Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Auckland's inside-out theatre

Eleven years and $121 million in the making, the new Auckland Art Gallery is a grand design. But it hasn't been without its problems, writes Chris Barton - budget blowouts and court action.

Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa with his floral chandelier which hangs in the foyer of the new gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell
Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa with his floral chandelier which hangs in the foyer of the new gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell

Venture into Albert Park's "woodland" - past the band rotunda and down the hill towards Kitchener St - and you're sure to get a surprise. Not just the sight of the hovering kauri canopies of the glittering new $121 million Auckland Art Gallery, but also the art, in plain view. "You'll actually see work from the park pathway and look into the building and see work on the inside," enthuses gallery director Chris Saines. "We've integrated this big work looping and moving across the terrace. Parts will disappear into the gallery below, then re-emerge on the terrace again."

Saines is talking about Modified Social Bench by Danish artist Jeppe Hein, which lollops along a new sculpture terrace, complete with its own espresso bar, above a new glass-walled gallery. Both face Albert Park. "It's like a bus shelter bench that takes a curvilinear roller coaster path."

Saines barely catches breath before he's off again - he can't help it - about another piece: the colourful floral chandelier by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, suspended in the 14.5m high entrance atrium.

"It has over-life-size petals and leaves in a bouquet formation with red berries at the centre. It kinetically moves in a clockwise and counter-clockwise direction simultaneously."

It's astonishing. So is the see-through glass - made from high-grade silica sand with hardly any of the iron oxides which give normal glass its greenish hue. It makes the atrium's glass cube extraordinarily transparent, affording clear views from Kitchener St through to Albert Park and vice versa.

"We wanted to make the activity of the gallery visible as much as possible to the activity of the park and the street," says Saines.

"This wasn't to be the vault-come-citadel on the hill that was impervious to the gaze." Not at all. This was to be a building to be gazed at, through and from - a building where the inside came out, and the outside came in. Saines wanted it to be "inviting, opening and welcoming", a building with an expanded footprint that deliberately spilled its beans to passers-by.

"Hopefully that will act as an enticement to enter."

While the design's organic canopy forms were always intended to have an attractive "open space interface" with the city and the park, the Environment Court made extra sure - insisting, in 2009, that the glass had "a visible light transmission (VLT) of no less than 81 per cent and a visible light reflection of no greater than 9 per cent".

Saines bristles at the mention of Environment Court. It was the low point in the 11-year saga of building the gallery. The interaction with the court - the result of a few individuals appealing the building's resource consent - lasted almost three years. It created uncertainty, causing private funding efforts to dry up, delayed the building, resulted in an ungainly redesign of some of the canopies and caused a budget blow-out of several million dollars.

Saines is too diplomatic to say what he really thinks. "I wouldn't go there." But he likes the result - including the court requirement for a higher VLT than the architects had already specified. The design's openness, he says, is "a nice democratic gesture". He hopes soon to have art that is viewable only from the park - displayed on the outside of the train of segmented walls alongside the gallery's glass curtain.

"People constantly talk about galleries being places for the elite when it's so much the opposite," says Saines. "You'd never say that about Museum of Modern Art or the Tate Gallery - they are places for everyone."

In the world of grand designs there is always a driving force - someone irrepressible in the face of the inevitable setbacks, who will not be swayed from their path. For the Auckland Art Gallery, the force of nature is undoubtedly Saines, who seized the day in 2000 and pushed the project through against the odds. In August 2010 the Art Gallery Board expressed its thanks and admiration of "a strong leader, advocate and builder of a visual arts legacy for Auckland".

It was through Saines' advocacy that the building got the $121 million budget needed to make it great - securing $31.5 million from central government and then establishing the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation, led by John Judge, which has raised $20.53 million so far. For their patronage, the donors get naming rights. Hence the Gibbs, Harriet and Michael Friedlander and Farmer galleries, the Edmiston Trust terraces, the ASB Community Trust forecourt and so on.

The former Auckland City Council pledged $56.1 million leaving a shortfall of $12.9 million. Ultimately the new Auckland Council picks up the tab, but Saines is sure private funding will continue to flow. The end result is that Auckland has got a rare commodity - a public building that is architecture with a capital "A" - something Aucklanders can feel proud of, a building that many will soon call iconic.

Next Saturday the new gallery's doors will be flung open. Aucklanders enticed to step inside (entry and viewing is free) are in for a treat: an art gallery more than doubled in size and doubled in display area, a room-by-room narrative of New Zealand art from the contemporary to pre-Treaty of Waitangi taonga, masses of new artwork on display - some that's long been hidden away or forgotten, plus the entire $115 million "promised gift" of early 20th century works from the collection of Julian and Josie Robertson along with new, purpose-made Maori and Pacific art - carved into the kauri columns (Arnold Manaaki Wilson), on the northern face (Fred Graham) and adorning gallery thresholds (Lonnie Hutchinson).

The architecture is worth a look too, family-friendly and offering surprises at every turn. The grandeur of the entrance atrium is best felt by crossing one of two narrow bridges. From the upper bridge it's hard to resist running a hand over the smooth surface of the atrium's slender columns, encased in fallen and recycled kauri. The columns are actually steel, but clad in kauri with a pronounced entasis - a bulge about two-thirds up tapering to a narrow joint at the canopies.

