The $121 million Auckland Art Gallery upgrade, extension and refurbishment scooped the country's top architecture prize last night.

Sydney firm fjmt and Auckland's Archimedia won the architectural medal, the Institute of Architects' highest national honour.

Designs for the project on its sensitive site beside Albert Park went to the Environment Court and some local architects have been seething about the involvement of the Australian practice in the biggest civic job in years.

British-born, Sydney-based Richard Francis-Jones of fjmt said he could understand that, but the job went out for international tender.


He referred to his city's opera house, being designed by a Danish architect but remaining Sydney's most beautiful building.

"You want to foster local architecture so it's a difficult balance. I understand sensitivities but a lot of people in New Zealand have been supportive,"

Mr Francis-Jones said, describing how the gallery fitted in with its natural surroundings.

He praised the kauri, which he had never worked with before, used to create the dramatic tree-like pod canopies above the building's Kitchener St entrance.

"The most exciting thing to see when the building opened was [how] people responded in a positive way and had a real sense of ownership.

"The whole concept of the building is like a forest with the canopies that extend the sense of Albert Park through the building," said Mr Francis-Jones, who also worked on extensions to Sydney's heritage building The Mint.

Lindsay Mackie, Archimedia principal, said the project was a true transtasman collaboration and he had invited the Australian practice to work on the project after they first worked together creating the University of Auckland's business school.

"There is no doubt that Richard evolved a brilliant and compelling concept for this important public project, but since that stage - particularly through the urban design, Environment Court, developed design, detailed design and construction phases - all design work has been shared.


"Both practices have contributed to the built outcome," Mr Mackie said, emphasising that many successful New Zealand buildings have come from international firms working with locals.

Hugh Tennent, the awards jury convener, said the gallery job overcame big challenges.

"The architects had to work with an existing heritage building and a sensitive site on the edge of the park as well as provide all the spaces and amenities required by a 21st century gallery.

"On all fronts, they have risen to the occasion," he said.

The architects had steered the building through a long and much-scrutinised construction process that included restoring and strengthening the existing 1888 heritage building, the judges said.

The beautifully crafted kauri canopies were just one of the gallery's dramatic elements.

This month the gallery announced visitor numbers had topped 500,000 in less than 10 months since its September reopening.

Picture perfect

Auckland Art Gallery has won:

* Supreme national award, Institute of Architects, last night.
* Project achievement award, museum/gallery development, Museum Awards, April.
* Heritage and public architecture awards, Institute of Architects, April.