International des Critiques d'Architecture
International Committee of Architectural Critics
Comité Internacional de Críticos de Arquitectura
“What is this Place, Australia?” - The National Museum
“In people's direct experience of architecture (which, for most, is the primary experience) the accessibility, and the reading, of the artistic content depends on the capacity of practice to embody intentions. The degree of architectural accomplishment in a work will be conditioned by the architect's abilities in responding to the various stages towards realization. These could be seen to be: Perception: the accuracy, relevance, and significance, of the designer's readings and interpretations that underlie the theory. Decision: the appropriateness of the position regarding the designer's choice as to what to reveal or conceal, to mask or display, in order to alert or reassure, or condone or challenge. Making: the ability by which those ideas have been transferred through the building process. Revealing: the readability of the intentions underpinning the object. Shaping: the level of satisfaction with which the object accommodates life practices.”
Taylor, “Transfer of Intention: Toyo Ito and the Metaphorical Tectonic”, 1994.*
The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, grapples with the problem of the identity of a nation and its representation in architectural form. Of concern here is the judgement of, and projection of, that identity, with the consequent determination of the role assumed by the building and its landscape.
The Museum has been a controversial building since its conception. It is frankly revealing. It raises questions, and is politically subversive. It asks, What nation? Whose nation? Its answers are irreverent and break taboos. The Museum has equally passionate critics and admirers. Before and since its opening in March 2001 it has been subject to a high level of publicity from newspaper items through to a quite remarkable monograph on the building, Tangled Destinies, published in 2002. In professional critical circles the building has been described as “a happy theme park to mediocrity”  , as “a master work of subversion, ambiguity and fiction”, and as “a major work of Australian architecture, in ambition, dimensions and accomplishment” also, affectionately, as a “Glamorous Giant Drag Queen”. Perlman develops his simile, writing, “Like a body clothed in drapery, blowsily calling attention to itself, the NMA offers the hallmarks of transvetitism: ostentatious fakery; mix-and-mismatch plumage; the arousal and simultaneously the mockery, of desire.” Or, according to Weirick, “a vortex of madness so horrible it is wonderful”.
Criticism and commendation have rained on all fronts: the architects’ perception of the people, the land and its history; the decisions regarding what to subvert and what to reveal; the making of the building and its durability; the readability of the form and imagery to reveal the intentions, and the shaping of the building to best accommodate its functions. Predominant among these debates have been the ideology of the building and its representation of Australia, as place and people, thorough history to today.
The question of identity was searched in social and political history and, as in the writing of all history, inevitably the readings and conclusions emerged from the perspective, priorities and selectivity of the historian/critic. The historian/critic here is the architect. The communication of those deductions sets challenges beyond those normally encountered by the writer of history who operates with the commonly shared tools of words and language. For architecture, it requires the making of the building and the embodiment of the intentions in the work.
The major tool utilized in the Museum to this end is metaphor. Metaphor stems from the Greek metaphora, which means 'transfer', and it is the means by which we transfer concept to built form. In writing on metaphor Snodgrass states, "This seeing a thing as something other than itself is an event of recognition ... which enters into every event of transference of meaning from one thing or concept to another." Metaphors can be restricting, limiting the interpretations, or ambiguous and enabling, allowing for multiple levels and messages to be accessed.
The National Museum takes its place as one of several major civic works undertaken in Australia over the last decade, including the competition for the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art won by Architectus and Davenport Campbell, and Federation Square, Melbourne, by Lab Architects. Strongly differing from the National Museum is the Museum of Victoria by Denton Corker Marshall completed in 2000. This elegant and sophisticated structure, with its sleek undecorated lines, provides a remarkable contrast to the robust vitality of the National Museum, especially considering the virtually equivalent brief, but, for the National Museum only half the budget. The Melbourne building is as cool as the Canberra building is hot. Of international comparison is Te Papa Tongawera Museum, the New Zealand National Museum in Wellington, 1997, by JASMAX, that grappled with issues regarding indigenous and non-indigenous representation, such as addressed in the design for the National Museum of Australia.
In 1980 Parliament determined by the Museum of Australia Act to build a National Museum in Canberra, to celebrate the centenary of the Federation of the Australian states in 1901. Debate over the new museum raged for some time and concerned issues such as location, the appropriateness of monuments at all within the Australian culture and the way in which such a culture of indigenous, colonial and migratory groups could be presented as the Australian identity. The international competition was held in 1997, and attracted 76 entries. The total budget for all buildings was $A152 million. In October 1997 the Melbourne firm of Ashton Raggatt and McDougall in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan were appointed as architects for the project. The winning building was completed in 2001 on time and on budget.
