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Image of the Sydney Modern Project as produced by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA

The design

Design of the Gallery’s new building

The Sydney Modern Project will create an architectural landmark that delivers significant cultural, environmental, social and economic dividends for Sydney, NSW and Australia for generations to come.

Since 2015, the Art Gallery of NSW has been working closely with Pritzker Prize-winning practice, SANAA, to develop a final design for the new building in consultation with key project partners and the wider community. The design is sensitive to the Gallery’s parkland setting and looks towards the future, thinking about how audiences experience art in Sydney as we transform into a 21st-century gallery providing one of the world’s great art museum experiences.

Key facts:

  • SANAA’s design for the new building responds to the unique project site with a series of interlocked pavilions that step down towards Woolloomooloo and Sydney Harbour. The pavilions sit low and lightly on the site, following the natural topography of the land.
  • The Gallery is the first public art museum in the nation to achieve the highest environmental standard with the design of its new building achieving a Green Building Council of Australia 6-star Green Star design rating.
  • The design delivers much-needed gallery space while respecting and enhancing public use of the surrounding landscape, retaining and celebrating significant trees and improving the accessibility of the cultural precinct.
  • The expansion delivers new open spaces across the site including an outdoor public Art Garden, new civic plaza, accessible roof ‘art terraces’, courtyards and an improved universal pathway with two new lifts linking surrounding areas.
  • The cultural heritage of the Gallery’s existing building will be complemented with the modern fabric of a 21st-century art museum to meet the evolving expectations of current and future audiences.

The design

The Sydney Modern Project will enhance the site to the north of the existing Gallery, comprising two grassed concrete platforms – one being the land bridge over the Eastern Distributor and Cahill Expressway, the other being the roof on top of two decommissioned WWII naval oil tanks. The new building will be constructed primarily on top of the oil tanks and most of the land bridge will remain open space with a new outdoor public Art Garden. The adaptive re-use of one of the tanks into a unique contemporary art space will provide public access to this State asset for the first time.

The new building comprises an unenclosed covered Entry Plaza, new exhibition spaces, shop, food and beverage facilities, visitor amenities, art research and education spaces, multipurpose spaces, adaptive re-use of the oil tanks, new roof terraces and landscaping, loading and service areas, and services infrastructure. The new and existing buildings will be linked by the public Art Garden.

The expansion will provide a significant increase in the Gallery’s capacity to accommodate future visitors, including doubling of student and teacher visits to 200,000 per year, and enable us to remain competitive as a leading cultural institution in Australia, and a major cultural destination in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Australia’s first 6-star Green Star design-rated art museum

The Gallery will be the first public art museum in the nation to achieve the highest environmental standard with the design of its new building achieving a Green Building Council of Australia 6-star Green Star design rating. This exceeds the Gallery’s original five-star goal and sets a new standard for art museums globally.

The Gallery is committed to sustainability and has worked extensively with SANAA and the project consultant team to ensure the design maximises open space across the site, integrating the building with the landscape. Key sustainability initiatives include rainwater harvesting, extensive solar panels and a seawater heat exchange system for environmental controls.

Key architectural design elements

Public art museum in Sydney’s cultural precinct

The Art Gallery of NSW is a free public institution and the expansion is for public use. The new building will enable the display of more of the State’s greatest visual art assets belonging to the people of NSW.

Located between the Domain, Royal Botanic Garden, Woolloomooloo and Sydney Harbour, the Gallery is part of a rich natural and urban setting. SANAA’s design integrates landscape into the new building to maintain the green character of Sydney’s cultural precinct and blur the boundary between the natural and the built. A key principle of the Gallery’s expansion is maximising and enhancing public open space. Preservation of significant trees around the site has also contributed to the building’s connection with landscape, most notably the preservation of the two Moreton Bay Fig trees adjacent to the north-east corner of the existing building.

SANAA’s design creates opportunities for visitors to experience an art gallery in different ways with both indoor and outdoor spaces creating a unique layering of art, architecture and landscape. This includes the outdoor public Art Garden accessible 24/7, Entry Plaza and three accessible, landscaped roof ‘art terraces’.

