On Wednesday 7 November 1973, on a boggy site close to Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, unveiled a plaque to signal the commencement of construction of the National Gallery of Australia. It was hoped that the building would be completed by 1976. But it would take another nine years before the National Gallery was officially opened on 12 October 1982.
One of Robert Menzies’s last acts before his resignation as prime minister in 1966 was the announcement of the intention to establish a National Gallery in Canberra. A National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry was set up. The Lindsay Report, as it was thereafter known, recommended ‘an historical collection of the choice works of past Australian painters; the work of living painters of all schools; Australian Aboriginal art, chosen for aesthetic merit; art representing the high cultural achievement of Australia’s neighbours in southern and eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands–collection of the latter before its disappearance being a matter of urgency; and art of the twentieth century on a world‑wide basis’.1
On 6 March 1968, it was announced that a limited competition would be held to choose an architect.2 On 26 July 1968, Prime Minister John Gorton announced that the firm of Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Partners had been appointed, led by practice principal Col Madigan.3 Architecture was not going to be subservient to the artworks but a complementing agent to the didactic experience of observing an individual artwork.
The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) had engaged an expert consultant, who, in the absence of a director, would assist the architects in refining the architectural brief and the building’s evolving design. That expert was American art administrator and curator James Johnson Sweeney, author of books on Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Alberto Burri and African art, and the recently resigned director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He also had extensive experience in overseeing the design and construction of new art museum facilities. Sweeney and his wife travelled to Australia for a three‑week visit in 1968 and met with members of the Interim Council, Col Madigan and NCDC staff.4 Sweeney’s speech concluded with a barely veiled hint that the building of a national gallery in Australia was part of a much larger geopolitical project. He was ‘a prominent promoter of anti‑communism, a Catholic and an ardent supporter of Modernism and the ideology of individualism’.5 Like influential critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Sweeney promoted Abstract Expressionism, which he and they saw as ‘exemplary of the individualism and “freedom” of American artists as opposed to the repression of artists in Soviet Russia’.6 Sweeney’s links with establishment figures in Menzies‑led Australia, which at the time was intimately linked with US Cold War interests in the Pacific and Indo‑China, made him an apposite choice as a ‘client’ for Australia’s new cultural offering in the region: in the nation’s capital, the nation’s newest container of art might deliver a political message of freedom and individualism.
Over the next four years, Sweeney would submit five reports to the NCDC, summarising the outcomes of his consultations with Madigan and various gallery staff, including a young James Mollison, then aged 37, who had been appointed Exhibitions Officer attached to the Prime Minister’s Department in November 1968. Sweeney’s first report, dated 12 September 1968, was suitably grand in tone, suggesting that the National Gallery of Australia 'should have a different character and a different prime function from any museum in any centre and in any time ... conceived as a focal centre for the assembling and exhibition of the visual arts of Australia and its neighbours of the Southwest Pacific, including India and Japan ... It is evident that such a gallery should not be satisfied to follow the lines, or even offer, the architectural characteristics, surface or interior, of the conventional museums of the past.'7
In late October 1968, Col Madigan and NCDC in‑house architect‑planner Dick Clough travelled around the world for six weeks, visiting more than 20 museums and galleries and three ancient urban sites.8 At the temple sites of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Acropolis in Athens, and Teotihuacan outside Mexico City, Madigan noted the ‘recognition of geometry in planning associated with cardinal points’ as if rethinking the relationship of the gallery and the surrounding possible future urban context, in a sense reimagining Canberra as a grand urban place. At Chandigarh in India, he noted the site relationships between Le Corbusier’s Assembly and High Court at Punjab’s Capitol Complex. He visited venerable European galleries such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and made special note of recent refurbishment and gallery upgrades, lighting and display systems such as the 1952–57 refurbishment of the Palazzo di Capodimonte in Naples by Bruno Molajoli and architect Ezio de Felice, and BBPR’s Museo Castello Sforzesco in Milan, where ‘works of Art create the architecture of Galleries’.9
He visited the latest art museums, too, including Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; the recently opened Hayward Gallery in London, with its 66 glass pyramid skylights; Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s Oakland Museum in California; and, significantly, IM Pei’s Everson Museum at Syracuse in upstate New York, with its coffered concrete ceilings and interior and exterior walls of bush‑hammered off‑form concrete.
