Timely or timeless? Respectful or iconoclastic? What makes a landmark contemporary gallery? As the cornerstone of the $1.7 billion Melbourne Arts Precinct redevelopment, The National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary (NGVC) represents a once-in-several-generations opportunity to produce a new architectural landmark. While the triangular site abutting Southbank Boulevard is not exactly Bennelong Point, many architects hoped the competition might generate a piece of architecture as adventurous as the Sydney Opera House.
Perhaps inevitably, a competition to design such a rare public project – at more than 30,000 square metres, it will be the largest contemporary gallery in Australia -generated a degree of rancour. The process was “too risk-averse and not open enough to young practices,” according to Professor Donald Bates, chair of architectural design at Melbourne University’s School of Design and Federation Square’s co-designer. “[It] was more interested in a false sense of security with a delivery process than a design-led process.”
The decision to restrict entry exclusively to Australian architecture teams was seen by some as a sign of maturity. Others argued that only by including international firms could we truly claim to have obtained the best building.
In March, when it was announced that a Sydney-based firm, Angelo Candalepas and Associates, had won the competition, some critics described their design as too conservative for a contemporary gallery. They also argued that the winning design was too mindful of respecting Roy Grounds’ neighbouring buildings, NGV International and Arts Centre Melbourne.
It represents an “older and conservative idea of architecture,” Peter Raisbeck, associate professor in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, told the ABC.
Artist, architect, and senior lecturer at RMIT Architecture & Urban Design, Dr Jan van Schaik, agrees: “It’s a handsome proposal but given it will house the contemporary art component of the largest gallery in Australia, it seems odd there’s nothing ‘contemporary’ about the architecture.”
Candalepas professes to be blissfully unaware of these agonistes and their objections.
An intense, quietly spoken “optimist”, the architect, who recently set up the project’s principal design studio in Melbourne – a competition stipulation – confesses to being an unashamed “classicist”. His ambitions for the building and its influences embrace ancient Greek mythology, astronomy and a love of platonic geometries, to name a few.
As to apparent homages to Grounds’ arches and zigzag clerestory windows, Candalepas counters: “I love looking at history and I have no problem with that. I don’t believe in being out of context altogether. It’s unviable to be disrespectful to Grounds. He’s a great architect of our nation and one should take that position if we care about the culture of our profession.”
Before the independent international jury’s unanimous decision to award Candalepas’ team the commission, a tight veil of secrecy clung to the competition process. Architects were discouraged from divulging teams and schemes outside their group, and threatened with disqualification if found speaking with the press.
Eight months after Candalepas was crowned, a new exhibition offers an opportunity to view alternative visions for the site; along with the winning design, the exhibition reveals what seven other teams that made it to the final two stages of the competition had in mind. The public can now decide for themselves whether the judges made the right choice.
The exhibition, says NGV senior curator of design Ewan McEoin, “acknowledges the time, energy, creativity that was invested in the process”. Video presentations, renders, and a variety of drawing styles are all in evidence. A 1:250 scale model of the winning entry is also on display.
All the projects offer a counterpoint to Grounds’ fortress-like structure and are comparatively open. Strategies range from Denton Corker Marshall and Kerstin Thompson Architects’ lattice facade alluding to the Arts Centre Spire to Bates Smart’s sinuous stacks with split seams. Candalepas’ scheme, too, is more welcoming. While it shares Grounds’ monumentality, its glass corner rooms and rows of colonnaded verandahs illuminate the edifice and allow people to traverse the building. A giant entrance archway pays homage to Grounds’ iconic water wall; like ripples in a pond, concentric circles draw visitors into the building.
Several of the finalists already have a presence in the arts precinct. ARM produced the early precinct masterplan and also designed the adjacent buildings hosting the MTC and Melbourne Recital Centre. John Wardle is responsible for the nearby Conservatory of Music and KTA redeveloped the VCA’s studios.
True to iconoclastic form, ARM’s team (Melbourne Cultural Collective) offered the most radical proposition: an amorphous shape clad in reflective material. It suggests an Anish Kapoor sculpture crossed with a wrapping in the style of Christo and Jeanne Claude. As part of the collective’s pitch, ARM’s Ian McDougall said the NGVC project demanded a new typology. “Where the surrounding buildings refer to European typologies of fort, palazzo, steeple and medieval square, the NGVC is about a new type – ‘looser, softer and contemporary, not historic’.”
The jury members, which included NGV director Tony Ellwood and Victorian government architect Jill Garner, were evidently unconvinced. The team failed to make the second round’s final four. Interestingly, the Grimshaw team (Openweave) advanced to the second stage with a similar form, albeit one draped in a more dynamic, semi-transparent stainless steel veil.
Just as potentially dazzling as the building’s exterior form, architects were required to develop a generous interior civic space – “a really uplifting moment, architecturally and spatially,” according to McEoin – comparable to Grounds’ Great Hall, with its spectacular Leonard French stained glass mosaic ceiling.
Responses ranged from ARM’s meandering cave to Field’s vaulted ceilings. The winning scheme incorporates what Candalepas calls an Omphalos. Based on the Delphic idea of a stone indicating the centre of the world, the NGVC’s Omphalos doubles as beacon and light well through the centre of the building, with a massive sphere atrium in the entry.
