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Design inspirations behind the Museum building

Sue Dove, Coffey Projects, 29 April 2009

KRISTINE SCHEUL: Good morning everybody. My name is Kristine Scheul and I am the current ACT chair of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here this morning and fantastic to see so many of you.

Thank you for coming to what is our first event at the National Museum of Australia. I would like to extend our greatest thanks specifically to Greer Gehrt who has been speaking with Sue Dove about getting this off the ground today and her colleagues who are here today and supported this event. We would like to think the Museum for giving us the use of this magnificent theatre that you will also hear a bit more about from Sue. I would also like to thank Coffey Projects. Sue is currently a project manager with Coffey Projects. They have graciously allowed her to give us her time today and in preparing for today’s event.

We are so lucky to have someone like Sue Dove talking to us today. Not only I am extremely honoured to call her one of my friends and committee members in the ACT for NAWIC but also Sue is someone who is very passionate about what she does, and you will hear that passion in her talk today about this particular project.

Sue worked in 2000 with the architects Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan in association with Ashton Raggatt McDougall who were the design team for the National Museum of Australia. Sue was working as the senior designer and was on site for about nine months as part of the design and delivery team and was responsible for ensuring the implementation of the detailed design. In between working at the Museum and her current position with Coffey Projects, Sue has had a marvellous career - she calls it a checkered career - but one of those being a design lecturer at the CIT. We are glad to see so many of the design students from the CIT here today.

I won’t take up too much time or steal any of Sue’s thunder in relation to her talk. After Sue’s talk I will be walking around with a roving microphone so, if you have any questions, store them up and ask Sue at the end. Please welcome Sue to the podium and be kind to her. Thank you.

SUE DOVE: Good morning everyone and welcome, and thank you to so many people for turning up. I should be looking around to see the real Sue Dove stand up because it doesn’t sound quite like me - but anyway. For those of you who I promised the cheque is in the mail; for those of you who are suffering injuries from twisted arms please send your medical bills to my legal representation Kristine Scheul. It’s been quite a while since I have done a presentation like this so please bear with me as I settle in this event.

I believe that we are very fortunate to be part of a nation which is steeped in a history which spans from the ancient beginnings in the Dreamtime to the twenty-first century today. We are now one of the most multicultural nations in the contemporary world. The fabric of our history is rich in its culture, knowledge, values and origin, and it is one of the richest in the world.

My story is only one thread, as are the individual stories of each person here. As the three-year-old daughter of ten pound Pom immigrants in the 1960s, no-one, least of all me, could have believed that my thread in this fabric would lead me to be one small part of a team of amazing individuals who came together to create the buildings that we find ourselves in today.

I was fortunate to be part of a project which embodied my two great passions: design of the built environment and the history of society. For without the ability to articulate where we came from, how can we understand who we are today or be able to inform our future generations?

The National Museum of Australia complex provides that place of focus for the stories of all Australians, both historically and socially. Somewhere in these buildings each of you will find something that you recognise or remember which ties you to the fabric of our Australian culture. With a building such as this, it is important to understand how the built form responds to its purpose and its sense of place, because it is in itself and of itself part of the story of this nation.

Let us begin our journey with what was at the time of construction truly a culture shock. If we transplanted this complex of buildings anywhere in the world the National Museum of Australia would certainly be startling. But nowhere more so than here in Canberra - our nation’s purpose-built manicured parliamentary capital, with its typical stately white, grey and stone buildings. These have all been carefully arranged to respect Walter Burley Griffin’s master plan which was devised in 1911, and amongst this background the National Museum is a colourful explosion of asymmetric form.

The organic melee of buildings form a rim around Acton Peninsula, in the same way as Australia’s major cities cling to the edge of the continent. The complex could appear as a giant, dormant, mythical creature waiting to awaken and display its magic.

At the centre of the bright bold circle of colour is open space known as the Garden of Australian Dreams, which mirrors our vast interior. All of these buildings are rich in metaphor and symbolism. The Museum evokes many images. It could be read as a promenade at the water’s edge or perhaps as a sports stadium which embraces an oval with spectators performing a ‘Mexican wave’.

Created by an act of parliament in 1980, it would be 21 years before the National Museum of Australia found its permanent home. The aim of the building and its contents was to ‘anchor’ a society which continually questions, explores and re-invents itself. The building was to use literal and abstract metaphors to create an emotionally engaging dialogue with the subject matter. It was to be a major tourist attraction, reflecting the culture of all states and territories, and it became tagged as the Commonwealth’s flagship for the Centenary of Federation.