Madigan also met with architects to discuss their latest museum projects. In Milan, Gio Ponti showed him the castle‑like designs of the Denver Art Museum, while in New York, he was introduced, via Sweeney, to Philip Johnson and SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft, to discuss Bunshaft’s design for the Hirshhorn Museum, as well as SOM’s grand urban plans for Washington DC. In Chicago, he met David W Fix of Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago office to discuss the firm’s proposed extensions to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. A common note made by Madigan throughout the tour was his interest in sand‑blasted or bush‑hammered concrete: an observation that would have material consequences.
'In his reports, Sweeney was delighted with the progress made by Madigan, particularly the ‘delicate bridge’ leading to the main entrance and the views from the foyer south across a gallery to the outdoor sculpture display, as well as the lighting proposals for the sculpture gallery, which were intended to simulate daylight as close as possible.10 He praised the ‘vibrant unity’ of the external form, its ‘basic directness and clarity’ that would provide a neutral background.'
Government delay in choosing a site meant that design work did not commence in earnest until May 1970. Part of the issue was extended debate about the site for a permanent Parliament House. In May 1969, it was decided that Camp Hill would be an appropriate location: the Gallery would have to move, and so too any future High Court and Archives buildings. As a solution, NCDC Chief Architect Roger Johnson proposed an entirely new urban conception for the Parliamentary Triangle: a vast, elevated urban plaza that would have the title of the National Place. On one side of this new plaza would be the existing National Library and on the other, the High Court of Australia (not yet commissioned). Further east, connected by a pedestrian bridge, would be the new National Gallery, with a lakeside address and its own ferry landing.
It was at this point that the terrace concept for the Gallery became emphasised. What this meant was that by necessity the main entrance to the gallery was located well above ground level, and accessed by stairs, ramps and elevators. It was a design decision that would have unforeseen long‑term consequences.
In his reports, Sweeney was delighted with the progress made by Madigan, particularly the ‘delicate bridge’ leading to the main entrance and the views from the foyer south across a gallery to the outdoor sculpture display, as well as the lighting proposals for the sculpture gallery, which were intended to simulate daylight as close as possible.10 He praised the ‘vibrant unity’ of the external form, its ‘basic directness and clarity’ that would provide a neutral background.11
In many respects, the design of the National Gallery at this point — spatially — could be argued to represent in concrete terms the high point of an American‑fuelled cultural Cold War, but about to be realised on the shores of and in the capital city of one of the United States’ most favoured Pacific allies. Sweeney’s politics and his ambitions for art in this regard cannot be ignored. If the Australian–American War Memorial (1952) on Kings Avenue and the flanking Russell Defence Offices (1959–66) can be seen as earlier Cold War overlays to the idealism of the Griffins’ plan for Canberra,12 the National Gallery can be seen as another, arguably more subtle, assertion of American influence in post‑war Australian life. In 1971, Australia was still deeply enmeshed in all things American and was yet to pull out of Vietnam despite reeling from the moratorium marches of May and September 1970, which would continue until 30 June 1971.
