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One of the biggest impacts of the newly expanded Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, is made at the programmatic level. Certainly, the more than 150-year-old institution’s new North building – designed by Pritzker Prize winners SANAA as a stack of volumes that cascades down to meet the Sydney Harbour – is impressive. But the project has more than just big design going for it. It also has a renewed direction, one that foregrounds Indigenous art and culture. And this is best represented in the elevated status of the Yiribana exhibition.

The central atrium provides views among the buildings interconnected levels.

Yiribana, which means “this way” in the Sydney language, was the name given to the art gallery’s dedicated space (opened in 1994) for the display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Once located in the basement of the original neoclassical museum, the collection now has pride of place on the ground floor – which is also the top-most level – of SANAA’s addition.

The Tank is the lowermost gallery, located in a decommissioned fuel tank bunker.

This 1,000-square-metre exhibition is the first that visitors to the newly refurbished and expanded gallery encounter. It sets the scene for the rest of the new North building, which unfolds as a series of four volumes from the ground level down – the interconnected floors spatially and visually linked by an atrium – until it reaches the Tank. This last, subterranean, gallery repurposes a bunker for two decommissioned oil tanks used during the Second World War.

The Inaugural Exhibition

In fact, SANAA was deeply inspired by the context, both natural and manmade, in designing the North building (which is connected to the existing 23,000-square-metre South building, whose footprint it almost doubles, via an art garden). “The terrain of the site is diverse,” the firm explains in its statement. “These tanks, roads, and the land bridge shape the site and we can see Sydney’s history of modernization.”

Light on the ground and iterated as gracefully as their other major works, the first project the firm has ever completed in Australia is a response to the location’s diverse elevations – “the low roofs step and shift gently along this topography to preserve existing significant trees, sight lines, and the contour of the site,” they say – with three of its roofs forming extensions of the landscape. Accessible and linked, the terraces provide 3,400 square metres of outdoor space.

The Welcome Pavilion is made with a canopy of light-diffusing glass.

Entrance to the gallery is through the Welcome Plaza, distinguished by its undulating canopy made of 108 curved sheets of form-cast glass inlaid with ceramic fritting. (The building’s facades, meanwhile, are glass, for the public spaces, and hand-assembled limestone brick, for the art pavilions). Inside, the galleries are restrained – more notable, as is apt, for their capaciousness than for any design embellishment – yet in a few key areas, SANAA has added unusual texture.

The most surprising element is a rammed earth wall, spanning 250 metres, that curves through two storeys. It creates a visual link to the limestone of the exterior façade and introduces a warmth uncommon to gallery spaces.

A rammed earth wall traverses two storeys of galleries and 250 metres.

The rammed earth also speaks to the project’s sustainability. The building is powered by renewable energy, with more than 10 percent of it generated by solar panels on the entrance pavilion roof. There is rainwater capture and harvesting for irrigation and cooling, and approximately 70 per cent of the new gallery is constructed above existing structures, including the concrete roof over the WWII naval oil tanks. What’s more, the project is expected to increase biodiversity by adding 70 per cent more trees to the site thanks to its ambitious landscaping plan.

SANAA Expands – and Modernizes – the Art Gallery of New South Wales

A cascade of minimalist boxes, SANAA’s addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales brings a modern complement to the neoclassical building.

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