The swagman and the squatter

Click to enlarge
When it opened in 1982 the NGA sat in a bare landscape. Today it hosts a native garden.

When it opened in 1982 the NGA sat in a bare landscape. Today it hosts a native garden. Image: Estate of David Moore

1 of 3
There are brief moments of natural light within the labyrinthine interior of the NGA.

There are brief moments of natural light within the labyrinthine interior of the NGA. Image: Estate of David Moore

2 of 3
Queen Elizabeth II opened the Canberra High Court on 26 May 1980.

Queen Elizabeth II opened the Canberra High Court on 26 May 1980. Image: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A8746, KN6/6/80/52

3 of 3

Mark Raggatt discusses the legacy of two monumental buildings in the nation’s capital — the National Gallery of Australia and the High Court.

Let’s begin with treachery.

In 1975 it was decided that Capital Hill was the place for a new Parliament House. The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), with its chief architect Roger Johnson, had been working under the belief that Camp Hill, behind the provisional Parliament House, would be the seat of parliament. To this end Johnson had proposed a vast sixteen-hectare square raised five metres above natural ground level to be called National Place. It would unify the Parliamentary Zone; it was to link Parliament House with the urban and cultural counterweights of the National Library, High Court and National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

Both the High Court and NGA were well under construction in 1975. When the site for Parliament House was moved, the plan for National Place was scrapped, leaving the High Court and NGA stranded.

Col Madigan’s buildings are among the most complex, distinctive and intelligent public buildings in Australia. The High Court and the NGA stand restlessly in the national architectural consciousness, where so much of our architecture offers “unwholesome confectionery out of cheap emotions”1 in the lazy belief that design is merely a commodity, that spaces are primarily pragmatic, that architects are professional aestheticians. These are erudite, multi-vocal, hopeful buildings. They were intended as two great set pieces but, as it is, they stand by the water like the swagman and the squatter, waiting to be born into mythology.

In 1968, Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs won a competition for the design of the NGA. The practice’s initial entry (prepared for a site on the land axis behind Camp Hill) shows a long, low-slung building, almost a landscape. It recalls Uluru or a reclining figure. The building is plugged into a network of bridges, ramps and roads that form a complex landscape. The intention from the start was for a fortified repository for the nation’s art — for the nation’s identity. John Gorton, the prime minister at the time, remarked that “it is very important that the design of the gallery should reflect the most modern thinking of the present day, that it should be particular to Australia, and be an expression of the national character.”

Madigan led the design team for the project. The building is complex and not a little tortured, creeping toward the lake. There are cracks in the armour. Fissures and seams in the restless form testify to an evolving architecture. The entry is highly articulated with massive columns split into blades, carrying a top-heavy load that signals entry, as well as something beyond reach; some ancient complexity now out of hand. The tower and portico lift away from the ground plane and the building breaks down towards the water, becoming more like a village than a fortress, settling into the landscape.

There are brief moments of natural light within the labyrinthine interior of the NGA. Image:  Estate of David Moore

It resists domestication. It is abstract but it is not mute.

We like to think of art as a distilled idea, as somehow reflecting the complexity of human desire and culture. The NGA, while outwardly wilful, is internally complex, labyrinthine and almost Piranesian.

James J. Sweeney, a high profile curator, was brought out from New York to develop the brief. He said, “I want eleven rooms, I want it to be like a spiral walk, and I want varying sizes, varying shapes, so that you give a fixed flexibility.”2 There is a kind of artificial topography to this interior. Rather than resisting timidly or touching the earth lightly, the NGA internalizes the land in which it sits. The complexity here is more than formal; Madigan said the work sought “a purposeful tendency to become more complex, more free, and man is at his best when he is … embracing complexity.” The complexity here is physical and metaphysical. It overcomes the inertia of hopeless materiality.

The building’s underlying tetrahedral structure, which extends out into the landscape beyond the precinct, suggests an evolution of natural structures. Space is squeezed and then released, long ramps double back on themselves, and tightly knotted triangular chamfered stairs, grottos and cracks afford unexpected encounters with sculpture, painting and the landscape beyond. It is as though high modernity, encountering the Australian landscape, has been weathered and formed by the environment.

The building has the sense of ineffable age and creaking, sunbaked claustrophobia. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is a contemporary of the building; it too captures the sense that Australia is not a young country, but “the last of lands.” I recall a sense that Miranda might stumble from the building delirious, torn between fear and eternity.