Throughout the key design years of 1970 and 1971, a shadow hung over the project in the shape of a dilemma as to who should be the first director of the Gallery. From the project’s inception in 1968, James Mollison had been acting as Exhibition Officer in the Prime Minister’s Department, working for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, charged with the responsibility of amassing a national collection.13 But in early March 1971, the National Gallery made the news for the wrong reasons. Prime Minister John Gorton announced that Sweeney was to be the new Director of the National Gallery.14 Sweeney had not been asked; Sir Daryl Lindsay resigned in disgust that the Interim Council’s preferred candidate — Laurie Thomas, recently retired Director of the Queensland Art Gallery and then arts editor of the Australian — had not been appointed.15 Prime Minister William McMahon appointed Mollison as Acting Director in October 1971. He was officially appointed as Director only in February 1977. Sweeney brushed off the controversy and did not take offence — he’d never wanted nor sought the role.
Sweeney’s fifth and final report in 1972 congratulated ‘Mr Madigan and his associates’ on fulfilling his four principal aims in planning an art museum as a physical entity: clarity, simplicity, visibility and security.16 For the first time his report records Acting Director James Mollison as being included in discussions. Sweeney’s involvement ceased and the architects and the NCDC began to finalise documents for what was hoped to be a construction commencement date in 1973. Late in 1972, the Labor Party came to power and Gough Whitlam was declared prime minister; a wave of optimism swept through the nation. But for the National Gallery, there were complications already brewing that would affect its progress to completion.
Earlier that year, in May, it was announced that an open competition would be held for the design of a High Court building, to be located directly opposite the National Gallery and balanced on the other side of National Place by the National Library of Australia.17 The competition coincided with the expected completion by the end of 1972 of the final drawings and specifications for the National Gallery.18 In 1972, the design of the gallery relied heavily on the main approach as being assumed from the elevated and vast grassed public open space of National Place.
EMTB decided to enter the High Court competition. At the time Madigan was senior director of the firm and responsible for the Gallery, which had just commenced construction. Madigan initiated the design work for the High Court competition and associate director Chris Kringas was then appointed to head a design team. The forms and planning techniques of the High Court building strongly echoed those of the National Gallery. The two buildings were clearly conceived as partners in dialogue, connected by the pedestrian bridge and both approached on foot across a ‘Ceremonial Forecourt’ at the eastern end of National Place. For EMTB, the competition success was a triumph: the office had secured two of the most important public buildings in the nation.
On 7 November 1973, the polyhedral foundation stone of the National Gallery of Australia was unveiled. On its top was a circular plaque engraved with a triangular lattice grid indicating the master set‑out point for the building’s construction. This was a critical diagram: the new gallery was part of the larger urban network of the Parliamentary Triangle. In 1974, construction finally commenced. The hope was that the gallery and the High Court would both be completed by the end of 1980.
However, three events would thwart the process of construction and change the course of the Gallery’s completion and also its eventual public reception. The first was the tragic death of Chris Kringas in 1975, aged just 39. The second was the temporary cessation of work on the National Gallery in favour of the High Court and that building’s earlier completion in 1980 in time for a judicial conference.
The third was the startling decision to abandon the concept of the elevated National Place. Penleigh Boyd recalls Madigan later describing them as being left like ‘shags on a rock’.19 The only remnant of National Place that remains today is the connecting pedestrian footbridge between the two buildings.
After Kringas’s death in 1975, Madigan assumed directorial control of both projects. But the National Gallery project was different. As the building edged closer to completion, and as Mollison’s collection began to take shape, Madigan and his team had to wrestle with complex and challenging design, technical and construction demands, as well as increasingly hostile government scrutiny on the budget. Construction resumed on the Gallery from mid‑1976. With the High Court being built at the same time, the shore of Lake Burley Griffin became a massive construction site, buzzing with workers, cranes and trucks.
