As the National Gallery turns 40, we look back at architect Col Madigan’s geometric inspiration for the brutalist building, which opened in 1982 and is the inspiration behind this year’s Enlighten work by artist DANIEL CROOKS. Words by COL MADIGAN, photos by MAX DUPAIN.
The Gallery has a complex structure – though the genesis of this complexity is a simple triangle. It was the intention of the architectural concept to implant into the grammar of the design a sense of freedom so that the building could be submitted to change and variety but would always express its true purpose. It became, in a sense, like a Gothic building in that elements could be added or subtracted without damaging the overall principles.
A flexible geometric law to discipline this idea was found to be a tessellation of regular triangles and hexagons, what may be called a trihex – and this is the geometry on which the design concept is based. The building expresses itself in a mute geometric language. There is a harmony, an ordering of elements in the Gallery building. A unity in the variety of its spaces.
The agreement between the building and its geometry is so cogent it organises the shapes, scale and dimensions of all elements within it to express this harmony.
Knowledge makes prodigious journeys. Pythagoras proved that the world of sound is governed by exact numbers. He went on to prove that the same thing is true of the world of vision.
The simple numerical structure of the equilateral triangle extended into the third dimension produces tetrahedral and octahedral crystals and this geometric evolvement generates a harmony within the building.
The building is a special kind of space and there are only certain kinds of symmetries which this space can support.
The octahedron is a most exquisite crystal, the natural shape of the diamond crystal; its symmetry is imposed on it by the nature of the space we live in, expressing the crucial law of nature. So a crystal, like a pattern, must have a shape that can extend or repeat itself in all directions indefinitely (image 8). The faces of a crystal can only have certain shapes. They could not have anything but the symmetries in the pattern.
The design of the Gallery building has a peculiar inquisitiveness that combines the adventure of its planned communication with this geometric logic where the numbers dovetail and say this is a part of, a key to, the structure of the building.
The equilateral triangle is the nucleus of this structural code, dictating the dimensions and character of the building and producing a desirable unity in all areas of the Gallery.
This is realised primarily in the triagrid concrete space frame ceiling/floor systems serving the small galleries and extends to the steel space frames spanning the great gallery spaces.
The basic three-dimensional law and the inherent flexibility this system contains ensures a potential to express the manifold, complex and interconnected needs of structure, services, aesthetics and the essential neutrality for the display of art within the gallery spaces. Within this grid the mechanical and lighting services are integrated to serve the ceilings and floors.
The detail forming the landscape of this building is full of exact adaptions – each element is governed and controlled by the geometry to fit the environment like one cog wheel into another.
The realisation becomes more subtle and penetrating as the elements combine in complex and intimate ways. Architecture as a force brings our attention to visual continuities or absolutes through principles that run or recur from one civilisation to another. We can link back to history and traditions in subtle ways and this, in turn, gives to the observer a feeling of comfort.
The total ethos of the Australian National Gallery does this.
'The power of architecture, like art, has an ability to transform our feelings and thoughts. Architecture is inspirational in its physicality, it enhances our ability to live, work and experience the world.
The National Gallery building is a sculpture that we inhabit with so many purposes: we use it as a vault to store the collection, we use it as an office to do our work, we use it as a meeting place to bring people in. Over the next two years we plan to return many important elements of the building to the original intent of architect Col Madigan.
The building is robust and, in its own way, beautiful and poetic, and as we celebrate our 40th anniversary I look forward to celebrating our architecture and Mr Madigan’s original vision of a powerful structure that incorporates functional design and environmental integration.'
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.