National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Australia. Photo by John Gollings. 

National Gallery of Australia. Photo by John Gollings. 

The hypothetical site for the 2016 Tapestry Design Prize for Architects is the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). The National Gallery of Australia is the national art museum of Australia as well as the largest art museum in the country, holding more than 166,000 works of art. Located in Canberra, it was established in 1967 by the Australian government as a national public art museum.


The Site

The specific site the tapestry is to be designed for is on Level 1 of Col Madigan’s original building, on a bush hammered concrete wall that is one of the exterior walls of the James Fairfax Theatre.

Originally an external wall, it is now a feature of Andrew Anderson's new entry building. The wall can be seen above when entering the NGA, and becomes more prominent as you climb the escalators to Level 1 and the NGA's main galleries. The width of the wall from column to the end of the wall is 7700mm. The height of the wall from the floor of the balcony to the top of the bush hammered concrete wall is 7500mm. Adjacent to the wall is a viewing balcony (4080mm wide) used to access the Indigenous  Art Galleries.

This wall is seen in the distance on entering the building and becomes more exposed as you travel up the escalator to level 1 and through to the main part of the gallery displays. There is a viewing balcony 4080mm wide adjacent that you walk along to access the new galleries of indigenous art.

The wall is lit from wall washers in the ceiling and in the afternoon is illuminated by the glow of the sun lit marble wall opposite. There is also an illuminated line of opaque white glass that follows the top of the wall, and a frosted glass detail along the bottom that separates the original building with the extension.

A PDF of images of the site, floor plan & background information about the site can be downloaded here.

Background Information - NGA


In 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that the government would build an Australian National Gallery in Canberra to house the National Collection. Following Cabinet approval in 1970, the winning architect, Colin Madigan, was appointed to develop the complex that included the High Court of Australia on King Edward Terrace.

The major challenge in designing the National Gallery of Australia was how best to display works of art to the public, while conserving and storing these works in absolute physical and environmental security. A further challenge was to accommodate curatorial, administrative and technical staff, and provide extensive facilities for the gallery's educative, scholarly and public relations functions. James Sweeney, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, was employed as a consultant and proposed a plan based on a `spiral' progression of galleries, of contrasting sizes and heights, allowing the greatest flexibility in the arrangement of exhibitions. Sweeney emphasised that viewers should not be distracted from the works of art by outside views through windows.

Entrance level galleries before the installation of art works, showing the staircase leading to the Australian art galleries, November 1981

The galleries are arranged on three levels. The entrance level is composed of large almost cathedral like rooms. These rooms are used for the exhibition of the Gallery's Indigenious art collection, International art collection and major focus exhibitions. The Gallery's upper level contains a series of more intimate galleries with parquetry floors that are used to display the Gallery's collection of Australian art as well as smaller focus exhibitions of Austalian works. The lower level of the gallery originally designed as a sculpture gallery with a greater proportion of natural light also has high ceilings that give a sense of monumentality. The building's north-facing section houses the public refreshment and rest areas, the Staff Lounge and the Members Lounge. While catching the winter sun, these areas also provide spectacular views of the Sculpture Garden, Lake Burley Griffin, Mount Ainslie and the City Centre.

Much of the building is made of reinforced bush-hammered concrete — an example of Madigan's philosophy that concrete has as much integrity as stone. Concrete slabs are the main facings for walls; they are also the major reinforcing structural component, enclosing and camouflaging numerous service shafts and ducts. Floor coverings vary: there is quarry-split slate in the lower level galleries. large brick tiles in the entrance level galleries, and wood (tulip oak) in the upper level galleries.


Panorama of the National Gallery of Australia in construction c.1978

Facts about the building

  • The National Gallery's floor area is approximately 20,573 square metres; approximately 7,000 square metres are devoted to exhibition space.
  • The temperature is maintained at 22–23 degrees Celsius, and at 55 per cent relative humidity.
  • The air filter has the capacity to remove 85 per cent of all dust particles down to one micron.
  • Air is supplied at ceiling level and extracted at floor level.
  • There are over 1,500 display lights of 500–1,000 watts in use during opening hours.
  • The legislation instituting the National Gallery of Australia went before Parliament in 1971 and the National Gallery Act was passed in 1975.
  • The building was constructed between 1974 and 1982; this was managed by P.D.C. Constructions Pty. Ltd. (ACT) under the supervision of the National Capital Development Commission.
  • Construction of Stage 1, which is designed by Andrew Andersons AM of PTW Architects, commenced in the latter half of 2007, was completed in September 2010 and opened to the public on 1 October 2010.
  • The National Gallery of Australia was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 12 October 1982.

Architects Statement

The Gallery has a complex structure — though the genesis of this complexity is a simple triangle. It was the intention of the architectural concept to implant into the grammar of the design a sense of freedom so that the building could be submitted to change and variety but would always express its true purpose. It became in a sense like a Gothic building in that elements could be added or subtracted without damaging the overall principles.

A flexible geometric law to discipline this idea was found to be a tessellation of regular triangles and hexagons, what may be called a Trihex (image one, The geometry of Stonehenge ) — and this is the geometry on which the design concept is based. The building expresses itself in a mute geometric language. There is a harmony, an ordering of elements in the Gallery building. A unity in the variety of its spaces.

The agreement between the building and its geometry is so cogent it organises the shapes, scale and dimensions of all elements within it to express this harmony.

Knowledge makes prodigious journeys. Pythagoras (image two) proved that the world of sound is governed by exact numbers (image three), he went on to prove that the same thing is true of the world of vision.