From May to July 1978, Madigan made another world tour of galleries for the purposes of looking at internal fixtures, lighting, screens, bookshops and testing their own display ‘kit’. In a telling tribute to Buckminster Fuller, in Madigan’s report to the Gallery Council, titled ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and dated July 1978, his itinerary was drawn across a copy of Fuller’s triangulated world map.20 It was another trip that included ancient sites such as Knossos and the pre‑Inca ruins of the lost city of Cajamarquilla in Peru, as well as venerable and new art museums.21 Of special note is that Madigan visited, possibly for the first time, Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. Long thought to have been an influence on the National Gallery design, Kahn’s triangular coffered ceiling is actually very different. It is far less complex than the Gallery’s unique interpretation of Buckminster Fuller’s tetrahedral space frames in concrete and steel.22
As the two buildings neared completion, their sheer walls of bush‑hammered concrete resembled a modern‑day Acropolis, but one under construction rather than in progressive decay.
The buildings’ colour melded with the light and colour of Canberra. With the exception of a small amount of Italian limestone, all materials were Australian. Aggregate for the concrete was quarried in nearby Queanbeyan and blended with a Bungendore white sand and white cement from the NSW Southern Tablelands. Most of the external and internal walls were then bush‑hammered to reveal the aggregate, imparting a soft white hue in the late afternoon sun, but brilliant white in the middle of the day. Inside was Mintaro slate from South Australia, Ballarat brick tiles, tulip oak floors from Queensland; jarrah from Western Australia, with glass and stainless steel elsewhere. The aim, as per the architects’ brief, was for the highest quality; this was a building designed to last for 300 years.23
When complete in September 1981, the National Gallery stood 23 metres high, the equivalent of a six‑storey building. Black‑and‑white photographs by Max Dupain and David Moore emphasise the heroic entry sequence and the building’s sprawling sculptural masses behind. Almost all the internal images show no paintings or sculpture, capturing the building’s elegant bones, its mix of lofty and low spaces and its skylit ramps lined in Pirelli black rubber, while externally, the building’s angled forms spreadeagle into the landscape.
In 1978, landscape architect Harry Howard and his associate Barbara Buchanan were appointed to work with Madigan and Roger Vidler in the EMTB office to refine the 14‑hectare landscape design and ‘weave a fabric between the High Court and Gallery buildings and their surrounds’.24 The emphasis for the Garden was on local materials; it was planted almost entirely with indigenous Australian flora, much of which Howard desired to be sourced from the Canberra region.25 Close to the north‑west corner of the building was the Mintaro slate‑paved sculpture court for human‑scaled sculptures by Rodin, Aristide Maillol and Gaston Lachaise. Mollison specified that ‘sculptures and the lake were not to be seen at the same time, and not in strong light’ and that visitors were to be under no illusion that works of art were being placed in a purely natural setting: each sculpture was to be placed in a ‘room’ or on a ‘podium’ within the Garden.26 By September 1982, the planting was sparse but complete. The final result is one of the most subtle experiences of a consciously designed indigenous landscape in Australia.
On 12 October 1982, Queen Elizabeth II opened the National Gallery of Australia. It was a grand affair, broadcast to an audience of nearly two million Australians. Since then, the building’s reception has been mixed: mired in controversy over subsequent additions and blame laid at the hands of successive directors and architects’ alterations and additions. Even prime minister Malcom Fraser, speaking immediately before the Queen, ungraciously declared that ‘some may judge that from certain angles, it is not the most beautiful building in the world, but when the trees already planted around it grow the lines of the concrete will soften’.27 It is better to reflect on Gordon Darling’s words at the building’s opening:28
'It is our hope people will say that this Gallery with its Sculpture Garden on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin is, in itself, a work of art; one which displays the might of design and the mystery of colour, and one whose sublime spaces and surprising corners take the visitor on a voyage of endless discovery. May all who enter experience a sense of celebration.'
Today, forty years on since the opening of the National Gallery, the bones of the building that was designed and ready for construction in 1973 are still there. Understanding the complex evolution of this now heritage‑listed building reveals its unique place in Australian architecture, and among art galleries both in Australia and internationally. Now is the time to recognise the building for what it is, and celebrate the ambition of its creation, revel in its concrete presence and retrieve its vision. It should be possible to work to ameliorate the building’s difficult curatorial moments but without a philosophy of rejection. Instead, there is the opportunity to renew the invitation to touch its roughened walls, pause at one of its gash‑like window bays, glimpse its off‑white walls among the trees and be surprised by its shocking glare — that is Australia — and, above all, see it as a collection of spaces and landscapes where one can rejoice in its extraordinary collections that encapsulate the world, encompass a region and, most importantly, define a nation.
