SANAA's Sydney Modern bridges art, views and architecture

Linking art and views, SANAA’s Sydney Modern gallery brings a layered perspective to a culturally significant harbour site

aerial view of the construction site at sydney modern
Designed by SANAA to be open and accessible, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ extension comprises a series of rectangular pavilions with views of Woolloomooloo Bay.
(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

While Australia’s other major cities – Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide – bring together buildings for the arts in dedicated precincts that spatially declare their commitment to culture, Sydney’s such landmarks are scattered across the city. Among them is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2021, and sits adjacent to the Domain, a park that edges the central business district and the Royal Botanic Gardens. The area has special significance for the Gadigal, the First Peoples who lived and conducted cultural ceremonies there for tens of thousands of years. 

In the late 19th century, architect Walter Vernon was instructed to design an art gallery in the colonial image that was ‘as strictly classical as possible’. The grand sandstone building, inspired by the Scottish National Gallery, encased an earlier brick ‘art barn’ and was constructed in stages between 1896 and 1909. In the past 50 years, the building has seen several elegant modernist extensions, and in 1994, for the first time, included a dedicated gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, albeit on the lowest level. The Art Gallery’s newest building project, Sydney Modern, is, in the words of director Michael Brand, ‘a transformation and expansion’, adding a new wing and extensive landscaping, while updating the old structure. 

spiral staircase inside the under construction sydney modern gallery

A spiral staircase leads to a subterranean gallery set in a former naval oil tank.

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

In 2013, Japanese architecture practice SANAA won the international competition for the new building, its second win in the city after a 1997 design for a new cinematheque for the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay (the first collaboration between Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) failed to go ahead. Fortunately, Sydney Modern, with A$244m in state funding supported by a further A$100m in private money, is confirmed to open its doors this December. 

Brand admits that it was a challenge to create an appropriate building for the spectacular site. SANAA’s solution is a series of spaces that link art and views, inside and out, celebrating vertical and horizontal movement through and across the site. ‘It is a building that breathes with the city, the parkland and the beautiful harbour,’ Sejima says. Visitors will enter via a glass box from an art garden between the old and new buildings. The eye is drawn across the space to varying views, from the glistening city skyline to lush trees and the harbour’s converted wharfs. ‘The atmosphere changes as the sun rises and sets, or with the activities of visitors and commuters alike,’ Sejima adds. 

As with many SANAA projects, the floor gently undulates – sloping upwards towards the shop to the side and across to the lifts and a bridge to an outside terrace. On this prominent entry level, in its rightful place, is a gallery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the first of three limestone-clad boxes, with a new installation featuring narrbong-galang bags in found steel by Wiradjuri artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey. This sits next to a large window overlooking the Art Garden with a new commission by Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones. 

steps in construction inside the under construction sydney modern gallery

The new gallery will be surrounded by terraced gardens connected by steps.

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

The vista downwards from the entrance level reveals cascading floors below, with two further enclosed galleries and generous public spaces, cafés, sculpture courts and education rooms. Beneath all, unseen and unexpected, is a large Second World War naval oil tank containing a dense sea of 7m-high columns, a space that instantly excites the imagination. The inaugural commission here will be by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas.

Brand describes a fruitful two-year-long process, where ‘SANAA’s design was influencing our thinking about what we might do when it’s open, but also our thinking was inspiring the way they were designing’. A section of the column-free contemporary exhibition space will house an epic version of Archive of Mind by Korean artist Kimsooja, where audiences can meditatively shape clay while taking in a spectacular view of the gardens. Similar connections between art, spaces and landscape occur throughout, with a series of site-specific commissions. New curatorial positions in film, performance and music further open up possibilities for innovative programming. 

SANAA’s ethereal glass architecture often seems to float in the landscape, so this building, dug into the side of the escarpment, may come as a surprise. Roofs on slender columns hover over limestone-clad galleries while vast textural rammed-earth walls are built into the stepping site, evocative of Sydney sandstone, one of the city’s building blocks. Here, SANAA’s work complements the material palette and feel of the original building.

As Brand says, the new expansion ‘is more than just a treasure house with collections’. It celebrates the value of art on a civic scale and promises to be a delight to explore, by offering new perspectives of the city and its architecture, as well as the artworks themselves. The building has a generous public spirit that calls on the art gallery’s curatorial and management team to create bold, inclusive programming to match. 


Sydney Modern opens to the public on 3 December 2022

A version of this article headlines the November 2022 Art Special Issue of Wallpaper*, available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today.

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