In 1997, a young Tokyo architectural practice was awarded first place in a competition for the extension of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The winning design, by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), enclosed the museum in a glowing glass box, with an interior composed of floors of differing height, linked by sweeping staircases. With its disarming combination of minimalism and relaxed planning, this was an example of what would become SANAA’s globally recognised style. But the project was cancelled after archaeological investigations revealed remnants of Australia’s oldest naval docks, dating from 1797, beneath the harbourside site. A disillusioned Sejima and Nishizawa wrenched their focus from Sydney and later refused the museum’s offer to participate in a second, invitation-only competition.
Of all the world’s cities, Sydney could claim the most welcoming setting, combining a hospitable climate with a spectacular landscape. It is also a place where architectural ambitions go to die. From the white-anting of Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon, who quit the project before completion and vowed never to return, to the feeding-frenzy of Barangaroo, with its competition-winning masterplan mangled at the behest of politicians, developers and casino operators, the city seems to be forever lurching from tragedy to farce. The disenfranchisement of Sejima and Nishizawa, who were awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2010, was to be just another instance in a long list of lost opportunities.
And then, quite unexpectedly, it wasn’t. In 2014, SANAA was enticed back to Sydney with an invitation to enter a limited competition for the extension of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The following year, it was declared the winner. Finally, in December 2022, SANAA’s first Sydney building was unveiled to the public.
The AGNSW’s neoclassical sandstone home was designed in the late 19th century by government architect Walter Liberty Vernon and enlarged in successive stages over the following century. By the turn of the millennium, the 9000-square-metre gallery found itself dwarfed by Brisbane’s QAGOMA and Melbourne’s NGV, both of which had expanded into new buildings. In 2012, Sydney architects Johnson Pilton Walker produced a masterplan that doubled the AGNSW’s footprint. The following year, AGNSW’s newly appointed director, Michael Brand, announced plans for “Sydney Modern”.
The name is, of course, a riff on London’s Tate Modern, which was constructed in an outmoded power station to serve as a satellite of the nearby Tate Britain. This standalone approach allowed the Tate to expand its curatorial remit beyond its historic collections and galleries. Leaving the power station’s massive turbine hall free as a space for giant, temporal installations, for movement, seeing and being seen, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron heralded a new age of art as lived experience, rather than rarefied repository.
Sydney Modern is guided by a similar ambition. But rather than expanding to a second site (such as the empty White Bay Power Station in Rozelle), the AGNSW opted to construct a directly adjoining extension. In SANAA’s winning scheme, which hews close to the 2012 masterplan, the original building and the new wing are accessed via a central pavilion that consolidates ticketing, amenities, eateries, gift shop and learning spaces, with a north–south service spine concealed below ground.
While there were logistical advantages to co-locating the old and new galleries (such as efficient staffing and security), the site chosen for the expansion was extremely challenging. Sydney Modern would have to form a respectful relationship with the symmetrical and monolithic façade of the original Vernon building, maintain view lines across the harbour, span the shallow land-bridge over an 11-lane highway, step down a 19-metre embankment to Woolloomooloo, and incorporate a subterranean, decommissioned World War Two fuel tank as a gallery space. This absolute litany of constraints threatened to thwart any attempt at beauty, practicality and coherence.
SANAA’s design nimbly negotiated these constraints. A cluster of rectilinear pavilions straddles the land-bridge, cascades down the embankment and perches atop the fuel tank. These pavilions create slippages and apertures for forecourts, decks, pathways, gardens and voids. Rotated this way and that, they make a pleasingly arbitrary ensemble, like fallen leaves on a forest floor.
When the Sydney Modern plans were released, however, they attracted prominent naysayers, including architect Andrew Andersons, who designed earlier AGNSW extensions, and former prime minister Paul Keating, who seems to envision himself as the arbiter of the city’s built environment. In a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed, Keating lampooned SANAA’s design as “a large entertainment and special events complex masquerading as an art gallery”. Both Keating and Andersons critiqued the logic, location, purpose and size of the extension, and argued that it should remain separate from the old, in order to avoid relegating the Vernon building’s original entrance to “ceremonial” status.
By 2017, Sydney Modern’s original projected budget had been reduced from $450 million to $344 million, and the project team had expanded. Australian firm Architectus, best known for its design of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, was enlisted as executive architect. Seattle-based Kathryn Gustafson, who served as a competition juror, was hired to deliver the building’s landscape design in collaboration with Australian landscape architects McGregor Coxall. Specialist Sydney heritage architect Tonkin Zulaikha Greer was to oversee the Vernon building renovations.