This is an edited excerpt of the essay ‘Concrete Ambitions’, co‑published by the National Gallery of Australia and Black Inc. on the occasion of the Gallery’s 40th anniversary in Vision: art, architecture and the National Gallery of Australia.
This story was first published in The Annual 2022.
- ‘Report of National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry’ (Lindsay Report), 1966, p 1.
- ‘Architects to vie for gallery‑design job’, The Canberra Times, 7 March 1968, p 3.
- ‘Sydney firm to design National Gallery’, The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, p 1.
- Attending this meeting, entitled ‘Joint Working Group Meeting’ on 27 Aug 1968, were James J Sweeney and Colin Madigan, who were introduced to the group as consultant and architect respectively, members of the National Gallery Interim Council (Sir Henry Basten, Sir James Plimsoll, William A Dargie and Kenneth Myer) and NCDC representatives (William (Bill) Andrews [Chairman], Mr Johnson, Richard Clough and Philip Woods). See Agenda, Australian National Gallery: Joint Working Group Meeting, 27 Aug 1968, held at the NCDC, Canberra. MSB James Johnson Sweeney Collection, Box 4, National Gallery of Australia Research Library and Archives.
- Brenda Moore‑McCann, ‘The Irish diaspora, the Cold War and American art in Ireland’ in Claudia Hopkins & Iain Boyd‑Whyte (eds), Hot art, Cold War—Western and Northern European writing on American art 1945–1990, Routledge, London, 2020, p 61; see also Brenda Moore‑McCann, ‘Cold War art’, Dublin Review of Books, Jan 2017, https://drb.ie/articles/cold‑war‑art/.
- Moore‑McCann, ‘The Irish diaspora, the Cold War and American art in Ireland’, p 61.
- James Johnson Sweeney, ‘Australian National Gallery—First Report’, 12 Sept 1968, p 1. ‘Reports by James J. Sweeney on the National Gallery’, 1968–72, Source: ACT Heritage Library.
- James Sweeney expressed his concerns to Sir Daryl Lindsay that a gallery/museum specialist should travel with Madigan and Clough on the world tour, given their lack of museum expertise, and suggested that Lindsay or William Dargie accompany the pair. He also wrote to NCDC’s Sir John Overall and Philip Woods, expressing this same opinion. James J Sweeney, letter to Sir Daryl Lindsay, undated; James J Sweeney, letters separately to John Overall and Philip Woods, both undated, MSB, Papers of James J Sweeney, Box 1, Research Library and Archives.
- Edwards Madigan Torzillo & Partners, ‘Australian National Gallery—report on overseas tour’, 1968. Colin Madigan Papers, MS9863, Box 2, Folder 2/2, National Library of Australia.
- James Johnson Sweeney, ‘Australian National Gallery—Third Report’, 18 December 1970, pp 1–2. ‘Reports by James J. Sweeney on the National Gallery’, 1968–72, ACT Heritage Library.
- Sweeney, ‘Third Report’, 18 Dec 1970, p 2.
- Philip Goad, ‘Inconvenient truths: Framing an architectural history for Cold War Australia’, Fabrications, vol 31, no 2, 2021, pp 264–5.
- James Mollison, ‘James Mollison in conversation with Anne Gray’, in Pauline Green (ed), Building the collection, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2003, p 26.
- ‘Canberra gallery world art centre‑expert’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb 1971, p 2; Allan Barnes, ‘American chosen for top art job’, The Age, 3 Mar 1971, p 9.