"We wanted the column to stand like a figure," says lead architect Richard Francis-Jones, of the distorted cigar shape. Australian firm Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp designed the gallery in association with New Zealand firm Archimedia. For Francis-Jones, using kauri for the first time was a privilege. It's the most beautiful timber I've ever touched."

The lower bridge crosses the atrium alongside a balustrade of water which falls behind part of the glass. It provides a filtering effect, "fracturing the light" says Saines - a "dappling, variegated surface". The bridge leads to what may well be one of the most perfectly positioned cafes in Auckland - elevated, north facing and framing views of the park and branches of "T12," the 120-year-old pohutukawa that was so much discussed during the resource consent phase.

The best seating in the house will be on the cafe terrace, where diners can get up close and personal with the handcrafted double curvatures of the kauri ceiling canopies and bask in the timber's golden glow. Here the canopies make a cave-like veranda, feathered at the edge with louver blades protruding into Kitchener St and Khartoum Pl below.

The idea for the canopies (don't call them pods), says Francis-Jones, came from the canopy of trees in Albert Park, particularly the pohutukawa. "We wanted to make a building that was like a forest - an extension of the canopies through the building." It did away with the architecture of walls by making a series of terrace floors and canopy roofs with very little in-between. "The irony is you make an art gallery without walls that is completely transparent." To pull it off meant using large expanses of glass and "fine pencil-like columns" so everything appeared light and airy.

Supporting a roof on slender columns while resisting wind and seismic loads was an engineering nightmare, solved through a "facade tensioning system". The engineering cleverness, delivered by Holmes Consulting, is essentially a series of thin stainless steel rods that run vertically from the floor to the roof, where they are "wound" into tension with jacks. Barely visible in the glass facade, the rods not only hold the glass in place, but tie the building down and stop it from wobbling. Hidden structure is a common theme. Just as the columns have a concealed steel core, so do the canopies, which are a complex web of interlocked skewed steel trusses - their undersides formed into fan vaults of intricately patterned kauri boards.

The gallery is also a lesson in heritage restoration. The three-storey 1887 "French Renaissance chateau-style" building that bends around the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley streets, with its central clock tower, steeply pitched slate roofs and ornate dormers, has been seismically strengthened. Designed in 1884 by Melbourne architects Grainger and d'Ebro, the refurbished building highlights some lovingly restored features. The corner spiral stair is now viewable, but not climbable - the banister too low for today's safety standards. On opening day the clock's chimes will ring again and the tower flagpole will fly the New Zealand flag.

Some of the restoration comes with compromise - such as the raised floor in the old East Gallery built in 1916. With its reinstated clerestory lantern-light roof, arches, columns and plaster friezes, the space is returned to its former glory - except for the floating floor 1.5m above the columns' base. The new floor was needed to rationalise the jumble of discordant levels in the old gallery and is acknowledged by a glass inlay allowing visitors to peer into the past below. Francis-Jones is untroubled by the outcome. "It is an example of where the new and the existing really do intersect."

Old and new also meet - almost - in the south atrium. The contrast is best appreciated on the bridge leaving the mezzanine level of the revitalised Grey Gallery, which was originally the public library. The wedge-shaped space was once a courtyard between the 1887 building and the now-demolished Mackelvie wing built in 1893 - of which three pilasters set into a new wall are all that remain. The triangular ceiling of the atrium - floating like some high tech aerofoil sail - is set back from the old building by a perimeter strip of skylight that keeps old and new respectfully apart. "It's like hands that intersect but don't quite touch," says Francis-Jones. "It's quite successful because both buildings kind of breathe and the interrelationship as an issue between them disappears, because there is no tension created."

At the top of the southern atrium stairs, which descend to the clock tower foyer on Kitchener St, is another enormous expanse of glass - in 7m-high sheets - also looking into Albert Park. The view out - a close-up of tree branches and landscape, framed by the window and flattened by the filtered tree-canopy light - seems as though it's an artwork in its own right.

That the new building was designed to relate sensitively to the park and its heritage neighbour is at odds with the appeal to the Environment Court which raised concerns the "woodland" part of the park would be harmed and the new building would adversely affect the old. "Ironic isn't it?" says Francis-Jones, who nevertheless defends the process, saying people have a right to ask questions and architects should be able to explain why something should be built. Eventually the court mostly agreed the design was worthwhile and would improve both the park and the heritage relationships.

The court did, however, impose a significant design change on the height of the top floor canopies over the new daylight gallery - to protect a view shaft from Elliot St along Wellesley St to the old art gallery. It was a bizarre ruling - the judge himself pointing out that technically the canopies weren't blocking the view because they were behind the heritage building. Plus, the view shaft is already compromised by a large, protected, deciduous pin oak on the widened footpath of Wellesley St that obscures the gallery for much of the year.

"I had thought the beautiful pattern of kauri canopies sitting just behind the mansard slate roof of the existing building and the tree canopy of Albert Park beyond would be a beautiful set of relationships, but I was unable to persuade everyone about that," says Francis-Jones philosophically.

If only our court had the gift of imagination. Saines is disappointed, too, that the top floor gallery doesn't have the proportions he'd hoped for. As for everything else, he's delighted.

"I didn't want a building that simply aped architecture of the past. Just as the old gallery is a strong, proud, highly articulated, beautifully decorated building of the late 19th century, I wanted this building to be a strong proud citizen of the 21st century."

Herald Arts editor Linda Herrick toured the Auckland Art Gallery's Victorian Collection with curator Mary Kisler in Saturday's Arts section.

- NZ Herald

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