added by James Barnet in 1880. Sydney’s Art Gallery was finally being given its present form before and after 1900 to a design by the Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon.

A comparison of the two shows that Barnet’s museum building is splendidly large and ponderous, very “assertive” like many of his government buildings, such as the General Post Office in Martin Place and the Lands Department in Macquarie Place. Walter Liberty Vernon could also do “big”, as in Sydney’s Central Station, its 200-foot clock-tower, vast concourse and 27 platforms making one of the world’s grandest railway termini. His gallery building is completely different, smaller in scale in the Ionic Classical Order, sweetly proportioned and quite beautiful – I would say “perfect” in its own way. It is this beauty and perfection that many are keen to preserve against thoughtless additions. I notice that all the extensions up to the present time have respected the integrity and originality of Vernon’s design.

Ben Quilty says how much he loves the view over Woolloomooloo Bay from windows on the north-eastern corner of the Sydney gallery; he has made these views an argument in favour of SANAA’s design for the Sydney Modern extension. Vernon’s original design had no major external windows. Ben also extolls views from London’s major galleries – to my knowledge, there are only views from their entrances, from the Tate over the Thames and from the National Gallery across Trafalgar Square. In the extensions added to Sydney’s gallery by Andrew Andersons in the 1960s and later, windows were ingeniously placed so that the visitor enjoying works of art is suddenly delighted by a view of the harbour waters, naval dockyards, waterside pubs and local traffic, a landscape with movement. A visit to the gallery café brings expanded sensations of the same sort. Nothing wrong with this – in fact everything is right with this, confirming as it does Nature’s ingenuity plus human instinct put to great effect. However, I repeat my point from the last issue of Artist Profile, a point of principle: galleries are built with walls and spaces to display artworks, not with large windows so that corporate clients may gaze at the view.

I maintain that it is imperative that Sydney Modern seeks a new site for its project. Sydney Modern should not try to ruin the beauty and character of Sydney’s century-old gallery. Paul Keating has made the suggestion that any addition be placed on the south-eastern corner towards the Eastern Suburbs railway; here it will be least noticed from outside and preserve the beauty and integrity of the present entrance. Andrew Andersons has offered another solution: the Sydney Modern project should go completely off-site, say at Headland Park (Barangaroo) where there is already a vast underground chamber awaiting a tenant.

Either of these ideas is worth exploring and costing. Both will be found to be cheaper, more fitting and perhaps replete with greater possibilities than the present proposal.



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

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