The Queensland State Government recently announced the preferred architects of the Millennium Arts projects for the Queensland Cultural Centre at Brisbane’s South Bank. Architectus in association with Davenport Campbell were named as architects for the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (QGMA), while Donovan Hill and Peddle Thorp were selected to undertake the redevelopment and expansion of the State Library. The announcement heralds the beginning of a five-year program of design work and construction costing $228 million.
The Millennium Arts projects present a significant development for cultural infrastructure in the region, which has grown directly out of existing and projected demands. The Asia Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art (APT), begun at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in 1993, added impetus to the planning for QGMA – with the new gallery being seen as the engine room for the popular APT event (an event which is now reaching beyond the space resources of the QAG). Apart from its critical success, the APT has been a remarkable catalyst for the public’s engagement with contemporary art.
The QGMA’s charter to create open public programs should thus be well received.
The redevelopment of the State Library is no less critical given the current revolution in information systems. The State Library facilities are undergoing a period of significant organisational change and reinvention as those facilities now become a critical node in a network serving the various regions of Queensland. As a result the whole Millennium Arts agenda, its timing and processes, reveal cultural ambitions with a good deal of natural momentum.
The architect selection process for the QGMA was conducted as a two-stage competition. The first stage of the competition was “open” and promoted internationally, seeking to encourage a maximum of speculative ideas and approaches. Projected as the largest gallery of modern art in the country, and a consequential addition to the civic architecture of city, state and nation, the broad cast of the first stage netted 174 submissions from architects in 24 countries.
From this pool, the jury distilled an interim short-list of twelve schemes. The identity of the authors was revealed to the jury and a process of enquiry into the capability of the twelve was conducted. Five teams working in association with local practices were invited to undertake stage two: LAB Architecture Studio with the B+N Group and Bligh Voller Nield; Benson & Forsyth with Peddle Thorp; Architectus and Davenport Campbell; Massimiliano Fuksas Architetto and Hassell; and Durbach Block and Bligh Voller Nield.
The architect selection competition to redevelop the State Library of Queensland was also a two-stage process, beginning with a call for expressions of interest from Australian practices. The five short-listed teams were Donovan Hill and Peddle Thorp, John Mainwaring Architects and Bligh Voller Nield, ARM and Arkhefield, Ken Yeang and Wilson Architects, and MGT and Hassell.
The two competitions were clearly in search of architects who will work in collaborative and responsive ways to produce robust, generous and flexible buildings; buildings that accommodate (and even somehow anticipate) developments within the shifting domains of art and information. While the competitions were for the selection of architects not for designs, the design schemes submitted provided the architects with their vehicle for announcing strategies and intentions, and the means to engage the jury members with their particular approaches and turn of thinking.
The stand-alone QGMA project offered the most latitude for the designers. The Fuksas/Hassell response, to imagine the facility as an eviscerated, shimmering blob, sought to take advantage of the prominent site and to signal “art”. Within the enigmatic wrapper a proposal was made for a series of simple, slab viewing decks floating in a vast hangar-like space. The emphasis on the building skin, as both signboard and filter, aimed at generating a unique scale and effect for the architectural object. While this emphasis was useful in establishing a relationship between the overall form of the building and the city, its consequence for the immediately adjacent spaces of the building to the cultural centre complex and Kurilpa Point was less qualified. The LAB/B+N/BVN production offered the blob’s architectural co-conspirator – a prism or box, forming a singular, legible exterior.
Internally the configuration of the plan was more complex, with the division and sequencing of spaces fragmenting and splintering the “image” of the whole.
The principal strategy of the Durbach Block/BVN proposal concerned the formal organisation of the facility in relation to site and brief. Their parti effectively divided the building into a “front” for administration and public functions and a “back” wings for gallery spaces. The organisation had an obvious clarity, but offered less flexibility than was desired.
Architects of the New Museum of Scotland, Benson and Forsyth (with Peddle Thorp) produced far and away the most lyrical scheme, evocatively described in a wonderfully crafted and careful presentation.
At the broadest level the proposal sought to fashion an architecture out of a triumvirate of culture, nature and art. In schematic terms, like interlaced fingers of solid and void, the landscape was mortised into the interior depths and the built form reached out towards the river’s edge. Their proposal imagined a facility that needed to enact a whole series of mediations – between the plaza space and the river edge, between captured gardens and gallery spaces, between the viewer of art and the extended landscape setting and so on.
The proposal by the preferred designers, Architectus/Davenport Campbell, was the one which most obviously achieved a balance between the enclosed spaces required for art and the relationships to the spaces around the facility. In this scheme we see genuinely loose but effective connections between strategy and form.
This outcome mirrors the intentions for the process ahead, as the clients, stakeholders and designers undertake work on the project together. That the interior spaces between the QAG and the QGMA of Architectus share a similar consistency was noted, yet more broadly the new presents as a counterpoint to the existing. While the QAG has long been decried for a lack of connection to location, resolvedly removed from the riverbank, it has for equal time been appreciated for the quality of the interior experience that it offers, organised as an array of internally focused open and closed spaces. Its adaptable insides have a light-filled, earthbound languor. Seeming at once resilient, grand, delicate and generous the Architectus proposition for QGMA invokes the best qualities of the existing gallery but reaches beyond them towards new conditions of engagement with situation and circumstance.
The critical question for redevelopment of the State Library was how to restrategise the library’s organisation and new space demands while dealing sympathetically with the existing fabric. This question invited a host of strategic responses – from wrapping the existing in a new environmental skin (Yeang/Wilson) to clustering forms around it in a parasite/host relationship (JMA/BVN and MGT/Hassell). The strategy dominating the ARM/Arkhefield scheme was the animation of a new plaza edge on the back of the existing library. The plaza, envisaged in the Strategic Planning Framework, is a critical item for both the Millennium Arts schemes and the Queensland Cultural Centre complex as a whole. This space is destined to be the new hub for a range of cultural facilities incorporating entry to QGMA, and repositioned entries for the reconfigured library, existing museum and art gallery. And yet the context of this new hub seems less than promising, being situated on the west of the complex away from the river edge and the city view – cool heads and inventive thinking are needed to steer this space toward the required outcome.
The library proposal by preferred architects Donovan Hill/Peddle Thorp sought to discover latent forms in the existing fabric rather than to stridently “add” new forms to it. The new centrepiece of the facility, the glazed river room, is situated neatly in the arms of the existing library; a gesture which contrives to reimagine the whole in its relationship to the river and city. The river room facilitates a memorable connection back to the plaza while also acting as a counterpoint to it.
The client representatives we talked to were clearly impressed by the energy of all the architects invited to present in competition. They also noted the architects’ capacity for invention and their commitment to ideas.
While these kinds of observations might seem incidental, they do count for more.
Principally, they indicate how the process of review and interview might raise clients’ expectations, not only of what architects could provide but of what they (the client body) might imagine out of the process.
While the approach of all parties to the process may never quite match, there is, along the way, the possibility of acknowledging expertise. This is a critical outcome given the ambition here for an open process – one in which the client and architect are effectively being asked to collaborate in the making of cultural infrastructure.
Post Script: On 21 June the models and drawings for the five short-listed propositions for the QGMA went on public display at the Queensland Art Gallery. This exhibition is significant in marking twentieth anniversary of the opening of the QAG, designed by Robin Gibson and Partners, in 1982.
Antony Moulis and Sheona Thomson are lecturers in architecture at the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology, respectively. They submitted an entry to stage one of QGMA competition