Moving on to the Sydney Opera House – there's a new superstar in town

It has been called the most significant cultural addition to an Australian city for 50 years. So how does the cascade of airy new galleries measure up? We toured the A$344 million (£191 million) project.

Julian Worral

Tue 29 Nov 2022 09:30 AEDT


More than almost any other city, except perhaps Paris with its Eiffel Tower, Sydney is visualized through an architectural icon, the Opera House. Whether embodied as hats, glasses or logos, the various clouds, sails or copulating turtles of Jørn Utzon's masterpiece have provided limitless results for designers of merchandise and advertising campaigns.

The Sydney Modern Project, a major expansion and rejuvenation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has been called the city's most significant cultural project since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the existence of this building, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Japanese company Sanaa, almost is the antithesis of the Opera House. Half buried in the hillside; camouflaged on its inclined site with a light, transparent surface; Sanaa's characteristic clarity and smoothness afford little buy for impatient eyes to fix.

As the project opened to the public this week after an eight-year, A$344 million (£191 million) process, its elusive quality may disappoint some. For Michael Brand, gallery director and prime mover of the project, the fact that Sydney already had its icon meant there was no need for anything else. Instead, says Brand, "the parts of the building are united by its central space, which cannot be directly felt from the outside but must be experienced directly".

Nishizawa broadens his thinking: “There are two ways to create landmarks, which depend on the landscape. If you're on an open site, a landmark can appear with a positive shape and clear outline, like a rock. But if you're in a forest with all the trees, this won't work. You have to make an open place and let the sunlight in. But the light in the forest has no clear outline. This is a very different way of creating icons.”

On an open site, a landmark can have a positive shape and a clear outline, such as a rock. But in the forest, you have to make a clearing and let the sunlight in

Ryue Nishizawa

The light shone when I visited Sydney Modern. Past the monumental stone façade of the original gallery building, adorned with the immortal names of European art, the new building is announced with a glistening light canopy of corrugated glass. Under the early summer sun, this space provides little protection from the heat and glare. But moments later, under the onslaught of a sudden Sydney storm, the roof becomes a giant transparent umbrella, its waves funneling massive cataracts of rainwater into funnels beautifully positioned in the surrounding landscape.

The low-ceilinged entry vestibule of a welcoming canopy leads to a broad arrival hall, glazed all around and covered by a sloping lattice ceiling and supported here and there by slender white columns. Only here, from this interior plateau, does the building begin to reveal itself: a series of floors that descend and depart; white boned crystal lifting cage; resinous pink bubbles from the gallery shop; a slender curved roofline that floats through the glass ceiling to the outside; impressive limestone-topped exhibition hall boxes; and views out over the trees, harbor, and city beyond.

Although the building appears remarkably transparent for an institution tasked with collecting and displaying works of art, the main exhibition spaces are three enclosed "gallery pavilions" – large rectangular stone-lined boxes, with carefully spaced openings for access, display, and view. . Each of these volumes is set at a different level and orientation, in response to varying topography and views. Between them are loose interstitial spaces that form the connective tissue of the building and the main circulation zone. As explained by Luke Johnson of Australian design studio Architectus, who partnered with Sanaa to bring their vision to life, this "scatter card" strategy "allowed quite radical changes in the spatial scheme during the design process, while remaining consistent with the original intent."

Sitting invisible beneath this ensemble like buried treasure is "The Tank", a former World War II oil storage facility built to supply the nearby Garden Island naval base. This vast space, with its forest of dark columns, is accessed by a wide, slow spiral staircase, the sequence of which opens with a visceral punch. With a faint oily scent that truly smells of its former life, Tank provides the raw and wayward space for ambitious artistic imaginations to scour. As exemplified by Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern, such spaces in contemporary art museums have become an indispensable counterpoint to the plain white cubes favored by art galleries and museums.

Nishizawa contrasts Modern Sydney with the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan: the luminous, perfectly circular building that became the identity of the Sanaa art museum 18 years ago. “In Kanazawa, the idea is to have one space. But here, we try to create a lot of different places, inside and outside." In terms of popularizing Isiah Berlin's famous ancient saying by Greek poet Archilochus about the fox (who knows many things) and the porcupine (who knows one great thing), Modern Sydney turns out to be a fox.

“Silence is gold” as the saying goes, and Sanaa's buildings are typically a model of disdain and silence. There are, however, moments when architecture becomes positively chatty, showing off its tectonic movements. Here the exterior floor coverings slide effortlessly over the glass walls into the interior; there the layers of finish, service, and structure on the roof were simply peeled off; beneath the foot of the floor slopes in subtle communion with the outside landscape. The ingredients are also richer, warmer, and more tactile than one would expect given Sanaa's usual silky nature. Cream-colored concrete, rammed earth molded with local sand, galvanized steel with the happy imperfections of the coating process. The finely set course of light-colored Portuguese limestone is a notable exception to its emphasis on local materials. Here aesthetics pulls its trump card. In Nishizawa's words: “We work with beige. But it has to be a beautiful beige, not an ugly beige!”

We work with beige. But it should be beautiful beige, not ugly beige

As Brand suggests, it is space, not form, that brings together all this diversity of elements and materials – a dynamic multilevel space of intersecting passageways, escalators and elevators; a large arched retaining wall in rammed earth; tiered floors, white columns, square steel roofs, and massive artwork including enormous video screens. It's the building's beating heart and a beautiful new public space for culture in Sydney, but one that evokes the animated energy of a Japanese railway station intersection than any of the city's other great civic spaces - the elemental majesty of Utzon's urban scene over the Opera House forecourt – the hedgehog in the harbor .

A similar type of space is at the heart of another expansion by a Japanese architect to a venerable old museum in the western metropolis: New York's 2005 Yoshio Taniguchi Museum of Modern Art expansion, a four-floor space that gathers art, movement and views in all directions. But where Taniguchi's space is airy, fresh, voluminous and rectilinear, Sydney Modern's equivalent is loose and spacious, warm and mellow. Where MoMA placed a statue of Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk in the middle of its atrium with a resounding silence, Sydney Modern offers a video, in the form of a newly commissioned piece by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana.

This comparison can shed light on what the "modern" of Sydney Modern might require. Sydney already has a Museum of Contemporary Art. And although the Art Gallery of New South Wales commissions and collects contemporary art, as the state's largest public art museum, its powers are much broader. The modernity embodied in this building is not a country but a process – to change and adapt to wider cultural conditions. This is where the encounter between Sanaa's fluid spatial sensibility and the surrounding context – including the bones and roots of the natural landscape, the readiness of the oil tank infrastructure, and the period of indigenous occupation – is most exciting.

Sydney Modern is loose-fitting, relaxed, approachable. Elegant, clad in fine, light-coloured fabrics, but never overdressed; she barefoot with effortless grace over the infrastructure's concrete and weathered sandstone to the edge of the harbour. Yayoi Kusama's sculptural flower blooming in Cosmos is frangipani casually placed in her hair. In this quality, the new building conveys Sydney's most appealing spirit: the city's open nature, whatever the season or circumstance. Never mind that the harbor's edge is an extraordinary mix of rocky outcrops, traffic infrastructure, luxury housing, and warships. Life is beautiful. Why not add art too? 

Posting Komentar

Lebih baru Lebih lama

Formulir Kontak