The Sydney Modern Project

In progress image of Sydney Modern Project, dusk view from Woolloomooloo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2017

This article was first published on Open Journal on October 4, 2017. Images courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW.

In June this year, the NSW Government committed $244 million towards the Art Gallery of New South Wales long-awaited expansion project. Coupled with an additional $100 million from private donors, it was what the $344 million dollar development – given the working name of the Sydney Modern Project – needed to move ahead after years of planning.

The expansion will be the first major work undertaken on the Gallery in over 30 years. Its addition will enable the Gallery to showcase more of its $1.3 billion collection, with a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture and Australian and international modern and contemporary art. The Sydney Modern Project will see current visitor numbers almost double to around two million people a year. 

The selection process

Planning for the Sydney Modern Project began back in early-2013. The Gallery held a two-stage design competition (which was endorsed by the Australian Institute of Architects) in October 2014, which saw them invite 12 Australian and international architects to submit ideas for the expansion’s design.

The first round of submissions were judged anonymously by a seven-person jury panel, which was chaired by Art Gallery of New South Wales director Dr Michael Brand. They shortlisted five of the designs by Sean Godsell Architects (Melbourne), Kerry Hill Architects (Singapore and Perth), RMA Architects (Mumbai and Boston), Kengo Kuma & Associates (Tokyo and Paris) and Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA (Tokyo) and invited them to take part in stage two of the competition.

In May 2015, Tokyo-based, Pritzker Prize-winning SANAA was announced as the preferred architect for the Sydney Modern Project.

In progress image of Sydney Modern Project, atrium © Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2017. Artworks: Michael Parekowhai The English Channel 2015; Ugo Rondinone clockwork for oracles 2010; Rusty Peters Waterbrain 2002; Emily Floyd Kesh alphabet2017; Xu Bing Phoenix 2010; Mabel Juli Garnkiny Ngarrangkarni 2006; Freddie Timms Jack Yard 2004 © the artists

A winning design

Since then, SANAA’s initial concept has evolved and will continue to until the final design is submitted for public feedback (as part of the State Significant Development Application) later this year.

Split across three areas – the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Roads and Maritime Services, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales – the project will feature indoor and outdoor spaces, including a new building and a series of low-sitting pavilions that follow the natural flow of the site, complementing and merging with the nature that surrounds them.

To the north of the Gallery, the design makes use of two disused former World War II oil tanks (which the public have not been able to access in decades) and a concrete land bridge over the nearby Cahill Expressway.

SANAA, in their stage 2 submission, wrote of the design:

‘The concept for the site is transition. The transition from man-made Botanic Gardens and Domain to the wild and natural sandstone escarpment of Woolloomooloo Bay… The new wing of the Gallery sits lightly on the land to preserve the landscape and special atmosphere of the existing place. The new building is a low calm building that steps and shifts gently along the natural contours to form a plaza between the existing and new galleries.’

Working towards 2021

With construction set to start in 2019, it’s hoped that the Sydney Modern expansion is complete by 2021 to coincide with the Art Gallery of NSW’s 150th anniversary.

Writing on the Sydney Modern Project earlier this year, Gallery director Michael Brand said of the expansion: ‘Through the connection of art, architecture and landscape the new building will create experiential and responsive art experiences that will be in dialogue with reflective art histories presented in the Gallery’s existing building. Together, the two buildings will create a compelling and inspiring exploration of art and culture.’

Learn more about the Sydney Modern Project on Art Gallery of NSW’s site.