This Museum is a social history museum. Its charter is to tell the stories of the nation and to express the nation’s cultural identity through the three broad themes of land, nation and people. These themes were initially presented to the Museum visitors in the rotating Circa theatre, which I believe has recently undergone some renovation.

In 1997, following funding approval of $151.9 million by the then Prime Minister John Howard, an international design competition was held and drew 76 entries. Walter Burley Griffin’s original axes for the city radiated from Capital Hill to all state and territory capitals symbolically linking them to the parliamentary heart of the country. The internal axes of the city form an equilateral triangle, linking City Hill, Capital Hill and Russell, the headquarters of our Defence Force. The competition brief required an extension of Griffin’s geometry along King Edward Terrace and then linking the site to the surrounding city.

Melbourne architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall, otherwise known as ARM, in association with the Canberra practice Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan, together with Sydney-based landscape architects Room 4.1.3, created the winning design. The result was an amazing re-interpretation of combination of Griffin’s axes and the new axes, which respond metaphorically and physically to the site, as well as responding to the notion of entwined stories of the land, nation and people.

ARM draw references for their work from literature, art, sculpture, mathematics, popular culture and the unconscious. They are not afraid to be controversial and they don’t shy away from the visual pun or a literal metaphor. They scan, photocopy and distort images of existing buildings which can be used as a basis for their own built designs.

Here you will find direct reference to Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, which can be seen in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. For those of you who are not familiar with that building, it is just on the other side of the car park. It is a separate building and not specifically part of the Museum.

You will also find reference to Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin which is duplicated in the Gallery of First Australians and at the time created considerable controversy.

Further, you will find Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and Saarinen’s TWA terminal at New York’s John F Kennedy’s airport seen referenced in the Main Hall. Typically of ARM’s work, these references and many others have created an enormous debate.

If we are to question the built form of our major public buildings, consider the question in a more familiar context: what does an Australian house look like? Should it replicate the row or terrace houses familiar to the early European settlers or perhaps the Californian bungalow style? Is this the great Australian dream - our very own home on a quarter-acre block complete with its own antipodean garden gnome? And further, what should an Australian church look like?

So from where should we draw our references for the design of an Australian museum? Let us consider examples of design history in a more Australian context. Since the 1960s, the celebrated architect Glen Murcutt has re-interpreted traditional Australian rural building materials, and the built form, to create contemporary building designs which respond to their environment and are uniquely Australian in character.

Francis Greenway, transported and convicted forger, was our first government architect and ironically commemorated on our original $10 note. He directly transposed building forms from the mother country to the Australian environment. There was a cultural expectation in this new land to replicate the familiarity of English architecture, regardless of whether it was suitable for the local conditions. His initial career choice proved fortuitous to the success of his later life.

Further afield, renowned American architect Eero Saarinen was a judge for the international design competition for the Sydney Opera House. At the time he was designing the TWA terminal at John F Kennedy airport in New York. On his return to America, Saarinen, influenced by the designs that he had seen by Utzon, re-designed the shells for the terminal and they became an integral component of his design. So the manipulation and appropriation of design elements and concepts is nothing new. In fact, it has been taking place for centuries. Perhaps it’s the directness of design appropriation and manipulation by ARM which has become so controversial.

Less obvious, perhaps, are the official references and implied symbolism within the design of the National Museum. The Main Hall is the focal point of the complex and, like the very heart of a living creature, the life blood flows in and out of this space. All paths lead through here.

Through the extension of the new King Edward Terrace and City Hill axes and the twisting and contorting of them over the peninsula, the analogy to the Dreamtime serpent becomes apparent. If we then translate this into a three-dimensional image, you can see that Bea Maddock’s Philosophy Tape could well have been the original concept model for this project. Imagine that these axes take on a three-dimensional form which is pentagonal in section and follow the yellow path in this illustration. A cast can be formed over the carefully structured tangle, which was created by the application of Boolean mathematics. I can assure you if any of you asks me any mathematics about Boolean mathematics later, I will not be able to answer them. The cast is then removed and it leaves the negative space which forms the public space of the Main Hall. The strings of the axes meander and twist around this site, forming roller coaster loops and cutting deep and bloody scars into the facades and internal volumes. Finally, they evolve into a curled ribbon which directs us to Uluru, and therefore symbolically links the ancient heart of Australia to the young federal capital.

Let us return for a moment to an iconic image in the childhood of nearly everyone in this room, I would think - and all Australians - and take a look through the round window. The Garden of Australian Dreams is the National Museum’s ‘backyard’ and it is essentially a hard landscaped area. The design relies on a variety of superimposed maps: most obviously the standard English language map and Horton’s map of the linguistic boundaries of Indigenous Australia. Added to this are maps which show electoral boundaries, road maps, a weather map from Australia Day in 1998, maps of the history of Australia’s exploration, and soil and geological maps.

