NGV Contemporary Competition – Thoughts on Proposed Designs

The Fox: NGV Contemporary design competition exhibition held at NGV Australia offers an insight into how architects responded to the very tight design brief through various means of expression. It is also a rare opportunity to learn how architects described and pitched their designs and their attitudes towards what a contemporary art gallery is about. 

Leaving any sentiment regarding competition outcomes aside, I thought about a couple of intriguing differences between finalists through the lens of orthogonal drawings and written descriptions.

What plans tell about the space: different degrees of spatial constraints on exhibition curators

Apart from the apparent differences in the aesthetic expressions, the main characteristic of the winning design was the high degree of geometric restraint imposed holistically on the spatial arrangement of the gallery, including the exhibition spaces. As the winning architects described, “there is no flexibility unless there is an internal order to things”, their general approach was to create a variety of spatial configurations (different ways exhibitions can share floor area) around three linear partitions that cover structural elements.

In this sense, flexibility is more or less limited to access points, connection/ thresholds between defined exhibition spaces, and subdivision around unmovable internal walls. The linear interior walls inherently create circulation routes, in the directions the external walls are running, around the central Omphalos and between two sides of the internal walls.

On the other hand, other finalists’ designs proposed essentially open-ended exhibition spaces. They generally provided variations of spatial openness on different levels, leaving almost total flexibility of exhibition spaces to curators.

While there is no black-and-white answer, the question is, what are the consequences of how ‘exhibition spaces’ are designed for the curation of exhibitions, both functionally and conceptually? 

(Here, I’m calling temporary exhibition spaces that require physical spatial adaptability ‘exhibition spaces’ – I’m not talking about galleries designed for specific artworks like Chichu Museum, where the building design directly addresses the spatial experience for permanently displayed artworks)

As I’m not a curator of contemporary art exhibitions, I can only deduce from an architectural point of view. The difference in conceptual attitudes between the winning design and finalists may have been the extent to which the building actively imposes control and affects the nature of exhibitions. Of course, how the narratives of artworks are told through the eyes of curators also shapes exhibitions and visitor experience. However, the winning design has a powerful, almost forceful spatial influence on what exhibition spaces could become. After all, its effectiveness is something we can’t evaluate until the NGV Contemporary is open.

Written communication – how architects describe design proposals 

It was a rare occasion where we could have a read of what architects pitched to the jury in the competition. The reports summarising architects’ responses to required discussion topics highlighted various ways to describe design proposals and the varied intents of persuasion.

It would be endless to pick up every detail, so here are a few types of expressions that I noticed: poetic/ philosophical, responsive/logical, and pragmatic.

Poetic and philosophical phrases help picture the atmosphere of the design itself and the thinking process (often employed to describe conceptual drive). Responsive and logical information explains what the design is responding to and the effectiveness of the response. Lastly, pragmatic content in relatively straightforward, plain language demonstrates how the design meets specific functional expectations.

After studying at architecture school, I found the best to have a good balance between them:

  • A conceptual approach;
  • Understanding of the context and how the design responds to it (supported by architectural devices and materiality);
  • The depiction of the effect of the design (spatial experience)

But I understand it’s not easy to apply the same approach when the written information has to serve multiple purposes to the jury, who may have different interests.

Not to criticise the design outcome itself, but the written component of the winning proposal felt like I was too stupid to understand it. A series of generalised statements in highly poetic language made it difficult for me to understand what the design responds to and that it is not necessarily form driven. Although there is no right or wrong way to describe the design, and it is only my personal view, it was challenging not to feel that architectural vision was driving the design, not the context or how the design responds to the place.

Here are some excerpts from reports by competitors – under the heading of ‘a landmark within a precinct’

This is a building in the round, a vertical gallery in counterpoint to the NGV International’s horizontal organisation. Its overall scale and form will be understood in relation to its position within the Arts Precinct but also against a backdrop of high-rise city buildings.

A unique material presence is needed for the NGV Contemporary. Its skin, a customised ceramic system, provides a field of natural colour, of varying textural depth, that catches the light on glazed surfaces. A glass slice midway through the ceramic volume of the gallery prises open its interior world, and releases a beacon of light into the evening sky.

The substance of the NGV Contemporary’s facade is a ceramic module that is neither brick nor tile but accords with the manufacturing processes of brickmaking. That said, the outcome is far from a conventional brick. The formed clay module is 100mm high and 600mm in length. The plan profile is scalloped to create patterning and textural effects that work at both the scale of the hand and the scale of the city.

