Located in Japan’s rural Niigata Prefecture, Sydney-based architect Andrew Burns’ new Australia House is a gallery, studio and atelier built to replace the original structure of the same name, which collapsed after a powerful seismic aftershock last year. The building resides in one of the villages hosting the high-profile Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (ETAT), an international contemporary arts festival held every three years in the mountainous region.
Part disaster recovery and part cultural project, Australia House is designed to function as a refuge during future disasters, taking into consideration environmental sustainability as well as the merging of Japanese and Australian culture. The building includes galleries and residential space for Australian artists to stay, work and exhibit in, and will allow collaborative projects between Japanese and Australians.
Brook Andrew’s permanent artwork 'Mountain Home – Dhirrayn Ngurang' is integrated into the building design.
The turnaround for this project, which replaces the original 100-year-old Australia House – a former Japanese farmhouse – was less than one year. The international design competition for the new Australia House was announced in June 2011, with Burns’ design proposal selected unanimously from 154 entrants by jurors Professor Tom Heneghan, Fram Kitagawa and jury chair Tadao Ando last October. The new Australia House opened in July, coinciding with the beginning of the 5th Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (29 July until 17 September 2012).
Melbourne-based Brook Andrew was selected as the Australian artist to exhibit at the Triennale, leading to the exciting collaboration between architect and artist during the final resolution of the building design. Andrew’s permanent artwork Mountain Home – Dhirrayn Ngurang is integrated into the building design.
Burns describes the project as a "humble wooden building, part farmhouse, part gallery, part site-specific artwork"
“Brook’s interpretation of the architectural design has uncovered further possibilities for the project,” says Burns. “It is my hope that a new permanent work will be embedded in the gallery space at each Triennale, so in 15 years time you could walk into the space and reveal six compelling permanent works.”
Concerned with the crossover between culture, art and design, Burns sees potential in taking these ideas and developing them in an international context. The Australia House project comes on the back of Burns’ recent success in London with the Gibbons Rent laneway project, which he designed in collaboration with British landscape designer Sarah Eberle and which opened this year’s London Architecture Festival to wide acclaim.
The building includes residential space for Australian artists to stay in.
“Architecture is not simply about shelter, or building, or fashion, or the person who designed it – architecture fundamentally shapes the way we live, how we experience the world, and our place within it,” says Burns, who collaborated with accomplished Japanese architects Souhei Imamura (Atelier Imamu) and Sotaro Yamamoto in the delivery of the project. “This building extends our focus as a practice on developing innovative, contemporary, socially engaged processes that go beyond the everyday to explore how we relate to our world, and build communities.”
The design itself resonates with the many utilitarian structures in the region – its steep roof rising to the daikoku-bashira (the king post, or central pillar in a Japanese home) to create a tall gallery space within a compact volume. Despite its compact 120sqm footprint, the building conveys an institutional quality, as well as the ambiguous presence of both rural structure and art object. The structure is also located close to the road, which – together with the steeply pitched roof – provides easy access during snowfall. The internal spaces are calibrated to amplify the experience of the external landscape, and in the deep rural setting the building provides opportunities to alter the physical experience of place and time.
Australia House engages with its surrounding landscape.
“The main gallery focuses on the embankment, rather than the dramatic valley view. In this way, the embankment, tilted up, becomes the third wall of the gallery, creating opportunities for artists and curators to engage with the landscape,” says Burns.
“By focusing on an ordinary view, rather than an extraordinary view, it seeks to remind us of the value of ordinary, local things, post-GFC and post-great east Japan earthquake.”
Despite its small size, the building conveys an institutional quality as well as the ambiguous presence of both rural structure and art object.
The Australia House project is supported by the Tokamachi City Government, International Culture Appreciation and Interchange Society Inc., the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy in Tokyo.