Queensland Gallery of Modern Art
Jones, Partners: Architecture
Summer 2001 (design)
Art museum; galleries, workshops, storage spaces, offices
AUD 91 million ($50 million)
Kurilpa Point, South Brisbane, north of existing Queensland Art Gallery and adjacent to William Jolly Bridge, and highly visible across Brisbane River to downtown Brisbane
Exposed structural steel trusses and frame, steel curtain wall on cast-in-place concrete base on drilled cast-in-place concrete piers, steel frame moving program division walls
14,000 m2 (140,000 ft2)
The circulation is placed toward the exterior in glass enclosures, rather than buried in a typical blank exhibition box. The continuous "gallery" is traversed and divided by the large moving gantry walls which allows it to be opened completely to the exterior or completely closed up in a "black box" set up.
The competition brief for this project set three tasks, relating to contextual concerns, museological issues, and architectural merit, which defined the scope and set the character of our proposal.
Task one prescribes a contextual agenda, asking us to provide for a building that "can proclaim a vision and individual identity markedly different to the existing 'complex' model" by "emphasizing accessibility and a diversity of cultural and recreational uses in a people-oriented and city-integrated precinct" that "embraces the surrounding open spaces as well as the river's edge."
We have addressed this task with a design that connects immediately to adjacent, useful outdoor space on the river-side and the interior, plaza-side. The scheme is organized to place the circulation towards the exterior, in glass enclosures, rather than buried in a typically blank exhibition box. The Gallery's continuous "gallery," traversed and divided by the large moving gantry walls, may also be opened completely to the exterior (or completely closed up in a "black box" set up), so that the life of the site may flow continuously through the building from the entry plaza to the river-side, according to the needs or desires of the program. Though the plazas form an almost continuous skirt around the perimeter, they vary in relation to "the gate" in order to allow secure outdoor activities related to Gallery programs as well as more open public activities on the entry plaza shared with the Library.
The Gallery hall stands out emphatically within the overall composition- it is a rotated prismatic volume atop a continuous plaza/plinth- but it does so in such a way to make that composition seem to culminate in the building. In this way the Gallery's strong, almost iconic, "individual identity" is understood as exemplary rather than aloof. The volume of the building rotates from the geometry established by the library, plaza and street grid to face the river and assert its own willful presence in the "complex." By this orientation the Gallery hall takes advantage not only of the prospects from the site, and views of the site from the bridge approaches and city across the river, but also of the solar angles, to maximize opportunities for energy efficient controlled natural lighting.
Task two asks the competitors to address the museological issues concerning the relation of the work to its display, noting that "the new Gallery will operate more as a place of 'working facilities,' rather than just as a showcase," in order to "bring the public most directly into contact with the art on display, while respecting the requirements of the artists to both present their works to best effect and to work effectively to prepare them for exhibition."
Our response to this task has sets the architectural theme for our proposal, discussed at length elsewhere in this presentation, as performance, objectivity, and flexibility. The scheme is envisioned as a performance-oriented production and exhibition facility-the "artWORKS"-in which both the artist and the curator are viewed as the primary stakeholders/usergroups of the facility, and the visitors as...visitors. The building's architecture and organization emphasize the "working" nature of the facility by multiplying opportunities for "tuning" the space to the needs of the task within an overall structure of extreme clarity: the Gallery is in fact proposed as a "gallery," not unlike the great hall of machines of the Paris Centennial or a steel foundry, with the almost sacred working areas of the Hall wrapped in layers of support spaces and environmental modification structures. Great moving gantry walls with internal walkways and support rooms silently trundle up and down the length of the gallery to partition the space as required for the season's curatorial and art production tasks. The visitors are able to pass from plaza-side to riverside without passing through the exhibition or working spaces by traversing the interiors of these walls.
The third task asks that all this be translated into compelling architectural form, without sacrificing the Gallery's ability to "be highly functional for the purposes for which it is designed." Among these purposes are a necessity to "accommodate the changing scope of presentations in contemporary exhibitions, new developments in interactive and multi-media arts and the extension of Gallery programs into areas of film and screen culture." Architecturally, the third task suggests that the new design "has the potential to forge a unique...statement about the future aspirations of Brisbane and Queensland on the platform of the this prominent riverside site."
In addressing this task, our design strives for a clarity and image-ability that can show off the actual dynamic functionality of the partis, while recognizing its prominent physical and cultural location within the daily life and future aspirations of Brisbane and Queensland. The "style" of the building stands as a signature for the positivist, instrumental, humanist program of modernity, highlighting the importance of technology and honesty of its means. The unique nature of the design's relation to technology-a matter-of-factness, rather than "haute" tech or showy stylizing-underlines the working nature of the facility, and ennobles the production and viewing of the art by the extravagance of its support. The building is a strong form, yet it stands back from the art with dignity, rather than competing with it for attention or, conversely, shrinking from it by fading into banality.
