Finally opening its doors to the public following a lengthy eight-year journey, the Sydney Modern Project—a venture to transform and extend the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney—had its official inauguration on December 3, 2022. Featuring a show-stopping contemporary structure, designed as a new centrepiece for the development by SANAA, headed by Japanese architects—Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa — the project has created a new art and culture campus on a pristine site overlooking Sydney Harbour. As one of the largest endeavours of cultural architecture in Australia, since the completion of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House over 50 years ago, the project serves to revitalise and expand the existing home of the art gallery: a neoclassical-style building designed by British architect Walter Vernon, completed back in 1909. Currently hosting artworks by a cohort of over 900 famed contemporary artists with a strong inclination towards promoting indigenous art, the gallery’s new arm lies adjacent to the old wing, taking form as a series of terraced pavilions which cascade down towards the waterfront. A nine-day series of celebrations, performances, exhibitions, and public art commissions accompanied the opening, featuring the work of—Yayoi Kusama, Adrián Villar Rojas, Lee Mingwei, Francis Upritchard, and Jonathan Jones.
Occupying a plot in The Domain, a dedicated parkland spanning 34 hectares along the eastern edge of Sydney’s central business district, the new wing of the gallery has been dubbed the ‘North Building’, with the older structure in its vicinity now termed the ‘South Building’. Adjacent to The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, the new structure is situated on a region with steeply inclined topography, flowing down into an overpass dubbed as ‘land bridge’, which reconnected the Botanic Garden and art gallery, after the construction of a highway through The Domain had separated the two, back in 1958. A 20-metre drop in elevation occurs between the main entrance to the North Building along its adjoining road, and the site’s lowest point on the edge of the harbour. At this point, the location also featured a pair of decommissioned naval fuel tanks dating as far back as the Second World War.
In turn, SANAA’s dynamic design integrates these disparate elements, which collectively narrate the history of the site and its role in Sydney’s modernisation, by placing part of the new North Building atop the land bridge, and incorporating the tanks as gallery spaces. Furthermore, the land bridge, which facilitates pedestrian movement from Woolloomooloo to the city centre, has been refashioned into an art garden and public space, connecting the art gallery campus and the nearby Botanic Garden through a vibrant exercise in landscape design. Touted as a public installation by Australian artist Jonathan Jones—whose work and heritage are rooted in the traditions of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples—the garden atop the land bridge is titled bial gwiyuno (the fire is not yet lighted), and comprises indigenous plant species injecting a biophilic design flourish to the elevated walkway, accessible via a public staircase.
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, principals at SANAA, comment on the project in a press release, noting, “Working closely with the Art Gallery of New South Wales team, we aimed to design an art museum building that is harmonious with its surroundings, one that breathes with the city, the park, and the harbour. We hope it will be a special place where visitors feel connected to art regardless of where they are in this beautiful setting.” Holistically reflecting the Japanese architecture firm’s penchant for structures that possess exceptional lightness, transparency, and a subdued minimalism, exerting a gentle presence on their context, the North Building’s façade design is composed of slim volumes clad in glass and limestone that interlock in skewed steps, leading down towards the land bridge. This layout is said to have been devised as an adaptation to the rocky harbourside, articulated as a conscious exercise in contextual design, which carefully adheres to the surrounding terrain. The materiality of the structures, or lack thereof, serves to further limit any sort of visual imposition upon the project’s location in Gadigal Country, which is also the original home of the Australian indigenous group, of the same name.
McGregor Coxall, the landscape architects for the project, describe their contribution in a statement, reflecting on how “the new gallery is part of the garden, just as the garden is a part of the gallery.” Indeed, this is immediately evident in the shifting orientations of the structure’s massing, where gallery and landscape seamlessly flow into each other and meld into one. The building’s rooflines, which vary between green spaces that are flushed into the pavilions, and slender canopies which project over them, have been configured around existing trees. Moreover, they have also been designed with the aim of preserving the site’s original topography and sight lines towards the bay. Gardens enclosing the new pavilions are said to be inspired by the rocky geological makeup of Gadigal Country. McGregor Coxall’s involvement in the project even encompassed the restoration of the encircling ecosystem, through measures such as the specification of over 50,000 plant species including 150 new trees, which together, serve to rehabilitate the region’s ecological framework.
