The New National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary Design and New Traditional Architecture

The design of the new National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary art gallery has just been announced (Fig. 1). The architects are Angelo Candalepas and Associates. The new building is in addition to the building build by Roy Grounds in 1968, visible in the foreground of the rendering, now NGV International (Fig. 2). The NGV was originally housed in the State Library of Victoria building, now wholly the State Library (Fig. 3).

The original State Library building is a conventional exercise in classicism by Joseph Reed opened in 1856 that looks to the British Museum but without the severity of William Wilkin’s Greek Revival.

The Roy Grounds building owes much to Boullée in the blankness of the entrance façade with its row of high windows under a cornice, and to the Royal Palace at Caserta in its twin courtyard plan. The arched entrance is also Boulléesque. (The water wall behind has become a Melbourne icon.) The arches on the new building are clearly an (overscale, to judge from the rendering) homage to this.

New Traditional Architecture critics generally employ a Puginesque visual rhetoric that opposes good New Traditional Architecture to bad Modernism, an opposition internally visible in the photo of State Library (Fig. 3): between  the formal complexity and cultural references of the Library building and the repetitive monotony of the apartment buildings that overlook it.

With the Roy Grounds building matters are more complex, particularly now that it is over 50 years old. Would we have wanted a New Traditional Architecture version of the State Library building in 1968? Would we want it now in the new building? It is significant that the new building is historicising in its own way, in that in using the arch motif it takes it point of visual reference from the old building. This is the only feature of much interest in what is a bland box that wallows in the the repetitive forms of routine modernist architecture, although handled with a purism not possible in a commercial apartment building (Fig. 1).

But such references are subsidiary to other factors. Like most contemporary architecture, the NGV Contemporary building is designed from the inside out; what we see in the rendering it is essentially something that forms a convenient enclosure for a series of showpiece interiors and view-directed spaces. The historical referencing on the outside is tokenistic. New Traditional Architecture, by contrast, is about wholesale historical referencing on the outside, with the result that possibilities for the interior can be quite limited, unless it embraces facadism.The interiors of NGV Contemporary are what the building is all about, each space determined to outdo in spectacle any other such spaces in any building, anywhere.

Culturally, New Traditional Architecture has a strong political component, never articulated by its protagonists, which is a political statement in itself, and it is frequently attacked from a leftward directon. In 1856 Victoria was a British colony attempting to recreate London in the antipodes, hence Reed’s design. In 1968 Victoria was emerging from a strong cultural conservatism (wowserism) into a progressive and increasingly prosperous world led by the US, for which an adventurous modernism, led by local architectural heroes Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds, was the only possible choice. A neo-traditional building was the last thing anyone wanted in 1968. (European New Traditional Architecture, by contrast, is in large part driven by a desire to replace 1960s post WWII reconstructions with something closer to what had been destroyed. It seeks to restore the integrity of disrupted townscapes.)

At the same time, Grounds’ building has none of the purism of hard-line functionalism: it is explicitly a cultural monument with cultural associations, although in formalistic art historical thinking these are sources rather than associations. Significantly, those associations/sources are international (revolutionary France, Royal Naples) because a universalist, albeit Eurocentric, art historical world view prevailed over narrow national associations.

Today the tradition of the 1960s modernists has strengthened, as has local nationalism. Architects in Melbourne that are accepted by the Europeans as New Traditional Architects reference earlier Melbourne architecture, especially that of the first half of the 20th century, such as Neo-Tudor or Art Deco, but never go back to the sources of that architecture, because that would constitutes Eurocentrism, even Cultural Appropriation, rather than being a response to local conditions. In this respect these architects do not differ from the architects of the NGV Contemporary, who would be horrified if they found themselves referencing any non-Modernist architecture from overseas, especially Europe. (Modernist architecture is, by contrast, considered to be universal and immune from nationalism or historicism.) And the references to Art Deco and Neo-Tudor acceptable in domestic architecture would be quite unacceptable in a showpiece public building like the NGV Contemporary. But referencing the local modernist tradition (Roy Grounds’ arches) is acceptable. Referencing French Revolutionary Boullée, however, is not, even though this was Grounds’ source.

There is little doubt the the NGV Contemporary design would not fare well in a New Traditional Architecture critique. And not without reason. It is a building that has lost its moorings. High Modernist architecture of the more adventurous kind, such as Grounds’ NGV, Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, and above all Joern Utson’s Sydney Opera House, presents C coherent, often exciting image. This is because they are designed from the outside in. While this presented problems in the case of the Sydney Opera House, the result was a building that is, in the contemporary cliché, iconic: it presents an image that is memorable. NGV Contemporary completes fails to do this. A few token Groundsian arches do not an architectural image make. It is a building that appears to be designed from the inside out by committee, with the result that as an object it is a mess.

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