The facade relies on both the physical craft of making the ceramic module, ad the digital craft of testing its application in the virtual realm of our design modules. Patterning, colour fields and textures are all explored, at the intersection of old and new crafts. Of course, this process would continue and expand with the involvement of the client group beyond the design competition phase. Our work for far is only the start.

As a new civic landmark, a welcoming countenance is combined with the necessary gravitas of a major cultural institution. These essential characteristics emerge from the NGC Contemporary’s arrangement of program, carved forms and unique material qualities.

(by John Wardle Architects)

[Subheading:] Motif and the tempo of decoration
The form of decoration on buildings gives us a hope that is beyond the perfunctory and offers a continuum to us with universal ideas about how light and form present themselves to our senses.

Slight curves reveal how light offers shade, perceptible gradation of colour and changes in their form and materiality.

All buildings need materials and a manner of joining materials together. The architectural detail is important to our apprehensions of architectural form. There is enormous power in a building’s detail and it touches people’s soul like nothing else.

Decoration is another thing and it should not be ignored in architecture lest we fall into the deceit that humans might dislike anything other than the intellectual. Beauty is within the repeatability of decorative form that finds purpose in utility and seeks deliverance of something idealized.

Joys around in building where the decoration embeds a meaning that is appreciable by all people and this is important in works of architecture that need the engagement of the public eye; lest they become outwardly self-referential. We must engage therefore, in motifs that direct the eye toward an optimism.

The downward facing triangles offer the anchor to the earth for a building seeking to tip-toe and be anchored at once. The upward-facing circles present the world a great optimism, opening windows in and out of arches to the world and of the world abounding the site. The roof is a crown that portends the possibility of dreams; foretelling the future of humanity and its success has something to do with the informed connection to the stars and to the universe.

The Hypethral building, the roofless form develops a haunting proposition of a desirable place and one which takes us to our dreams and memories of our collective ancestors; those that exist in the stars above.

(by Angelo Candalepas & Associates)

The NGV Contemporary begins the transformation of the arts precinct, recalibrating it to a new shared urban realm.

The extraordinary civic precinct of set piece building has long been associated with intensity and currency of culture in Melbourne. Progressive moves have condensed this intensity, adding to the variety and breath of the city’s cultural ambitions. Memorable in form, this series of character arts buildings is re-orientated by a visionary master plan and the addition of a significant cultural use, the NGV Contemporary.

To rise to this aspiration, we ask what it means to design a gallery for presenting and encountering a work of contemporary art? What is the importance of that question here in Melbourne, within the lands of the Kulin Nation? Contemporary Art uses the apparatus of the artwork, in whatever performative gesture or medium that it might take, as a vehicle for talking about who we are, and what our experience is within the time, place, community and culture in which we live. The NGV Contemporary will be a leading forum for civic discourse and storytelling; a continuation of 60,000 years upon this ground of using the contemporary mediums of material culture to continue bold conversations.

This new gallery will be landmark destination within the nation, ground-breaking for its capacity to connect us to Country, to culture, to community and to the world.

Taking its place within an assemblage of forms, the new NGV Contemporary completes the triumvirate of institutions central to the Melbourne Arts Precinct with unity and destination.

This gallery has its own identity, one which synthesised the stoicism and weight of the NGVI and the dancing softness of the Arts Centre spire. A contemporary voice for the arts, a present and welcoming companion for thee NGVI.

The NGV Contemporary is a building of welcome, of connection. It takes its place in the arts precinct and garden with gentle confidence, generosity and joy. The new NGV Contemporary is a softened geography, connecting to the familiarity of natural for, both ancient and contemporary, a distinctive landmark within a transformed precinct. The building breathes in, creating amphitheatres to the surrounds, as the form cups the sites’s long edges. The building billows out to the site’s three corners, visible and vertical points to this three cornered, peninsular site.

A textured, organic cloak wraps the form. Precise cuts in the form open the surface, to the east gardens and terraces; to the north breakout spaces, Restaurant and Lounge.

The surface of the gallery is both Country and cloak, with innovative use of hyper local material. This draped surface is made of ceramic panels, made from locally sourced clay, manufactured by our local fabrication industry that has evolved to achieve zero carbon production methods. The surface of teach ceramic piece features a range of subtle coloured glazes.

