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Suspense builds on new NGV gallery

08 May 2019

Suspense builds on new NGV gallery Image

By Rhonda Dredge

Signature buildings do a lot to lift a community and architect James Pearce is feeling upbeat about Southbank and the upcoming design of a new contemporary gallery at the NGV.

His company Fender Katsalidis is responsible for many of the prominent buildings in Southbank, including the Eureka Tower and Australia 108, the country’s two tallest buildings.

The company is keen to submit a design for the new gallery but the NGV has yet to announce the details of the architectural competition.

James is happy to philosophise about the process, having been the project architect on the MONA gallery in Hobart, which has successfully made its mark on the global art scene.

“Art galleries are cultural institutions,” he said. “Art is international but the institution that displays art should be aligned with the sensibilities and culture of its place.”

He talks about the Bilbao effect. “One transformative building can change a whole city. It happens a lot. There’s a comment that MONA has done the same thing for Hobart.”

Unlike flamboyant structures that stand out from a distance, the logistics of the MONA site demanded respect for two heritage buildings designed by Roy Grounds and the solution was to burrow underground.

“I think the best architecture comes from the strongest constraints because it takes lateral thinking to come up with a solution outside the box.”

James likes buildings that show visitors how they are constructed, so he rejected the expressive statement on the outside and white box on the inside that overseas galleries prefer.

His favourite building in Southbank is the Bond Store, a brick warehouse in which the metal girders are apparent and the evenly-spaced rivets form beautiful textures as well as hold the plates together.

“We wanted a real building at MONA that was true to itself like here at the bond store. It was not meant to be a monument.”

He says that the design was more a case of fitting in a structure between the high tide mark and the top of the hill.

Similarly, the Eureka Tower was not an attempt to win the height competition but a combination of two 40-stoey towers that would have cast a large shadow over the precinct. “We solved the problem with a tower on top of a tower.”

Architects love to find clever solutions. The Fender Kastalidis office is in the PWC Building on Riverside Quay, a box built on a multi-level carpark and supported by poles. Beneath it a laneway has been formed which is gradually coming alive.

While some regard the development in Southbank over the last 20 years to be slapdash, James disagrees. “Southbank doesn’t have the hierarchy of scale. It was a big industrial area with big plots of land surrounded by roads. The tertiary lanes never happened.”

He concedes that most of the action faced the riverbank and the fine grain was not included in the early projects.

“Southbank started out in a different stage of the economic cycle. It started out when things were a bit slower. There was a lot of encouragement by the government for things to happen. It’s a victim of its own success.”

Now that is changing with Mirvac leasing out the rear of buildings to cafes which makes the precinct more human-friendly.

Art galleries in particular can stamp the personality of a city on visitors, he says.

“As humans we are always trying to understand ourselves better. Why do we produce art and what do we get out of it? It gives us something to think about beyond ourselves.”

There has been criticism of the last renovation of the NGV with international architects showing little respect for the Roy Gounds courtyards.

James is hoping there will be an open competition for the NGV tender process and that firms on the short list have a chance to work together.

“The process has a huge effect on how it turns out. You need a close relationship between the client and architect. That won’t happen in a competition. They are good for ideas.”

International companies should be encouraged to submit but not given preferential treatment, he said.

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