The High Court stands with peculiar stoicism in its accidental landscape. Edwards Madigan Torzillo Briggs won a limited competition in 1973. While Madigan, who was the senior director of the firm, initiated the design, associate director Chris Kringas led the design team into the early stages of construction when, in 1975, he passed away. Madigan took over to supervise construction and complete the design.*

Sir Garfield Barwick, the first chief justice of the court, halted construction of the NGA in order to ensure that the High Court was built in time for Queen Elizabeth II to open the building during her visit to Australia in 1980. The High Court is intended to dominate the National Gallery. It does stand imposingly over the sprawling complexity of the NGA, but it is no rough-hewn beast, no stone lion. Like Voss, its stoic proportions belie an intricate and doubtful expression.

It is an ascending storm with a still centre.

Visitors approach the building from below, making their way up a long ramp from King Edward Terrace, past the burbling abstract tributary by Robert Woodward. The shear fall of glass cascades from crest to footfall. This, however, is not the ubiquitous, reflective mirrored prohibition of corporate architecture, but the refractive liquid of living glass. This is the glass of Joseph Paxton, of Bruno Taut, of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon.

Corporate typologies have become all pervasive, so much so that our eyes have come to see corporations everywhere. It’s a kind of architectural myopia. We see great sheets of glass and all we see is big business. Even if you and I are accustomed to the infection of architectural typology with corporate modernity, even if you and I have accepted that corporate architecture is appropriate to our houses of justice, even if you and I have sanctioned the hijacking of architecture for the people by architecture for the market, the High Court has not — it resists abduction. It is refractive, not mirrored; it is backlit, not shaded; its transparency connotes permissive access to a public interior, not the spatial prohibition of privatized space.

Slipping through the vast refraction of glass, the eye is drawn up by two great sentinel columns that bare the roof above us. Across this secular nave the daylight angles in. Not through a great rose window, not transforming profane lux into metaphysical lumen, but lux illuminating understanding, illumination toward evolution. There is apparent clarity here, apparent transparency. This surely is an iconography for a live religion.3 This void, surely, is closer to the cathedrals than to the vertiginous corporate lobby. This void is not jammed with lifts but is circumscribed by meandering circulation that ascends over eight levels, ducking from the light into layered and compressed crevices as if to look further into the dark4 before returning to the glare.

One does wonder if some knotted version of the law has found its way into the architecture. This complex architecture, apparently transparent, acknowledges the necessity of doubt and inquiry in justice. Moving between the courts, which jostle elementally around the atrium, we sense the difficult evolution of culture. The external mass and expression of the building has a kind of shuddering muscularity. It is in turn hulking, awkward, ruined and sublime. It is a picturesque vision in the landscape. Madigan himself said “the buildings hold a demanding asymmetrical balance, in some ways matching, in other ways threatening the illusionary safer symmetry.” The architecture seems engaged in an inner struggle. It does not “fall into the abjectness of credulity or the flippancy of scepticism,”5 but the turning gyre of mass and void does recall the infernal interiors of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925).

The judges themselves move through the building in strict separation from the public. Their journey, which begins in the bowels of the building, ends in a garden atop the courts and offices, a refuge from the storm below. Perhaps they reflect, as Madigan did: “All we know is that when we contemplate the universal void, the fields of space, the everlasting horizons of unlimited nothingness, certain manifestations, which we call life and matter, appear before our eyes.” This is the stumbling evolutionary process.

Col Madigan was an architect of rare intellect and tenacity and his buildings warrant our attention. The National Gallery of Australia is the subject of a recent publication edited by Paul McGillick. It documents in detail the forty-five-year saga of the building. Falls the Shadow, aptly titled, is published by URO Media. These are not metaphysically complete buildings. Rather, they seek a restless evolution. George Bernard Shaw, whom Madigan admired, quipped that “the power that produced Man when the monkey was not up to the mark, can produce a higher creature than Man if Man does not come up to the mark.”

Completeness ultimately brings irrelevancy.

From a dossier in the July/August 2012 edition of Architecture Australia, on “Australian Style.”

* Simon Kringas adds the following correction: “This is a perceptive interpretation of the High Court of Australia, but the statement “Madigan….initiated the design” of the High Court and “took over to … complete the design” is not correct. In fact, the design of the High Court was commenced by Christopher Kringas working with Feiko Bouman at Kringas’s family home. After Stage 1 of the competition was successful, work continued in the EMTB office under Kringas’s leadership. The design was complete in 1973, and contract documentation was substantially complete in 1975 when Kringas died. The constructed building is relevantly identical to the 1973 design.”

1 George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (London: Constable and Co. / New York: Brentano’s, 1921)
2 Colin Madigan, “A Shadow of History”, in Paul McGillick (ed.), Falls the Shadow (Warrandyte: URO Media, 2011)
3 Shaw, op. cit.
4 Colin Madigan, Inaugural Speech for the Eric Parker Memorial Scholarship, University of Newcastle, 11 August 2001.
5 Shaw, op.cit.


More discourse

Most read