The simple numerical structure of the equilateral triangle (image four) extended into the third dimension produces tetrahedral (image five) and octahedral (image six) crystals and this geometric evolvement generates a harmony within the building.

The building is a special kind of space and there are only certain kinds of symmetries which this space can support.

The design of the Gallery building has a peculiar inquisitiveness that combines the adventure of its planned communication with this geometric logic where the numbers dovetail and say this is a part of, a key to, the structure of the building.

The equilateral triangle is the nucleus of this structural code dictating the dimensions and character of the building and producing a desirable unity in all areas of the Gallery.

This is realised primarily in the triagrid concrete space frame ceiling/floor systems serving the small galleries and extends to the steel space frames spanning the great gallery spaces. The basic three dimensional law and the inherent flexibility this system contains ensures a potential to express the manifold, complex and interconnected needs of structure, services, aesthetics and the essential neutrality for the display of art within the gallery spaces. Within this grid the mechanical and lighting services are integrated to serve the ceilings and floors.

The detail forming the landscape of this building is full of exact adaptions (image nine)— each element is governed and controlled by the geometry to fit the environment like one cog wheel into another.

The realisation becomes more subtle and penetrating as the elements combine in complex and intimate ways. Architecture as a force brings our attention to visual continuities or absolutes through principles that run or recur from one civilization to another. We can link back to history and traditions in subtle ways and this in turn gives to the observer a feeling of comfort.

The total ethos of the Australian National Gallery does this.

Col Madigan
'Architect's Statement' was previously published in the National Gallery publication: Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Canberra 1976


The opening of the National Gallery in 1982 concluded a planning, design and construction period of fourteen years. In 1968 the government announced a limited competition to establish an approach to the design of a national gallery in Canberra, inviting thirteen Australian architectural firms to submit proposals for a building to be completed in the early 1970s. The then Prime Minister, John Gorton, remarked:

It is very important that the design of the gallery should reflect the most modern thinking of the present day, that it should be particular to Australia, and be an expression of the national character.

The Sydney firm Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Partners won the competition, with a design by the senior partner of the firm, Colin Madigan, leading the team of Christopher Kringas, Renato Giacco and Michael Rolfe. Announcing the winner in July 1968, the Prime Minister stated:

The competition had as its aim not a final design for the building but rather the selection of a vigorous and imaginative architect who would then be commissioned to submit the actual design of the Gallery. I believe that the competition has achieved that aim. Although a site for the Gallery is not yet finally determined, the selection of the architect allows the planning for the National Gallery to proceed to the next stage.

The design concept had been developed for a national gallery on Capital Hill, not beside Lake Burley Griffin. A proposal for a National Centre, promulgated in 1963 by the authority for Canberra, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), had suggested a Capital Hill location for the gallery with other national institutions, and a central lakeside site for the new Parliament House.1 The National Gallery’s ultimate lakeside position was not decided until May 1970 after lengthy debate concerning the siting of Parliament House – which was finally located at the summit of Capital Hill. At its lakeside site, the Gallery forms part of the Parliamentary Triangle, with Parliament House symbolically at the apex, the National Library of Australia within the north-west angle and the High Court of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia within the north-east angle at the base of the triangle.

Artist's impression of the Gallery's main entrance from the pedestrian concourse, Australian National Gallery, Canberra: NCDC, 1974

A design brief for the National Gallery at this new location was given to the architects who developed the detailed building program during the latter part of 1970 and early 1971, with extensive input from consultant JJ Sweeney and the Gallery’s founding Director, James Mollison.2 Sketch plans were approved in April 1971 by the Gallery’s Interim Council, the NCDC and the government. On 8 November 1973, a plaque marking the start of construction was unveiled by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam,3 with the expectation that the Gallery would be completed by 1976.4

The adjacent High Court of Australia had also been designed by Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Partners. Both buildings form a powerful grouping of sculptural, yet functional elements that visually balance the composition of other major structures within the Parliamentary Triangle. They were to form an integral part of a proposed National Place linking them to the National Library via elevated pedestrian walkways and a vast public square.5

The only completed part of this plan is the pedestrian overpass between the National Gallery and High Court buildings. The area is now the site of Commonwealth Place and Reconciliation Place, opened in July 2002.

A combination of diminished capital project funding and a government priority for the completion of the High Court by 1980 meant that construction of the Gallery was temporarily halted in 1975 and would not be completed until October 1981 . The building, which was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 12 October 1982, won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (ACT) Canberra Medallion in 1982 and is listed on Australia’s Register of the National Estate.

The National Gallery of Australia is the most substantial and complex of Madigan’s buildings, a powerful structure reflecting his beliefs in organic evolution, the expression of materials, environmental integration and functional design that grows from human needs.

Robert Bell
Senior Curator Decorative Arts and Design


1 The National Centre design was prepared for the NCDC by William Holford & Partners of London. See Roger Johnson, ‘The siting and design of the building’, in James Mollison and Laura Murray (eds), Australia National Gallery: an Introduction, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982, pp.19–28.

2 James Mollison Sweeney, consultant to the NCDC on the Gallery project, was formerly the founding Director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York and Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; he made several influential visits to Canberra. James Mollison was appointed Acting Director of the Gallery in 1971 and Director in 1977.

3 The plaque is located at ground level, under the walkway between the National Gallery and High Court buildings.

4 The builder was PDC Constructions (ACT), a subsidiary of White Industries Ltd, under the supervision of the NCDC.

5 The 400 square metre National Place, proposed in 1971 by Roger Johnson, chief architect of the NCDC, was abandoned in 1975.