Review taken from AR 125: Architecture and the Arts, on sale from 30 May, 2012.
It’s a very tough gig for architects in today’s scorched-earth cultural landscape, where rolling battles continue to play out in ever-widening trenches of gloom. So it goes, the profession faces a tripartite threat, up against an ambivalent public that apparently doesn’t understand what architects really do, rampaging developers who couldn’t care less what they do and overbearing councils micromanaging every single aspect of what they do. According to frontline intelligence, the heat is really on when architects work on public buildings, as FJMT and Archimedia discovered with their Auckland Art Gallery makeover, where a matrix of external pressures became so compacted the project threatened to implode inside a bureaucratic black hole.
It was a job in two parts. First, restore the heritage building (1888), a virtual rabbit warren, refurbished so often it contained 17 different floor heights. Second, deliver a new extension that would not only double floor and exhibition space but also attract new patrons, a crucial imperative. While the old building’s circulation was offputting, so was something intangible yet just as powerful: its aura. For many, Auckland Art Gallery was a monolith that served elite interests, missing its chance to engage with new audiences.
The porous new wing, a complete about face from the impermeable gallery of old.
A 2003 academic survey of young people’s impressions of the gallery corroborated this, sounding more like recollections of a haunted house. For the survey authors ‘threshold fear’ was the institution’s undoing, something no architect wants anything to do with. That’s the psychological underbelly of spatial logic, where certain groups are intimidated from entering certain spaces by how those spaces make them feel. For those young people, Auckland Art Gallery was undemocratic, “dusty” and “cold” – a paradigm of ‘threshold fear’. Also, 16 per cent of the sample group had no idea where it even was, despite being interviewed on the pavement right outside it. Clearly, the gallery was fatally out of sync at a time when New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington was successfully engaging broader audiences with contemporary branding and marketing, interactive displays and temporary events.
Choi Jeong Hwa's 'Flower Chandelier' in the new north atrium
The decision to evolve the gallery was actually made in 2000, although it took eight years for building to commence, as the architects fought off heritage committees, resource consents and conservationists trying to put the bite on, for this wasn’t just a story of a disillusioned public but also of precious timber and parkland. Pushing the design through the environment court alone took three years, causing the budget to blow out to the tune of a few million dollars, funding to dry up and a redesign of the new wing.
Even after the redesign the use of kauri timber became a political football. In the new building the architects have used it to produce a sinuous canopy supported by tapered steel columns, also clad in kauri. The canopy presents a signature public face, its curvature filtering light to the forecourt to the west and implanting visual referents to the canopy of pohutukawa trees in Albert Park to the east.
The kauri canopy, rich in cultural significance, provides a visual reference to the pohutukawa trees in the parkland beyond
Kauri has rich cultural significance to New Zealand’s Maori people, and here it mediates between the project and the land (Albert Park was home to early Maori settlements). The connection is enhanced by sculptures adorning the columns from Maori artist Arnold Wilson, while fellow artist Bernard Makoare was a consultant, ensuring the gallery aligned with indigenous beliefs. Still, that didn’t stop conservationist Stephen King from having a pop, accusing the architects of “throwing” kauri at a “mediocre building” and of misappropriating the ‘mana’ (spiritual energy) of the precious material (which is almost extinct; harvesting of both petrified swamp kauri and what little remains above ground has been likened to a gold rush, marred by ‘cowboy’ operators and frontier mentalities). Fallen kauri was used here though, from the forest floor, and King’s misconceptions sum up the forcefield of prejudice that surrounded the project.
The sensitively restored Wellesley Gallery in the heritage building
Objections also came from the Auckland Regional Council, fretting about the extension’s impact on Albert Park, yet the project’s relationship with parkland is among the most successful outcomes. Impact is not only minimal but improves the park’s social function. The extension’s enormous glass atrium opens up the building by directing the gaze from street level to the parkland beyond, while inside, the new art space is fronted along the east by a continuous glass wall incorporating the park into the gallery. The glass becomes a ‘screen’ for viewing the outside world and makes the art accessible to those in the park, a far cry from ‘white cube’ galleries worldwide, and the dusty, impermeable Auckland gallery of old.
The Mackelvie Gallery, with transparent floor level in view
Another success is the refurbishment of the heritage building, especially the Mackelvie Gallery, in disrepair after its Edwardian detailing had been stripped out or walled away by previous renovations. Remarkably, the Mackelvie space has been reconstructed from two old photos, although the problem of multiple floor levels was so acute scaffolding had to be erected at the highest level, with work progressing downwards. When it was over, a beguiling detail was retained: the lowest level visible under glass embedded in the new floor, the building itself as artwork, while elsewhere columns from the old gallery have been exposed in the walls of the new wing. I’ve heard criticism of this aesthetic, as if the heritage building has become a theme park, but while I get why it seems fussy to some, it also foregrounds a renegotiation of site elements. That’s not just cosmetic: such is the circulation it’s sometimes hard to tell which wing you’re in, old or new.
In 2008 the gallery averaged just 190,000 visitors annually. Since re-opening it’s had over 300,000 in five months. Cynics will chalk that up to novelty of the new but the fact is, the gallery is now an alluring cultural space.
And yes, when I was there it was crawling with young people, their threshold fear banished by exposure to the light.
Ground floor plan