A further layer of information is added in the form of geographical oddities. The dingo fence, which runs from South Australian coast to the Queensland coast and was intended to prevent dingoes moving eastward, is represented by steel posts which cross a segment of the vast open courtyard. And finally, the word ‘home’ has been translated into many languages which are spoken in contemporary Australia, and they have been printed intermittently across the hard surface of the entire map.

The harshness of the landscaping has been softened by standard ghost gums which rise from a symbolic burnt ground and represent the Australian bush, while Italian alders have been tilted and originally staked to lean, representing their metaphorical displacement in the European climate.

The National Museum of Australia is rich in its metaphorical and symbolic embellishment. One of the most fascinating to many visitors is the raised Braille dots on aluminium panels not only because it offers one of the most obvious puzzles within the Museum which has yet to be resolved. In March 2001 when the Museum was opened, rumours were rife as to the meaning of the Braille. Could it be that amongst the colloquialisms which had been applied such as ‘God knows’, ‘she’ll be right’, ‘good as gold’ and ‘love is blind’, there was something more scandalous hidden?

The truth is that this was actually a fact. Messages which had been designed as a statement against the Federal Government of the day for its refusal to apologise for the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians by previous generations have been hidden by stainless steel discs. They have been deliberately placed to obscure the meaning of phrases such as ‘resurrection city’, which was a reference to a 1968 American civil rights protest, and other phrases such as ‘forgive us our genocide’ and ‘sorry’. The discs confuse the Braille text and yet somehow become a design feature in their own right.

Arthur Stace was almost illiterate, yet he spent a secret lifetime writing the word ‘eternity’ with chalk on the pavements of Sydney, 50 times a day for 30 years. His one word evangelism inspired the super graphic applied to the elevations of the building, illegible in the built form. You will also notice all the white curves and lines in this room. They are also super graphic of the word ‘eternity’. The result is achieved by overlaying the elevations of the building onto the giant super graphic and it becomes a hidden message. The same message was more obviously expressed internally in an exhibition gallery of the same name.

One of the strongest symbolic images which appears repeatedly throughout the Museum is that of the cross and its reference is many fold. X marks the spot - the crucifix or perhaps a reference to the historical atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous Australians, or even a two-dimensional symbol of the intersecting axes across the site. The appearance of the X in the Garden of Australian Dreams and overlaid with a signature of our first Prime Minister Edmund Barton symbolises the signatures employed by the illiterate Indigenous Australians when required to acknowledge documents by the early European authorities. The cross has even been applied to covers for the in-ground hydraulic services.

The end of this project was really the beginning of the telling of our interwoven stories. It was a unique project delivered on time, on budget and under a unique form of delivery management - that is, alliancing. It was enormously rewarding for all members of the alliance team, and professional relationships were established which continue to this day.

Howard Raggatt, who was the chief design architect, once said to me that he didn’t really care whether the people liked the Museum or not as long as it made them think about the built environment in which they live and work. While I agree with this statement, I also believe that we are better able to decide if we like a built environment if we understand what lies behind its form.

The National Museum of Australia is a building complex which I love and am incredibly passionate about not only because I was part of the process but also because I understand how it responds to its purpose and its place. I hope today that you have been able to gain a small insight into understanding why the Museum looks the way it does and why it has the form it does, because I think it helps you to understand how it is so special and why it is so special. Thank you very much.

KRISTINE SCHEULL: This is a unique opportunity to ask someone who was on the ground for this project anything you like. If it’s in her capacity to answer I am sure she would be happy to. If you have any questions, now is the time to do so.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sue. Fiona Doherty from Page Kirkland. As a quantity surveyor three of us walked in the building we looked up and first thing is: how do you measure and price that. From the original budget and for my own personal view it doesn’t matter how much a building like this costs, you have to build it. But from that original budget what was the outcome of cost at the end? Was there a huge overrun or did you come in on cost?

SUE DOVE: We came in completely on budget.

QUESTION: Which is quite amazing for a building like this.

SUE DOVE: Incredibly amazing. That is part of the purpose of having an alliance team working on a development, because you have the design team, the architectural interiors and all services consultants and you also have the builders on-site as well as the client, I might add, who were part of the alliance. So you have everybody constantly reviewing the design and the process to ensure buildability and quality of design. Part of the purpose of the alliance is to ensure the quality is maintained and that nothing is sacrificed in the attempt to achieve budget.

