Queensland has a new public art gallery and it has been worth the wait. Five years in the planning and making, its opening in December 2006 celebrates one of the State’s most important cultural investments and best ever buildings. Designed by expatriate Queenslanders Lindsay and Kerry Clare, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art reveals an extraordinary design lineage. The result is beautifully crafted with a deep frame of design references. Sydney-based since 1998, the Clare’s condense the same delicate force and energy that contributed such an important architectural legacy to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Art House

There has been a tendency, in recent times, for art galleries to declare their ‘genius’ right up-front. Commercial considerations frequently demand the grandiloquent but instead produce the grand delinquent. This is not to be confused with the brilliance of Bilbao’s Guggenheim. Rather it appears to have spawned any number of imitators that reveal the danger of over-reaching and the belief that computer software will provide the zany difference and strong commercial identity.

This clarion call for celebrity buildings frequently results in the aberrant and arbitrary form.

Great buildings result from a partnership that values culture, environment and place rather than formula or gimmick. Such investigation and search for authenticity is precisely what underlines the thinking behind this $107 million project. It is though, much more than a model of restraint, or product of humility. Designed to house a formidable collection of contemporary, international, indigenous and Asia-Pacific art, the building is a distinguished art house for art work.

It may seem entirely obvious that architecture is a language constructed from steel, glass and stone, yet so many buildings fail to communicate with their communities. The Clare’s have made a building that projects an adventurous spirit for visitors yet is protective of art work. While there are monumental aspects to this project, it is a scale demanded by the vast archive of modern and indigenous art. The effect however is visually permeable and uses transparency, translucence and veil to contribute to a lively, human scale.

The other key point of the design is that it belongs. It hasn’t been parachuted in from another place or culture, but speaks of the sub-tropical climate – of benign weather patterns and environmental extremes. Its logic if not cleverness is announced by the flowing, almost winged, eaves and choice of materials. This is Brisbane’s most iconic public building yet it has nothing in common with the standard issue office tower or civic edifice. Despite its size - a floor area of more than 25,500 m2 - the gallery is much more box-kite than Botox plumped box.

It features a lightweight, open riverside pavilion containing two major levels of exhibition spaces, two cinemas, education facilities, restaurant, boardwalk and café. The gallery is organized into flexible adaptive spaces to house changing programs and exhibitions. Its urban design concept acknowledges the city grid and axis of Tank Street across the river to the historic windmill.

Veils of glass, slatted timber and lightweight metal skin, create a series of dramatic elevations born from program and brief rather than as fashionable skin. In this respect the gallery responds on each compass point. Its stellar northern elevation on the Brisbane River frontage reads as exuberant projections, balcony, soaring glass wall and broad eaves. The eastern elevation provides the main public entry point and responds with a subdued checker-board of translucent glazing. The west facade presents a wall of veiled timber screens and glazing as filleted, frayed edge and mediator to the harsh summer sun. The cool, jet- black metal clad, southern elevation responds to administration/offices and the busy arterial related to Grey Street Bridge.

The project’s environmental engineer, Shay Wall, advised the architects that the gallery’s stupendous roof solved about 90 per cent of the environmental problems. “Obviously in terms of shading this is more of a technical issue than a psychological one. It shades the walls at critical times of the day and creates a softness of light underneath that we can bring into the building more successfully than if it fell directly onto the roof or walls without shading,” says Lindsay Clare. Such problem solving brings other benefits not least a parasol blade roof that contributes to a memorable form. If nothing else it is a reminder of how such simple strategies can help reduce energy consumption right across the range of commercial building and private dwellings.

Hopefully such projects are regarded as much more than isolated, or one-offs. They bring the direction of galleries back to earth in the best possible way. Rather than flex its muscles, cleverness and ever-so-arty angles, it provides an acute reading of climate and place. As if this isn’t difficult enough in a standard commercial building, it is achieved with this, the most technically demanding type in a climate quite hostile to art.