Following discussions with the AGNSW, Keating withdrew his opposition. Christopher Allen, art critic for The Australian, credits Keating with altering the project’s direction, saying it was “thanks to his intervention that the project was reduced in scale, separated from the main building and made somewhat less invasive of the surrounding parkland”. According to Luke Johnson from Architectus, SANAA’s “scattered cards” arrangement for the pavilions “allowed for quite radical changes in the spatial scheme during the design process, while remaining utterly consistent with the original intent”. In updated drawings that accompanied the Sydney Modern development application, the pavilions had contracted from long rectangles to more compact squares, and, more significantly, were no longer connected to the Vernon building.
So the new wing is neither autonomous nor fully integrated. The old and new buildings are neighbours, accessed from the same road but without a direct link. While a key criticism of the competition scheme was that a centralised lobby would bypass the traditional front door, visitors can now bypass the Vernon building entirely. Arriving from the west, you are confronted by two opposed and contrasting entrances: one closed and imposing, the other open and inviting. Flanked by new reflection pools, the entry to the Vernon building remains a compressed and awkward space. Steep steps ascend to a slender portico squeezed between stout sandstone columns, behind which a narrow doorway opens onto a blind wall. In contrast, entry to the new building, 80 metres away, is via a gently inclined plaza that is occupied by a small cafe and information kiosk, scattered seating and Francis Upritchard’s towering blue-bronze “guardian” figures. Held aloft on widely spaced steel posts, an undulating glass canopy casts stripy shadows on the sand-coloured floor.
The sloped ground continues, through a curved and attenuated glass airlock, into an open foyer. To the right is the Yiribana Gallery, dedicated to AGNSW’s Indigenous art collection. Formerly relegated to the lowest level of the old building, First Nations artists now have prime position, providing an orientation point for gallery visitors. With large windows looking out to the harbour and back to Vernon’s sandstone edifice, the Yiribana Gallery particularly celebrates work that thrives in daylight, such as sculptural hanging pieces by Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Julie Gough and Yhonnie Scarce.
At the far end of the foyer, the floor falls away to reveal a series of steep terraces. This is the surprisingly cavernous space created by the composite pavilions. The eye searches for a focal point that will not resolve. Escalators burrow down past rammed-earth retaining walls, while hovering limestone-tiled boxes slide through the glass line. There are floor planes intersecting at oblique angles, windows out to views of wharfs and gunboats, and an enormous screen displaying a video work by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, set to a pulsating soundtrack. In a space this complex, anything seems possible. At the end of one gallery, secreted past a sequence of twists and turns, a white tower block packed with bizarre, multicoloured detritus rises within a vertical shaft: Samara Golden’s 2022 installation, Guts, uses mirrors to dissolve walls and floor, creating an impossibly vast interior.
At the lowest level, a corkscrew staircase drops into the murky depths of the reclaimed fuel tank. Like an ancient cistern or drowned forest, the room’s limits are obscured by a field of concrete columns, its walls and ceiling patinated with oil. The inaugural commission to be displayed in the tank, Adrián Villar Rojas’ The End of Imagination, makes impressive use of this setting. Crisscrossing searchlights alight on gnarly steel armatures containing what appear to be alien creatures made of fossilised tree roots, a motorbike chassis, lengths of chain, steel construction studs, and tangles of spark plugs and electrical cables. As in a horror movie, you only see snatched glimpses before the lights jump again.
Since its opening, critics have reacted to Sydney Modern with considerable scepticism. Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald raised doubts about its exhibition capacity, noting shortcomings in gallery space and wall surface area. He pointed out that the spaces are composed around specially commissioned works – including by the artists mentioned above – rather than the AGNSW’s collection, and questioned whether this approach will have staying power.
When exploring the building, one cannot help but notice a proliferation of generously proportioned in-between spaces, both internal and external, that work as a counterpoint to just four conventional and densely hung exhibition areas. The abundance of interstitial space prioritises movement and experience over occupiable floor space or wall area, and in this sense it’s a deeply civic gesture, though one likely to fall short of the blockbuster metrics expected from Melbourne’s upcoming NGV Contemporary. While some feel that this is a potentially fatal disadvantage, it has been noted that the AGNSW’s collection numbers about 35,000 pieces, far smaller than the NGV’s 68,000. Sydney Modern was never going to compete as a collection, and so plays to its strength as a people place, offering an episodic rather than encyclopaedic experience of art.
