The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) has submitted a State Significant Development Application for Sydney Modern, the planned $344-million gallery expansion led by Japan-based practice SANAA in collaboration with Architectus. Concurrent with the application, the gallery has released the project’s redesign for public comment.

Contrary to the original design concept, the redesign of Sydney Modern has been proposed as a standalone extension on the northern side of AGNSW. Once complete, it will represent a near doubling of the gallery’s existing floorspace. According to a design statement released by the gallery, the proposed development will “provide a significant increase in the gallery’s capabilities to accommodate future increases in visitation, including doubling of guided school student visits per year”. It will also allow AGNSW to facilitate some of the larger travelling exhibitions from overseas, as well as to showcase works that are currently being held in storage.

AGNSW chose to revisit the original design for Sydney Modern following a change in budget. Initially, the design was based on a budget of $450 million. After the NSW government announced $244 million in funding towards the project, the gallery revealed it will seek an additional $100 million, bringing the total new project cost to $344 million.

Draft designs initially released by SANAA proposed an extension to the existing building that would be physically attached to its facilities and which would partially jut out over the harbour. New designs instead show an entirely separate building with its own entry plaza, retail and hospitality facilities, visitor amenities and exhibition spaces.

The complex site area targeted for the new design includes a decommissioned fuel bunker that sits at the lower level along Lincoln Crescent (targeted for adaptive re-use for the project), a land bridge over the Eastern Distributor freeway and a steeped landscape area across Art Gallery Road from the Royal Botanic Garden’s Woolloomooloo Gate entrance.

“SANAA’s design responds to the unique project site with a series of pavilions that cascade towards Sydney Harbour and Woolloomooloo,” reads a design statement released by AGNSW. “The pavilions will sit low and lightly on the site, shifting gently along the natural topography of the land to preserve existing trees and [sightlines].

“The new building is sensitively complementary to the historic grandeur of our existing gallery building, with the height of the entry plaza roof below the height of the existing building’s Vernon fa├žade cornice.”

New facilities will be connected to old via a land bridge that will improve views over the harbour and be landscaped with an “art garden”. This latter is to be developed in conjunction with Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, and will incorporate endemic ecological species and historic species associated with the ‘Governor’s Domain’.

According to SANAA, integration with the “rich natural setting” was key to the design concept for Sydney Modern. “An important concept is to mix the landscape with the built form to blur the boundary between the natural and the built,” says the architect.

“The proposal for the Sydney Modern Project places a series of pavilions on the existing topography in a compact manner to allow each pavilion to be surrounded by landscape. Between the Domain, the Royal Botanic Garden and the [Art Gallery of NSW] is the [new] entry plaza, which is an open, weather-protected area for the public accessible at all times, day and night.

“The entry plaza is sited between the entrance to the existing building and the new building. This space is placed in the centre of many pedestrian paths and will become an active space into which many activities will spill into from different directions. It is also a space which will be a central point for the improved access from the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“The program is divided into a series of low pavilions so that the buildings appear more integrated with the site. Each pavilion is oriented in a different direction responding to the landscape and towards specific views. [They] step down to follow the topography, to preserve as much as possible in the memory of the landscape.

“Paths and terraces, naturally created from the shifts and shape of the site, activate much of the outdoor spaces to display [artwork] or for visitors to rest.

“Most pavilions have a window towards special views and the public foyer is visually connected – and sometimes also accessible to – the exterior terraces or landscape. These visual and sometimes physical connections to the landscape [afford] new opportunities to display art with direct connections to the Sydney context.”

SANAA was selected for the design of the Sydney Modern Project in 2015 following an international design competition endorsed by both the Australian Institute of Architects and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. A two-and-a-half year engagement followed the competition, during which SANAA and the appointed executive architect, Architectus, worked alongside AGNSW to develop the competition scheme and to prepare related architectural documentation.

Sydney Modern is planned to open to the public at the end of 2021, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Art Gallery of NSW. The planning application can be viewed here.