The gallery represents a virtual homecoming for the Sydney-based Clares. “ It’s a significant project.” says Lindsay Clare. “Not just for us, but for Queensland. We grew up, worked there, and understand the place. This is the opportunity to contribute and apply what we learned from almost 30 years of training and working. By now much of our architecture is quite intuitive but, as a couple, we still apply an analytical approach and critique to test all of our work.” The project also lends credence to the view of the Clares’ former mentor– the Sunshine architect Gabriel Poole - that if you can design a house well, you can design anything. “Gabriel helped to ground us and instill a belief that we could succeed with bigger work.

“The design brief called for a statement about Brisbane,” says Kerry Clare who explains how the design’s disparate and complex parts needed to find harmony before they could achieve an authentic response. “We wanted that close connection with topography, river, slope of the land, culture of south-east Queensland, sub-tropics and the broader region of the Asia-Pacific which is really in many ways the raison d’etre of the project.” Such a process of distillation was never going to be easy. “But,” she says “such connections and ideas give the building a distinct character that would only be found here rather than in another place.”

The real business of art galleries is ultimately inside. After all, just one or two artworks can exceed the value of a whole gallery. While the architects have created a building of deep shade, it remains remarkably luminous in major circulation zones and exhibition areas. “We were conscious that Queensland light is incredibly harsh and needed to be modified. We have daylight entering through the ceiling, walls and into the body of the building in a very safe, economical way,” Clare explains, referring to the potential risks of mixing daylight and solar loadings with light sensitive art.

Daylight is teased into the grand galleries via the broad bladed roof element that shields against direct sunlight penetration but produces a vast under-wing, or soffit, that in turn acts as a giant soft daylight scoop that has it flooding across ceilings, then cascading down walls.

Art galleries require equilibrium and orientation and daylight being such a great informer needs to be artfully controlled. “It has good balance in this regard,” believes Lindsay Clare. “I think it works well because there is a robustness and clarity in the first place. It has a fine balance between natural and artificial light. Whether you’re in the atrium, circulation spaces or reading how it connects to four different landscapes – the street, park, river and back to the existing gallery.

“Architecture can be based on incredibly robust ideas yet lack a delicacy and humane-‘ness’ say the Clares “ but it is the finer grain aspects of the gallery’s design that visitors hopefully recognize and value for such thoughtfulness. There needs to be an adequate level of detail and spatial relationship that allows people to feel fully connected with a building. A good example is the upper level riverside balcony where city and sky views are framed by a thrusting, aero-foil roof. A reminder that there is nothing ponderous or static about this design. Similarly, balconies on the upper level contribute to an easy sense of movement and the opportunity to move freely rather than be permanently hidebound within the hermetically sealed box.

"Architecture can be based on incredible robust ideas yet lack delicacy and humane-'ness'," says Lindsay Clare."The finer grain aspects of the gallery's design will hopefully be recognized and valued. Design provides the necessary detail and spatial relationship that allows people to feel fully connected with a building."

A good example of this is the upper level riverside balcony where city and sky views are framed by the aero-foil roof; a reminder of the structure's pavilion origins. These balconies and decks have other advantages. They provide respite and breathing space to contemplate and reflect not merely on city and exhibitions, but the architecture itself.

“Even now we still find it hard to believe that we won the competition,” says Lindsay Clare who says that winning the project was the just beginning of an unfolding series of extraordinary events. “It’s the highlight of a wonderful journey but many of our ideas were challenged by the client group and the whole delivery process. We’ve had to defend, adapt and become advocates for the building in a way that architects might not normally have considered.”

The Clare’s have long been rated among the country’s leading practitioners of sustainable design. Their work pivoted on environmental connection throughout the 1980s and ‘90s - well before ‘Green’ became an industry buzz-phrase and finally regulation imperative.

The idea of being hidebound within a hermetically sealed box is an old-fashioned one and inconsistent with the Clares' established views on responding with humane, joyous space. They have long been rated among the country's leading practitioners of sustainable design. Their work pivoted on environmental connection throughout the 1980s and '90s - well before 'Green' became an industry buzz-phrase and finally regulation imperative.

Authenticity is a principal upon which the art world hangs. It is a quality less well understood and valued in architecture. In this context the gallery achieves the most difficult of aims to give voice to a rarely seen body of art. The great bonus for Queensland is that this gallery is such a great work in its own right.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.