QUESTION: Just on Boolean mathematics, did you apply that to the cost plan as well.

SUE DOVE: We’ll meet in the bar tonight. I’ll be really good at it by then.

QUESTION: How many years from the commencement of construction did it take?

SUE DOVE: It was about 18 months, I think. I wasn’t actually on the project at the very start. But from the turning of the first sod I think it was about 18 months. It wasn’t a long program at all, and it was very much design on the run.

QUESTION: Michelle Turner from Sutton and Horsley. I am wondering if there was any reference in the design made to the building that used to stand on the site, the former Canberra Hospital?

SUE DOVE: From memory I don’t think there is anything specific within the building proper but I know that there is a memorial on-site. I think it’s really important that what was here before and what happened has been acknowledged in a formal sense.

QUESTION: You have made it clear that this building was designed for Australians primarily. Was there any major international reaction to the different design elements?

SUE DOVE: Certainly there was. Obviously it was designed for Australians. It is the Australian social history museum. The Museum was covered largely overseas and in fact created a great deal of controversy in the context specifically of Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin. There was a good deal of controversy about that. If you look at any past copies of international design and architecture magazines you will find there was a great deal of coverage about this museum internationally.

Just while we are talking about international involvement, I should let you know that one of the parties to the alliance was Anway and Company Inc., who were actually the exhibition designers on the team. Internally that also created some controversy as well. They were great people to work with, and we actually had a lot of fun explaining certain elements about the Australian culture and our Australian environment, built and natural, to the exhibition design team.

QUESTION: I am Phillipa Wicks and I work at the Museum. I am just curious as to whether you are in a position to comment about the subject that the director has been discussing lately in the press a bit, which is the need for more exhibition space; and, if so, whether you are able to say how that might be achieved.

SUE DOVE: I haven’t actually given that a great deal of thought. I would love there to be more exhibition space. I would love there to be an extension to the Museum because I think this place and the entity of the National Museum is such a marvellous benefit to the Australian community. I am trying to recall - I think there was some discussion about potential extension to the Museum when we were working on the design, and it was always conceived that that would eventually have to happen. I know the collections of the Museum are so vast that it is not possible to display everything all at once. My position on that would be that I would love to see something.

KRISTINE SCHEUL: I have a question. I remember watching the Museum go up and the first time the great orange - we used to call it the slippery slide - came into view most people I spoke to were waiting for the scaffolding to come down. That’s what they thought it was. I would like to know how that came about. I have tried to explain it to people and I can’t. I basically have explained the fact that it is Australian. We are a bit curious and like to do things differently. That is about as far as I got. From someone who has no inkling design, where did what I call the slippery slide come from?

SUE DOVE: That loop or roller coaster - it’s had lots of pet names - is part of one of those axes which swirls around the site. As it leaves the building from the main entry, it becomes flattened but still into its three-dimensional form and swirls around and it actually leads off to that Uluru line.

CHRISTOPHER HODGES: You did say that, sorry.

SUE DOVE: You weren’t listening. I will talk to you about it later.

QUESTION: Daina Myer, landscape architect. Given that the building is quintessentially Australian representing Australia’s social history, what were you hoping to achieve by going to international competition in terms of input from overseas architects and designers?

SUE DOVE: In terms of international, you mean the competition to design the Museum? I wasn’t a party to that and I presume that it’s because the government felt they might get more creative input if they went overseas. I am very pleased to say that they didn’t in the end and that primarily Australian practices were used. I am sorry, I can’t really comment as to why they chose an international competition but, in the same way that the Sydney Opera House was an international design competition, that’s what happens. Sometimes I think we still have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and think we might not be that good when in fact we really are.

QUESTION: I wonder if you saw the piece by Paul Keating in the Australian on the weekend where he said that the Museum shouldn’t have been built - it shouldn’t have been built here; it should have been in an industrial warehouse and on an industrial site down the other end of the lake. Do you have any comments on that?

SUE DOVE: Firstly, I didn’t see the piece so I am responding a bit on the back foot. You have probably been able to judge from the presentation this morning that I am quite passionate about this place, about what it represents and the stories that it tells. So I would probably toss the paper in the bin.

KRISTINE SCHEUL: On that note, I would like to again thank Sue for her presentation today. I think you would have got an inkling from the presentation itself and what she had to say that she does feel a great deal for this place. Hopefully what will encourage you to leave here now and look upwards, look around, look inside things and walk around the place a couple more times and find some of the things Sue was talking about. I am sure she would be quite happy to point you in the right direction if there is something you wanted to see.

Date published: 25 May 2009