NGV Triennial Review – Botanical pavilion

On my day off, I visited Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria to check out unique exhibits. Many new works explored the themes reflecting the current environmental, social and political climates in Australia and worldwide. Here are some of the most intriguing/thought-provoking works I appreciated… let’s see if I can write about one project per article.

Botanical pavilion by Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees

Project description on NGV website

World-renowned architect Kengo Kuma collaborates with local artist Geoff Nees to respond to the philosophical nature of Korean artist Lee Ufan’s painting Dialogue 2017. Through the creation of a new architectural installation, a gallery-scale circular pavilion acts as a sensorial walkway through which to approach and contemplate Ufan’s painting. Made in the Japanese tradition of wooden architecture, where pieces interlock, held by tension and gravity, the Botanical pavilion 2020 features a sublime tessellated interior lined with timber collected from trees felled or removed over several years at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Some of the trees used within the architecture pre-date European settlement, whilst others signal the development over decades of the Gardens marking their role as a site of scientific research and botanical classification. Prioritising natural phenomena over scientific order, the botanical species used are colour coded, rather than following any taxonomic order. This approach offers a statement by the designers against the reductive nature of science during the colonial era – a mindset at odds with many Indigenous cultural beliefs and knowledge systems. Botanical pavilion offers a site for contemplation, reminding us of our relationships to nature and one another. (Source: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/triennial-2020/#artists)

The pavilion responds to myriads of overlaying ideas around the sensory, phenomenological experience, immersing oneself among woods, of which origin reminds us of the Australian colonial history and the scientific lens that makes us perceive nature in a certain way.
The Japanese architectural philosophy Kuma brings here is characterised by the aggregation of the small timber elements that evoke a sense of cohesiveness when recognised as one entity. This pavilion has plywood panels as the elements interlaced together to form a curved tunnel of light and shadow.
The inside of the tunnel shows numerous timber pieces collected from trees in the Royal Botanic Garden in Melbourne. Whilst it was tricky to identify the species of individual trees based on a uniform shape, the contrast against the homogeneous finish of plywood articulated each timber panel’s characteristics. Specifically, the tone of colours, wood grains and scent (it was a shame that all the visitors had to wear masks; it would have been a different experience if visitors had a chance to better engage with the scent of wood closely).


It was evident that the lighting design focused on getting a range of nuanced light and shadow effects inside the pavilion, which was very effective at highlighting the transition of the shapes of gaps between plywood panels. However, it seemed as if the light and shadow were overpowering the unique timber lining, weakening the reference to the timber species.
It was slightly confusing to understand the pavilion’s focal point – whether it was the complexity of the computer-designed structure in relation to the Japanese timber architectural tectonics or the diversity of the timber species representing the natural phenomena, against the colonial understanding of the environment. The concept of nature vs science in the context of the Botanic Garden itself is so equivocal that it is difficult to define boundaries, let alone the reference to the forceful dominance of the scientific perspective on nature over the indigenous cultural beliefs appears too abrupt and lacking care.


The concept of indigenous beliefs on nature would involve the sensory and spiritual connection to the environment, including trees. It could have been an approach for shaping the pavilion’s phenomenological experience, focusing on what those trees meant to the people of the first nation. It is unclear whether rectangular pieces of timber were the best representation against the idea of ‘scientific’ classification (it is also uncertain why those pieces of wood were ‘colour-coded’ – did they need to be colour-coded?).

Having further questions and contemplation over these concepts may have been the whole point of exhibiting this pavilion, so it certainly has achieved its purpose for my visit. The pavilion design itself poses to the viewers the challenge of balancing various ideas involving historical, cultural and political contexts, which this pavilion tackled squarely.

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