The expansion has been designed to sit within its context and SANAA has created a lightness in the built form, which is contemporary and sensitive to the site as well as complementary to the historic context of the existing building and the cultural precinct more broadly.

Site, topography, landscape and pavilions

The new building comprises seven pavilions, built primarily over two existing WWII oil tanks. SANAA’s design is a compact building with each gallery pavilion located at a different level across the site, integrated by public circulation spaces that connect with the landscape. Each pavilion is oriented in a different direction responding to unique aspects of the surroundings and landscape. Paths, terraces and landscape responding to the topography of the site activate much of the outdoor spaces to enable art display and create opportunities for visitors to meet, gather and rest.

The positioning of the pavilions in the new building creates a three-storey internal atrium connecting the entry level with the other two above-ground levels as it follows the topography, stepping down to Woolloomooloo. On crossing the Entrance Pavilion threshold, orientation is clear with a view to each level of the building above the oil tank, enabling visitors to anticipate their journey throughout the art museum. The underground oil tank gallery is an exciting culmination to the journey through the Gallery. It is a unique space and links adaptation of mid-20th century industrial heritage to 21st century design.

Vibrant, civic place

The Entry Plaza will become a primary hub and focal point of activity for Gallery visitors and the broader public, available 24/7. The Entry Plaza is a civic connection between the new and existing buildings, forming a key element of the Art Garden that will connect the two buildings through landscape and art display.

The Entry Plaza is setback from Art Gallery Road to maintain views of the historic Vernon façade of the existing building. The form of the glazed Entry Plaza roof is an undulating wave supported by a steel structure and provides weather protection for visitors. The height of the Entry Plaza roof is lower than the highest cornice of the existing building’s Vernon façade, in a gesture of respect to the historic building.

Materiality

The new building complements the existing building through the use of warm-toned natural stone, glass and concrete as the exterior finishes.

The three gallery pavilions are clad in natural stone with the stone façade extending from the exterior into the interior to enable each pavilion to read as a distinct space. Glazing is a key architectural element in the public circulation spaces to directly connect to the surrounding context, be it the existing Gallery building, Sydney Harbour, Woolloomooloo or the Royal Botanic Garden and Domain, and is a key part of the visitor journey. Sweeping ‘rammed’ earth walls on two levels of the new building follow the existing contours of the site and reinforce the connection of the new building to the topography and landscape.

Unique indoor and outdoor spaces

The pavilions comprising the new building sit low on the site and follow its topography as it steps down to Woolloomooloo. The roof terraces are visible from multiple vantage points within the building and from around the site. Detailed design and landscaping of each of the terraces has been carefully considered to ensure they complement the building’s parkland setting and where accessible, provide opportunities for outdoor art display.

Adaptive re-use of the oil tank that rests below SANAA’s new building will create a gallery space unique in Australia and the world. A minimalist approach is being undertaken in its adaptation to preserve its raw characteristics. The connection between the new building above and the oil tank gallery below will be via a SANAA-designed staircase that will enable visitors to view the space from multiple heights as they descend (elevator access will also be provided).

The expanded Gallery will strengthen the historic association of art and cultural facilities in the Domain, positively contributing to Sydney’s cultural and garden precinct. Scheduled for completion in 2021 for our 150th anniversary, the expanded Gallery will build on our history of innovation and leadership with exceptional spaces for art in all its evolving forms, and more opportunities to learn, create, engage and discover. The expanded Gallery will provide Australia with a vibrant cultural gathering place – a place where people, ideas and art come together, fostering a sense of community, imagination and openness.

‘We have been working very closely with the Gallery to refine our initial concept design for the Sydney Modern Project. We have come to know the project site very well. We continue to learn more and more about its history, especially about the traditional owners of the land and the site’s importance today for them, and for all visitors. Preservation and harmony with the landscape is a design priority. It is a challenging site including a land bridge over a road and a concrete roof over disused oil tanks. Our intention is that the site will be of greater benefit to the people of Sydney and Australia, and visitors from around the world than it is currently.’
SANAA