The success of Tate Modern’s turbine hall suggests that today’s art is about action, not artefacts. We don’t consume cultural knowledge as we once did, but instead yearn to be somewhere meaningful at a particular place and time, to make sense of the moment. Sydney Modern is a spectacular arena for Sydney’s highest art form: people-watching. It’s the sort of place where, mid morning on a Monday, you might encounter a young woman with a blonde bob descending the escalator, a large reptile sitting motionless within her transparent backpack (yes, this really happened).
As a Sydney-based architectural writer and designer, I bring my own baggage and concerns. I’ve followed SANAA’s work closely over the years. In projects such as Lausanne’s Rolex Learning Center and Milan’s Bocconi University campus, SANAA makes construction appear effortless, seamless and immaterial. I vividly recall visiting SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, which is located in the middle of a public park and surrounded by a wall of frameless, curved glass so thin and transparent that it feels like inside and out are separated by a mere force field. The effect is magical. Whatever activity happens in the park infiltrates the interior, and vice versa. Having already experienced such disappointment in Sydney, would Sejima and Nishizawa find themselves stymied by the crude realities of Australian building standards, their sublime details overwhelmed by glass decals and tactile indicators, set-downs and silicone joints?
Happily, at Sydney Modern we learn that SANAA’s work does not rely solely on execution and artisanship. There are decals, indicators and vents galore, along with ad-hoc junctions between differing materials, steel roof planes and glass walls. It’s such a relief to discover that the building is not perfect, and yet feels great. Sydney isn’t perfect either. It gets overrun by cockroaches in summer, overflows with rain, and its fig trees burst up through footpaths however they please. The earthy tones of Sydney Modern meld together like shades of Sydney sandstone. Interior spaces refract the harbour light: bright and glary on a sunny day, gorgeously subdued under cloud cover.
More dubious than any minor imperfections are its in-built environmental strategies. Sydney Modern might source its entire energy needs from renewable sources, but the entry pavilion, in particular, is notably short of sun protection. Thin curtains hang within the glass walls, providing a decorative domestic quality but failing to mitigate the sun’s heat. There’s a mass of solar panels on the roof, and air-conditioning condenser units are concealed within Yiribana Gallery’s rooftop garden. In this regard, Sydney Modern is insufficiently future-focused. A truly sustainable building would shade itself, be less reliant on air-con, and produce more energy than it consumes.
But when critics point to the building’s complicated layout, or its many lifts and escalators, I wonder what other, more conventional design they are imagining that could somehow relate to a historic edifice, traverse the top of an expressway, amble down a steep hillside and connect into a disused fuel tank, while allowing all-hours pedestrian pathways from Woolloomooloo to run through its spaces.
Twenty-five years after the early MCA disappointment, having expended unthinkable hours perfecting an approach that gives architecture the freshness and simplicity of a child’s drawing, a mature SANAA has returned to deploy its full talents at Sydney Modern. Visitors don’t experience the site’s complications, but are instead free to enjoy the generosity of the meandering building and its terraced gardens. There is an easy balance of inside-to-outside areas that relieves museum fatigue. The gallery’s external spaces are porous, interconnected and inviting, teeming with native grasses, ferns and banksias. Glass lines and fences are set back to dissolve hard boundaries and allow space for movement. The fences are a work of art in themselves, beautifully minimal structures with polished rectangular posts, cylindrical rails and an infill of steel mesh. At night and after hours, the interiors recede while the landscape remains accessible.
According to Michael Brand, consultation is ongoing to identify Indigenous names for both gallery buildings and to move away from the “Sydney Modern” moniker. Just as the naming remains incomplete, so does the greater project. Between the new and old buildings, a 3000-square-metre outdoor gathering space is still under construction. This is the site of bial gwiyuno (the fire is not yet lighted) by Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, which will incorporate endemic grasses controlled by cultural burning, and when completed later this year will be the largest commission – in terms of both budget and size – by a First Nations artist in Australia.
It will be important to see how this final piece is resolved. Will it help to connect and integrate the two wings? Will it help to convince critics that the new extension, if not an ideal repository for collections, is a successful stage-set for meaningful encounters with art? If cultural gatherings and burnings are indeed held within this deeply symbolic space, could this signify a transformative point in Sydney’s history? At this point, all of these possibilities are still open, which is a credit to the generosity and openness of the collective architectural vision.
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