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    ‘Floating box’ design revealed for Sydney University museum

    Kirsty Sier

    The University of Sydney has a formidable collection of art and artefacts. Its archaeological and historical materials originate from places as far-flung as the Middle East, Greece, Italy and Cyprus; it’s collection of these artefacts is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Balancing the scientific and archaeological elements of the collections is a robust selection of artistic works. The University Art collection comprises a range of artworks from Australia, Asia and Europe, including works of Chinese art and a series of Japanese woodcuts.

    Despite the scope of its collections, the university has struggled with paucity of space to exhibit it. Currently, there is room enough to display just one percent of the collections. This is a waste of resources; something that the university has identified, and is on track to change.

    Last year, The University of Sydney started seeking expressions of interest from architectural practices who wished to build a new museum for their Camperdown campus. Design submissions were sought from “locally-based, internationally-recognised, world-class architects that specialised in adaptive re-use, gallery and museum design, heritage, contemporary learning spaces and civic place-making experience, on projects more than $20 million, to performance the role as principle design consultant.”

    Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW) was the firm that emerged as the winner of the submissions process, beating out two other shortlisted practices: FJMT and Architectus. A site was chosen – adjacent to the Fisher Library, where the existing Fisher Tennis Centre on University Avenue sits – and JPW began their design for it.

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    After one year on the drawing board, the proposed designs for the Chau Chak Wing Museum have been revealed. Externally, the ‘floating box’ envelope makes use of all four sides: for native landscaping, for gathering and event space, for views and access, and for sheltered cafe areas.

    Although the museum’s design is purpose-built to function as a home for rare and precious collections of artefacts, it is also successful in remaining sensitive to the existing university context. The material and colour palettes in particular are complementary to established university buildings.

    The sharp, geometric form of the Chau Chak Wing Museum consists of a “floating white concrete box” that is anchored by a sandstone-coloured base of pre-cast concrete panels. A slit-shaped window, reminiscent of a letterbox opening, provides views out over the forecourt. The total height of the cantilevered building responds to that of Fisher Library to the south.

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    “Together with the Fisher Library to the south, the Chau Chak Wing Museum frames vistas to and from the Quadrangle and forms a new gateway to the campus,” reads a design statement from JPW.

    “The arrival sequence creates a transition between the large, open civic-scaled spaces of University Place and Eastern Avenue and the more intimate human-scaled spaces within and around the building.”

    As well as accommodating collections, the Chau Chak Wing Museum needed to accommodate the steady flow of students that occupy the campus. A forecourt sits at the entrance to the museum, providing open, public space for gatherings. It also opens out to view of the university’s Great Hall, which sits to the west. On the eastern edge of the site, which slopes towards Victoria Park, another series of open and public spaces – including a cafe terrace and space for functions and events – offer shelter.

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    Landscaping along the periphery of the Chau Chak Museum places an emphasis on low-maintenance and largely native flora. Some of the species selected for the site include kangaroo paw, watergum, English ivy, Gymea lily, Blue Coast rosemary and ‘white Anzac’.

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    Internally, the museum’s design carefully balances protected exhibition and study spaces with a sense of openness and light; its open and easily-navigable design effectively wards off any sense of claustrophobia.

    A central triple-height atrium forms the core of the building and links all levels. The atrium is punctuated with diffused skylights, which flood the floorplans with light. Open staircases snake throughout the levels, including ground- and lower-level galleries, and a series of study spaces that are interspersed with the exhibition rooms. A custom-made, large-scale vitrine functions as an additional link between the ground- and lower-level exhibition galleries.

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    In total, the Chau Chak Wing Museum has capacity to accommodate an estimated 700,000 items from The University of Sydney’s art and artefacts collections. It will provide approximately 1,800 square metres of exhibition space, significantly augmenting the number of works that the public has access to.

    JPW’s designs for the Chau Chak Wing Museum will be on public display via the NSW Planning & Environment website until 21 July 2017. The museum is scheduled for completion in late 2018.

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