The design's optimistic outlook makes it more affirmational than critical, but this is not inappropriate to an institution that styles itself as a working facility. Work is future-oriented, like architecture, and therefore inherently optimistic. Architecture's lasting presence has always made it wear overt critique uneasily, and civic architecture in particular has a broader responsibility than simple criticism might uphold.
ArtWORKS: Performance, Objectivity, Flexibility
If we were to hazard a theme for modernity it would be humanity's confrontation with the instrumental nature of its place in the sun. Modern art
is different from previous art in the extent to which it brings art's traditional struggle with its own instrumental nature into its creation, as a method and as a subject. Our proposal for the new Queensland Gallery of Modern Art embodies the conviction that the production, and enjoyment, of modern art is grounded in an appreciation of this issue. We have dubbed our proposal the "artWORKS" in celebration of this consideration.
The design of the artWORKS invokes this theme in three principle ways: the experiential or performative, the environmental or objective, and the operative, with an emphasis on flexibility. These are combined to provide the greatest possible freedom and support to the art viewer, curator and artist in their creation, presentation and viewing of the modern art of Queensland and the Pacific.
To understand modern art is to understand the interstices of production and reception. From Pollack's canvases to Yves Klein's paints, from Warhol to the Guerilla Girls, the art of the 20th century can be characterized as "art in the making"-no longer an "object," or even necessarily a thing in the world, but a testament to a moment-a moment of doing, of experiencing, of remembering. As we move forward, into this new century, we could perhaps add to our understanding of art-in-the-making the concept of art-as-performance and art that performs. Such art should not be confused with performance art, although the current popularity of performance art does contribute to such a reconceptualization. Art-as-performance implies that its production and the experiences it fosters now are both willful constructions and active constructions of the will, works-in-progress and a progression of works. An emphasis on performance establishes an environment that sets standards for the piece and expectations for the quality of its effect. A place for art-that-performs, then, should not be a politely inert background but a respectfully challenging interlocutor-it should be as clearly constructed as the performances it hosts; it should be empowering, but continually in-process, as instrumentally attuned as the art it actively supports.
In a dedicated setting such as the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, the performance of the "art work" could perhaps be thought of as High Performance. As used here, though, "high" implies the smooth and efficient performance of a machine-one of the clearest icons of modernism-rather than either the exclusionary class distinctions of the academy or the hollow stylization of what we have elsewhere called the "haute tech." This reference recalls the modern movement's devotion to that which is both beautifully designed and highly functional. In a High Performance gallery, the setting would act as both a staging ground and a stage.
It is possible to believe that it was the sheer variety of the emerging art that led the exhibition spaces of modernism to adopt a strategy of objective neutrality. The simplicity of the idea that all art "works" against a plain white background is attractive, and within the narrow parameters of historical modernism it is not that far-fetched. Over time this practice came to be confused with a sort of cultural hygiene, though, and has been justifiably criticized. As art became more interested in its own socio-cultural and economic context as subject matter, not to mention the constructed nature of the display environment, the neutral white box became untenable. No longer able to maintain the fiction of its objective disinterest, its utility as a background was undermined.
If we treat the idea of a neutral, objective environment for display as a fiction, though, we can take advantage again of its operational advantages as a curatorial tool. In fact, understood this way as an strategy, rather than an attitude or way of life, the concept of a practical neutrality can allow planning to proceed in the face of what might otherwise be an overly restricting determinism or bewildering undecideability.
The gallery is an unavoidable part of the experience of the art-not least because it frames it as an experience of art-but that does not mean that the gallery has to be an intrusive part of the experience. This is one way to understand what a "practical neutrality" might mean. While some art today makes the instrumental nature of the gallery's relationship to the art its actual subject matter, this state of affairs need not be a burden on the artist, the curator or the visitor. Art that performs is art that chooses the conditions of its performance and the frame that identifies it-whether that is a "neutral" background or some other fiction.
Perhaps the most useful form of (the fiction of) objective neutrality is operational and environmental "flexibility." The idea of "flexibility" carries a lot of baggage, though, and as a standard agenda within the repertoire of modernism it has a long history of sub-optimal performance. In the context of a gallery, the siren call of flexibility is poignantly juxtaposed to the dangers of creeping determinism. Such flexibility always seems to entail some elaborate "system" which, in its attempts to cover every possible situation, ultimately proves to be as rigid in its complexity as the fixed condition it was designed to replace. A non-systemic flexibility, on the other hand, risks an even less useful chaos.
What is proposed here in contrast is a flexibility that is pragmatically simple and architecturally bold. For this reason, it is able to negotiate the space between the absolute freedom-or indifference-of a completely neutral space, and the overly suggestive-or coercive-order of a comprehensive or detailed framework. A useful flexibility lies somewhere between blankness and clarity, offering (possibly at different times) the openness to invent, and the substance to work against.