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About the building

New galleries & entrance | Building overview | Sculpture Garden | Image & video gallery

Overview | History | Architect's statement

 

image: National Gallery of Australia near completion, front view, c. late 1980
National Gallery of Australia near completion, front view, c. late 1980
more detail

In 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that the government would build an Australian National Gallery in Canberra to house the National Collection. Following Cabinet approval in 1970, the winning architect, Colin Madigan, was appointed to develop the complex that included the High Court of Australia on King Edward Terrace.

The major challenge in designing the National Gallery of Australia was how best to display works of art to the public, while conserving and storing these works in absolute physical and environmental security. A further challenge was to accommodate curatorial, administrative and technical staff, and provide extensive facilities for the gallery's educative, scholarly and public relations functions. James Sweeney, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, was employed as a consultant and proposed a plan based on a `spiral' progression of galleries, of contrasting sizes and heights, allowing the greatest flexibility in the arrangement of exhibitions. Sweeney emphasised that viewers should not be distracted from the works of art by outside views through windows.

image: entrance level galleries before the installation of art works, showing the staircase leading to the Australian art galleries, November 1981
Entrance level galleries before the installation of art works, showing the staircase leading to the Australian art galleries, November 1981 more detail

The galleries are arranged on three levels. The entrance level is composed of large almost cathedral like rooms. These rooms are used for the exhibition of the Gallery's Indigenious art collection, International art collection and major focus exhibitions. The Gallery's upper level contains a series of more intimate galleries with parquetry floors that are used to display the Gallery's collection of Australian art as well as smaller focus exhibitions of Austalian works. The lower level of the gallery originally designed as a sculpture gallery with a greater proportion of natural light also has high ceilings that give a sense of monumentality. The building's north-facing section houses the public refreshment and rest areas, the Staff Lounge and the Members Lounge. While catching the winter sun, these areas also provide spectacular views of the Sculpture Garden, Lake Burley Griffin, Mount Ainslie and the City Centre.

Much of the building is made of reinforced bush-hammered concrete — an example of Madigan's philosophy that concrete has as much integrity as stone. Concrete slabs are the main facings for walls; they are also the major reinforcing structural component, enclosing and camouflaging numerous service shafts and ducts. Floor coverings vary: there is quarry-split slate in the lower level galleries. large brick tiles in the entrance level galleries, and wood (tulip oak) in the upper level galleries.

Facts about the building