At the street level on Art Gallery Road, the new building is linked to the original Art Gallery of New South Wales through a civic plaza shaded by a transparent canopy of corrugated glass, whose undulating surfaces are propped up on a grid of slim cylindrical columns. In its own way, the columns present a contemporary reflection on the classical and neoclassical architectural traditions, devoid of ornament yet possessing a near-identical function and profile. Next to it, the Entrance Pavilion—a simple glass volume topped by solar panels on the North Building’s uppermost level—acts as a shared space for the community where multiple functions can be hosted alongside a range of public activities.
Within its bounds, visitors will gain access to the central atrium, also designed as a transparent volume wrapped in glass, which rises to 11 metres at its highest point. Echoing the structural design vocabulary of the plaza, the atrium also features a grid of lean columns, which subtly outline programmatic transitions and frame the boundaries of the terraced pavilions as they jut into the central core. The atrium’s spatiality expands and contracts along its rise through the interjection of these volumes, infusing a necessary air of drama to the otherwise austere interior design.
The flow of exhibition spaces through the building commences with the Yiribana gallery, exhibiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the entrance level, visually linked to the plaza and new building through a glass wall. Following this, visitors will chance upon the first of a sequence of outdoor terraces, which spill into one another, cumulatively accounting for the green roofs which have been seeded with Australian wildflowers. These terraces—three of which are directly accessible from the gallery’s interior—make the North Building appear a part of the parkland that defines its surroundings, offering an external route through the building with amphitheatre-style steps, accompanying staircase designs, and seating spaces along its trajectory. In effect, SANAA’s additions have nearly doubled the available gallery space and exhibition areas, providing a much-needed boost to the museum’s functionality.
Charting a leisurely course through the site, down towards the harbour, circulation routes through the building adopt a complex three-dimensionality in their courses, concealed under the design’s unparalleled clarity. Art research and education spaces, multipurpose zones, retail areas, food and beverage stands, and visitor amenities, are all ordered along these paths, making the sheer act of moving through the building a multifaceted experience. Last but not least is the Tank, a new space designed to display commissions and art installations in the abandoned oil tanks beneath the site on the structure’s lowest floor. Accessed by means of a white spiral staircase, the space exhibits a rugged, warehouse-style ambience that drastically diverges from the remainder of SANAA’s design.
SANAA’s scheme also provided for the inclusion of 2500 square metres of rammed earth walls and other sustainable design measures such as the exclusive use of energy from renewable sources, as well as the on site generation of 10 per cent of all energy needs through the Entrance Pavilion’s solar array. Coupled with the green roofs and rainwater run off and harvesting systems implemented for effective water management, the North Building of the Sydney Modern Project has earned a 6-Star Green Star design rating under the flagship evaluation system of the Green Building Council of Australia. Shepherded by the efforts of Architectus, whose team headed the urban planning segment of the project, the structure is now the first public art space in the country to achieve such high standards for environmental design, and is said to have set new precedents for sustainable architecture in the realm of museum design. Considerations for future expansions have also been factored into the project, as per the architects, ensuring that the facility is able to keep up with the ever-evolving needs of a contemporary art museum in the current scenario.
Granting a new identity to a 151-year-old institution, the Sydney Modern Project is no less than a landmark amid the vista of Sydney Harbour, its distinctive appearance cementing the building’s purpose as the heart of a new cultural destination in Australia’s most populous city. To conclude, Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales relays about the project’s final objectives in an official statement: “It is through a series of creative transformations—such as the centrality of the indigenous Australian voice indoors and outdoors, SANAA’s elegantly restrained but technically complex design for our new building, site specific commissions from some of the leading artists of our time, and new cultural juxtapositions in the display of art in both buildings—that we can now come together to better connect the voices of artists past and present with our audiences.”
Name: The Sydney Modern Project
Location: Sydney, Australia
Year of Completion: 2022
Art Gallery Space (Post Expansion): 40,000 sqm (new and original building)
Exhibition Space (Post Expansion): 16,000 sqm (new and original building)
Architect: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA
Executive Architect: Architectus
Builder: Richard Crookes Constructions
Delivery Authority: Infrastructure NSW
Structural Engineer: Arup
Landscape Architect: McGregor Coxall and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN)
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