The Sydney Modern Project is about expanding the existing Art Gallery of New South Wales with a novel building and public art garden. The site is located inside the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney and close to the water edge. The historical building of the Art Gallery of New South West was built between 1896 and 1909. The Architecture is characterized by the 19-century ideas about the cultural role of the gallery as a temple of art and civilizing values. Through the centuries it developed significantly. The last change happened to be during Andrew Anderson’s extension of 1972 and 1988. 

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Situation Art Gallery of New South Wales ©

Since 1999 two grassed concrete platforms- a land bridge over the Eastern Distributor and Cahill Expressway was to be found on-site, next to a concrete roof over two unused World war II oil tanks. From a former working port, this area has become a melting point of Sydney’s urbanization and growth. The expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales is intended to emphasize and reinforce this effect.  

Through a two-stage international competition, held between October 2014 and May 2015 the jury chose the design of the studio SANAA. The construction is ongoing and to be completed in 2022. Twelve international architectural practices took part in the competition, among them Rahul Mehrotra’s office RMA Architects. 

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Picture Rahul Mehrotra

Rahul Mehrotra founded RMA Architects in 1990 as Rahul Mehrotra Associates. He is Professor of Urban Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His office was one of the 5 final opponents for the Sydney Modern Project.

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Proposal RMA

Rahul Mehrotra Associates architecture proposal impresses with the connection between Earth and Sky. It stresses the importance of a new cultural center that is anchored in the mindset of Australian society while acting as a global meeting point. Therefore it represents the modern society and stresses the East-West dialectic that is characteristic of Australia’s situation. The proposal is both European and Asian. This duality is expressed in a Neoclassical building embedded in the landscape. This links the building directly to the Australian landscape and ancient history. The indigenous beliefs about rebirth and returning to the land, after death, is represented in the so-called void in the middle of the building, which is surrounded by Aboriginal Art. Furthermore, it creates space for e.g., performance and cutting-edge installations. 

This void especially represents the connection between earth and sky. The connection is enhanced by the light play inside. 

The void acts as a kind of sundial. The atmosphere changes throughout the year. In December, when the sun is perpendicular above the earth at noon, the void is also fully illuminated. In July, on the other hand, hardly any sunlight reaches it and it is relatively dark.

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The Void

Through its central location, the void allows circulation around it and helps the visitor to orientate underneath the surface inside the three-storey building. The various galleries are situated around it on the different storeys. Their plurality reflects the diverse art collection. Yet they work individually, but come together as a whole and negotiate between the different adjoin landscapes and entrances like the existing historical gallery building, the expressway deck, and the industrial oil tank. This negotiation is reinforced by the overall accessibility for the visitor. It is possible to walk through and around the building and experience the Neoclassical architecture, the colonial English-style botanic garden, and the low heathlands native to the coastal basins equally. 

The choice of material and landscape design is continuous and related to the void. The entrance of the new building consists like the void of the copper, which is repeated throughout the whole building. It merges with the surrounding minimalistic, bright spaces, and creates an open atmosphere that enables the artwork to flourish. 

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Outside the Void

The natural stone paving and Green is orientated radial and graduating around the void. While the void is surrounded by greenery, it graduates in the direction of the old Art Gallery of New South Wales building. A plaza is sited under a canopy of a high-branching grove of native evergreen trees. This plaza connects with its leaf ceiling the old with the new building metaphorically. A tunnel underneath is connecting them physically.

Rahul Mehrotra Associates designed the Building as a promoter for ancient and modern art as well as a `Museum of the Future`. It is a porous and pluralistic structure, which is built to benefit from its adaptability to different mediums.

Even the Proposal of Rahul Mehrotra Associates for the Sydney modern art gallery did not win the competition; it is an interesting project, with qualities one can learn from. Its design developed from history and landscape and is deeply embedded in its genius loci. Furthermore it creates a conversation between architecture and landscape. Caused by the minimum physical presence it does not only create valuable space for visitors of the gallery but for inhabitants and tourists, to experience an architectural journey from the 19th to the 21st century.


Rahul Mehrotra | RMA Architects

Sydney Modern Art Gallery – Competition Finalist | RMA Architects

The design competition :: Sydney Modern Project :: Art Gallery NSW

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