Entried to the building and constructed landscapes extend and annex the garden of the NGVI, the new urban realm and circulation spaces within the gallery. Visiting this gallery (like Grounds’ original) is an oscillation between in and out, reflection and extroversion, exchange and respite.

(by Field)

We have approached the notion of landmark as ‘placeness’ embedded with experiential quality. The building is knowable as a singular, yet soft form collected by a veil, and is dynamic according to light and time of day. The build’s transparency and plan distribution brings you to the edges of the gallery spaces and overlaps you with the city and Country. These spaces, their quality, generosity, transparency, and an awesomeness that is more geological than institutional are all important types of spaces for the setting of contemporary art and its experience.

To embed placeness we began our thinking of this project as the site of architecture’s connection to Country, a natural ecosystem, and the city. The site, was once the continuation of a gradual slope towards the confluence of the living rivers, Birrarung and the Maribyrnong, falling to the area we call Southbank where an ephemeral wetland is still latent in the high water table and geological profile, reflected in the lower actual ground which intersects the historically flattened out upper podium. Nearby there once was a waterfall in Birrarung which registered the meeting of the saltwater and sweet (fresh) water which was undoubtedly of cultural significance, but this waterfall was removed and Birrarung was re-routed.

Sensitive articulation of the two ground planes brings together opportunities to re-know this place in the cultural landscape and weave a critical and productive narrative around how we can reimagine our city each time we demolish a building. NGV Contemporary can be a first step to bringing the non-human, deep soil, and actual ground into consideration in an urban context, promising greater resilience in a changing climate and reframing the idea of a civic and cultural landmark through opportunities embodied in the design that project far beyond the present moment. To achieve this, we are proposing a ‘many grounds’ approach, where an upper podium ‘constructed ground’ brings the St Kilda level across at grade, enabling a surfacing of deep geology at the site of the ‘actual ground’ beneath.

Planted with endemic species and creating a microclimate at the onset of prevailing winds, the design establishes a deep setback at the lower ground that can be thought of as a ‘landscaped lobby’, which surfaces the soil condition and acts as a quiet counterpoint of the urbanity of Southbank Boulevard. The shape of the constructed ground above movies in and around the vegetation, forming an urban balcony to the south drawing visitors up and into the gallery and wider precinct. The pedestrian experience is dynamic, as the building weaves in and out of vegetation, with the double height NGVC Design Store addressing Southbank Boulevard as a street level storefront in its own right, and large scale artworks in the Arrival Gallery visible from below. The southwest corner of the site is treated as an urban sponge landscape in its low lying area, which will need to perform in storm surge and overland flow events.

The urban form of our design has evolved from the site context and vision for it to be part of a family of Melbourne Arts Precinct buildings — to draw in rather than project out, and to participate in the solid mass and simple geometries of its ‘siblings’. We have explored ways of making a building feel solid from the exterior, while admitting light and revealing its program. Our design proposes a building veiled in a fabric like mesh skin, creating a breathable enclosure that permits light, shades glass, and allows one to see out (in a non-framed, non-colonial way). By night, it is transformed and revelatory.

In thinking through the position of NGV Contemporary within the evolving cultural landscape of Melbourne, we have been informed by the site’s simultaneous identity as both an ancient and future place. Embracing the unknowable quality and unspoken agency that defines a truly urban space, our design proposes an open and generous building that is organised as an extension of the city and capable of absorbing and adding new layers: a museum brought to life by the way it is used and its function within wider cultural and environmental ecologies, rather than a museum that exists as an artefact in itself.

(Open Weave)

Other finalists had a similar approach towards mixing responsive and pragmatic information, often taking readers on the journey through the building. Some of them also took through the design process and thinking that went behind the scene. The poetic language was more subtle and dispersed compared to the winning proposal.

I must say that the winning team had a writing style that matched the level of artistic perfection the gallery design sought. This sense of consistency might be one of the aspects that strengthened their proposal. While it doesn’t mean the other finalists didn’t have the same level of consistent communication of ideas, the striking character of the winning proposal was evident (I’m not trying to say it’s good or bad, it’s just very different).

Gotta wait and see…

Like any other architectural project, it’s difficult to tell how the public will embrace the new NGV Contemporary until it’s in operation. However, the fact there’s a heated debate on the competition result reflects the level of interest. I hope that the selected design truly becomes “a beacon of all that is important to the spirit of humankind in the way the great buildings of the past have provided a mirror to their societies representing, reflecting awakening shared values and ideals.”

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