Ashton Raggatt and McDougall has been known since the 1970s as an inventive and challenging group of designers with a critical practice housing an intellectual agenda often disquieting to aesthetic, social and political norms. Their Storey Hall extension in Melbourne, 1995, attracted international attention with its brilliant colours and its generation of surface and form from the application of Roger Penrose’s ‘non-periodic tile’ system.
It is an architecture of the mind – not an architecture of material. It is algebraic – not geometric, and the stories are told with irony, playfulness and wit.
The building and the collection address three major themes, Land, Nation, People, which are continually woven through the fabric, and “weave” is a key word for this project. The Museum consists of an interwoven series of narratives telling stories of pluralism and difference, dreams and nightmares, which come together as a messy and provocative whole. The book, Tangled Destinies, furthers the narrative in the building into the narrative of the building – interpreting it, as the building interprets the nation, its present and its past. The building is a part of the collection, and a part of the narratives. Basically the composition comprises connecting simple, but differing, coloured and patterned skewed “building blocks”, to use the architects’ term, arranged around a central courtyard, named the “The Garden of Australian Dreams”. The building splays out towards the water’s edge of the site. The architects viewed these blocks as pieces of a puzzle that could be arranged in varying ways, with the intention of introducing a dynamic of impending change.
The building unmistakably carries the hallmarks of computer generation and production. Through the computer the design aims to reveal the non-linear world and provide an order that is elusive and but hinted at. Once the information is fed to the computer the process, to a marked extent, is computer directed, with unpredictable outcomes. Each sheet of the competition drawings was stamped “This is not yet a Design”. The whole building is reliant on computer technology for its surveying, design, engineering and sheet cutting. The form and surfaces of the building were computer generated, with major interior spaces conceived as cave-like volumes carved out of a solid.
The first strategy: non-linear
The second strategy: negation
The third strategy: direct
Australia has been a gathering ground for unwanted Europeans (the convicts) early in settlement history, and subsequently for the dispossessed from around the world, and Jenner perhaps rightly describes the Museum as, “a scrap heap constituted as a complex of abandonment and wonder.” The Museum champions the underdog. The voices of the people are written or are formed in Braille – saying “she’ll be right”, “that’s for sure”, and “sorry, sorry, sorry”. The word ”Eternity” inscribed 300 metres long over the face of the building is derived from Arthur Stace, a Sydney loner, who for thirty years wrote ‘Eternity” continually all over the pavements and walls of the city. At this scale the word cannot be read.
Nowhere is the saturation with symbolic form and detail more explicit than in “The Garden of Australian Dreams”. For some The Garden of Dreams more resembles a Garden of Nightmares. and no aspect of the building has attracted more criticism.  Here, in the building’s central location is a negative space that is a major contributor to the dialogue of the site.. In an article called “Hardly Polite”, Catherin Bull describes the Garden ”as a fearless commentary on the Picturesque imperative that drives most thinking about landscape and landscape design”. 
The focus remains on the everyday and multiculturalism, with the protagonists as Mr Average and Mr Nobody. The size of the garden symbolically is determined by the perimeter of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the area is conceived as some sort of a stadium.  The underlying pattern on the undulating surface is made up of the overlay of the standard map of Australia and a map of the tribal boundaries of Aboriginal Australia. Layered over these are other images, symbols, maps, signatures, and written pieces of information of Australia’s indigenous and migratory races, for example, the word ”home” is written in the various languages spoken in Australia today. The images are often literal, even naïve, as with the abstracted cubic “house”, and “back yard with pool” of the suburban dream – described by one critic as “lovely clichés of Australian suburbia”. There are few trees in the garden – the eucalyptus stand straight while the Italian alders are tilted to represent displacement and a yearning to return to northern lands.
The Museum is a child of its time – a decidedly contemporary work moulded by the thought and technology of 2000. Through its depiction of Australia, it attempts to correct commonly accepted myths regarding the country’s past and the current status quo. The perception of history that it reveals, and the decisions as to what to present or subvert in the architecture stem from a particular political perspective – not necessarily one commonly shared. Through the design and making the building reveals its messages, sometimes accessibly and explicitly, as in the “Australian Garden of Dreams”. The metaphors, however, commonly demand a singular reading, and often are accessible only to the informed (primarily architectural) viewer, thus restricting their availability and the possibilities of interpretation.
What nation? Whose nation?
And what of the building?
Of course it is a theme park – the theme is the nation.
Photographs by John Gollings
First printed in: Review 2004, QUT School of Design, 2005.
* Jennifer Taylor, "Transfer of Intention: Toyo Ito and the Metaphorical Tectonic", 2G, Spain, 1997 No. 1. pp. 7-17. This appears to provide an appropriate structure for approaching the National Museum. (The underlining has been added.)
 Dimity Reed (ed.), Tangled
Destinies: National Museum of Australia, Images Publishing, Mulgrave,
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