“In all of human experience, art forms the beacon that distinguishes cultures and develops civilisations,” Candalepas says. With esoteric references to geometry, classical antiquity and astronomy, the Omphalos resembles a scientific instrument. Extending to the roof and expanding out like a satellite dish, it connects to the heavens.
“I don’t think I know anybody that isn’t intrigued a little about looking up and not knowing what exists there,” Candalepas says. “And that creates both fear and optimism. Those two things are great for architecture. Melbourne, for me, is a place of incredible interiors, some of the best in the world. The State Library is incredible. And I want to achieve the status of an incredible interior in Melbourne.”
On a practical level the Omphalos also helps orient the public as they explore the galleries and acts as a natural air-conditioner, drawing hot air from the building. The NGVC’s almost two-metre thick walls will provide the thermal mass.
Candalepas, who is known for muscular elegant concrete buildings (his Punchbowl mosque won the 2018 Australian Institute of Architects’ national award for public architecture), says he likes “the plasticity of concrete”. While concrete alarms environmentalists, advanced production techniques mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, Candalepas reassures. He is currently exploring the possibilities of Grampian sandstone as well.
Another central consideration for the NGV was the inclusion of a generous roof terrace, which it rightly considered another important civic space overlooking the city. Most proposals configured a mixture of gardens and food and beverage spaces.
As to the gallery spaces themselves, McEoin describes the task as a “massive spatial puzzle”. Small, medium and large exhibition spaces were required. “We didn’t actually say where they needed to be, just how big they were. So you’ll see multiple arrangements of galleries in different configurations. The inherent challenge was designing non-triangular spaces on a triangular site topping out at 60 metres.”
Jury chair Corbett Lyon praised Candalepas for his “exceptional” proposal, “demonstrating clarity of vision and high levels of innovation in its planning and design”.
Candalepas’ inspiration is surprising. “I love simplicity,” he says. “A simple plan is understood by almost everyone. And in public buildings it’s required. What is important in the building is its capacity to order itself, to have a great plan that, as a ruin, would look incredibly good and would be worthy. That’s how you mark a good building. You imagine it as a ruin. People can imagine that intelligent people lived in this time because there was geometry, there was a language that they understand that has eternal values. I suppose this is what I mean by timeless.”
As the competition dust settles, Candalepas’ team will continue to refine its winning entry ahead of its projected 2028 opening. Meanwhile, exhibition visitors have the opportunity to ruminate on the ones that got away – before they too pass into history.
The Fox: NGV Contemporary Design Competition Exhibition, NGV Australia, Federation Square, December 6 – February 5.
The Melbourne Cultural Collective
Resembling a Christo-Jeanne Claude sculpture, The Melbourne Cultural Collective’s startling amorphous shape has chameleon qualities. It cannily becomes one with its context by reflecting everything in its high-tech mirrored surface, much like Anish Kapoor’s popular Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago. Inside its topographical cave, interiors are reminiscent of ARM’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Bates Smart and Smart Design
Clad in iridescent glazed ceramic tiles, these lapidary layers are sliced to draw light through the building skin. Its interiors incorporate mezzanines to offer new vantage points on art and include public viewing to back-of-house areas such as conservation. Taking cues from Grounds’ famous water wall, the proposal incorporates a water feature flowing along the promenade and cascading down its grand stair to Southbank Boulevard.
John Wardle Architects
From its volcanic basalt entrance to a caldera-like meeting space on the roof, this building is framed by geological time. That earthiness is evident in its highly crafted scalloped facade system and an arrival space that appears as if it’s carved out of the one ceramic material. A promenade gallery across the centre acknowledges Indigenous culture. Alongside basalt building materials, further homages to Grounds’ NGV International include a water wall entrance and arches cut from a flared skirt.
JCB Stutchbury Clare
A counterpoint to Grounds’ perfect platonic solids, this team’s amorphous tapered object is intentionally imperfect, frayed and ephemeral. Porosity encourages democracy, they say. It, too, references geological layers into the building and telling stories of place and perpetually connecting to landscape and light.
Denton Corker Marshall and Kerstin Thompson Architects
A giant cantilevered “room” projects art into the public realm, blurring inside and out. “A playful counter to the mass and closure of NGV International,” as Kerstin Thompson calls it. The team sees the building as a gateway, bridge or threshold between the established arts institutions on St Kilda Road and the emerging arts hub buildings to the south. Linking the two precinct zones is an open grid facade that plays off Grounds’ Arts Centre spire and MTC’s facade cubes across the road.
A textured “cloak” made from thousands of faceted ceramic disks wraps the form with precise incisions in the skin that reveal breakout spaces and a garden. Light is allowed through the facade, from dappling at the bottom to transparent at the top. The largest open slice is the education terrace, with a seating ramp/stoop from which to view the garden and city. Environmentally it’s designed to produce more energy than it consumes.
Eschewing monumentality, this scheme keeps nature ever-present. An operable stainless steel curtain shrouding the building shimmers in the wind, allowing light to reveal times of the day and landscape to enter its ground-level edges. Together with a dramatic cylindrical glass entrance gallery, its themes of openness and transparency are designed to welcome the public.
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