- ‘American for gallery?’, The Age, 3 Mar 1971, p 3; John O’Farrell, ‘Gorton to invite US art expert’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Mar 1971, p 1; Patricia Rolfe, ‘The man for the job’, The Bulletin, 13 Mar 1971, p 16; Elwyn Lynn, ‘Advice to the art advisers’, The Bulletin, vol 93, no 4747, 20 Mar 1971, pp 57–8. For a detailed account of the furore surrounding the appointment of a director, see Pauline Green, ‘Three short histories’ in Green (ed), Building a collection, pp 15–17.
- James Johnson Sweeney, ‘Australian National Gallery—Fifth Report’, 25 Aug 1972, p 1. ‘Reports by James J. Sweeney on the National Gallery’, 1968–72, ACT Heritage Library.
- ‘$20,000 Prize for High Court design’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May 1972, p 3. The jury for the High Court design competition comprised Sir Garfield Barwick, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia; Sir John Overall, Chairman, NCDC; Professor Peter H Karmel, Chairman of the Australian Universities Commission (AUC); EH Farmer, NSW Government Architect; and Daryl Jackson, architect.
- Annual Report, National Capital Development Commission, 1971/72, p 11.
- Penleigh Boyd, interview with the author, 4 Mar 2022.
- EMTB, ‘Around the World in 80 days’, report to the Gallery Council, dated Jul 1978. Colin Madigan Papers, MS9863, Box 7, National Library of Australia.
- Key museums and sites included (among others not listed here): Singapore; Palace of Minos, Knossos, Crete; Athens; Santorini; Paros; Sifnos; Delphi; Capodimonte, Naples; Palazzo Borghese, Rome; Vatican Museum, Rome; Bargello, Florence; Uffizi, Florence; Accademia, Venice; Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice; Museum, Vicenza; Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza; Milan, Neue National Gallerie, Berlin; Dresden; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Kroller Muller Museum in Otterlo; Cologne Cathedral; Rodin Museum, Paris; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Brussels; Bruges; National Gallery, London; British Museum, London; Sainsbury Centre, Norwich; Whitney Museum, New York; The Cloisters, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Yale University Art Gallery and Centre for the British Art, New Haven; National Gallery, Washington, DC; Hirschorn Museum, Washington, DC; Houston; Mexico City; Lima; Santiago; and Easter Island. EMTB, ‘Around the World in 80 days May–July 1978’, report to the Gallery Council, dated July 1978. MS128, Box 7, National Library of Australia.
- Renato Giacco, interview with the author, 11 Mar 2022.
- Penleigh Boyd, interview with the author, 4 Mar 2022.
- Roger Johnson, ‘The architecture of the garden’, in McGillick (ed), Falls the shadow, p 124.
- Harry Howard and Associates, Sculpture Gardens: Australian National Gallery, Study 1, Sept 1978. Howard and Buchanan were assisted in choosing and sourcing local indigenous plants by Peter Sutton, a horticulturalist employed by the NCDC as a landscape manager. He was instrumental in sourcing and testing many of the shrub and understorey plantings. See Neil Hobbs, ‘National Gallery of Australia Sculpture Garden’, ArchitectureAU, 14 Oct 2013, https://architectureau.com/articles/the‑national‑gallery‑of‑australia‑sculpture‑garden.
- Harijs Piekalns, ‘Art in landscape’ in Pauline Green (ed), Building the collection, Canberra, ACT, National Gallery of Australia, 2003, p 321.
- Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, speech given at the opening of the Australian National Gallery, 12 Oct 1982. See Ceremonial opening of the Australian National Gallery, brochure, 1982, p 6.
- Chairman of the Australian National Gallery, Gordon Darling, speech given at the opening of the Australian National Gallery, 12 Oct 1982. See Ceremonial opening of the Australian National Gallery, brochure, 1982, p 6. MS128, Box 6, Folder 5, National Gallery of Australia Research Library and Archives.