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Grand masters

There is a scene in Brideshead Revisited when the two young men visit Lord Marchmain in Venice. When asked who is his favourite painter, Charles Ryder replies, ‘Bellini’. The old man asks ‘which one?’ deflated, the young man has to admit he thought there was only one.

There was, of course, a whole clan of talented Bellinis and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mario Bellini, the architect, is a descendent of those brilliant Venetians. He has designed very sophisticated, beautiful alterations to Roy Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

Bellini trained as an architect and became famous for his chairs—used in the gallery—and for the styling of industrial products. Bellini evolved into an architectural force over the last ten years, mostly for buildings in Japan. Italians are masters at exhibitions and altering old buildings to display works of art—after all, they have so many of both, and displaying things well is part of their architectural bella figura.

Carlo Scarpa was the master who started a museum trend continued by Bellini at St Kilda Road. Scarpa didn’t design spaces just to provide generalised good conditions for viewing any sort of artworks, he designed them with particular works of art in mind and their precise placement, display and lighting within the space.

The best Italian design is in a totally modern idiom so one can always see exactly what parts of the building are original and which have changed. There are none of the false attitudes about ‘keeping in keeping’ that inhibit most Australian designers when confronting old buildings. Italians have no inhibitions about combining modern stainless steel and glass with the original, more traditional materials. Scarpa’s renovations and museum installations in the Castello Sforza in Milan, the Castelvecchio in Verona and the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, for example, are now over 30 years old, yet they still stand as touchstones of elegant and beautiful museum display.

Bellini has inherited these attitudes to display and aided by revolutions in glass and lighting technologies, has built on them.

Roy Grounds designed the St Kilda Road building in 1959 and it was opened in 1968. Grounds claimed that the design had been influenced by the Royal Palace (not a museum) at Capodimonte—outside Naples—and there are indeed strong similarities in the plan
In his excellent guide, Melbourne Architecture, Philip Goad reminds us that, ‘the project caused the 1962 split between Grounds and his erstwhile partners Robin Boyd and Fred Romberg. At the opening in August 1968, architectural critics alternatively praised and savaged this bluestone treasure house. Much of the controversy had to do with Grounds’ quixotic and arguably brilliant design—a giant oriental Palazzo with a geometric plan, a city block in length, and with three square courtyards inside’.

Only 30 years old, it is certainly a building with good bones and as Mario Bellini has reminded us, ‘Good architecture can have a series of new lives.’

Time has made it a well loved Melbourne landmark, but time also exposed some of the flaws in the design that eventually needed correcting. As crowds increased more space was needed and the display, pedestrian compared with Scarpa, became progressively old-fashioned looking. The NGV’s Australian collection has now been moved into the gallery at Federation Square, and the changes made by Bellini have increased the display space at St Kilda Road by 25 per cent.

Like all great designs, the basic changes made by Bellini are brilliantly simple. One can just imagine him explaining the basic parti in 30 seconds on the back of a restaurant napkin—the way architects are wont to do.

The entrance remains behind the water wall, but originally, the circulation was constricted and the central courtyard was separated from the entrance by a glazed wall. It was viewed as too low and a bit oppressive—not enough of an architectural experience for a grand building like this.

Bellini has respected the character of the Grounds’ design externally but has made radical changes internally—getting rid of all the accumulated clutter, and opened the now glass roofed entrance directly into the courtyard by removing a wall. On the other side, the court opens directly into the great hall with its Leonard French ceiling and a glazed opening on the further side of the hall—Bellini’s only exterior change—gives access to the garden which previously had been hidden. When visitors now enter the building the vista continues across the daylit central court into the rear garden. So simple, so obvious, but the sense of open space coupled with the increased daylight from the glazed roof has made entering the building one of those rare architectural events that lifts the spirits. Coffee shops and bookshop are now within easy reach and the central court also serves as a circulation device to disperse visitors easily to other parts of the building.  This is aided by escalators hidden behind metal screens with artful slots inserted into the space. In particular, visitors can orient themselves more easily than previously, moving between the north and south courtyards. This is the most radical of Bellini’s transformations of the 1968 design.

Rather than simply roof over the other open courts, Bellini has instead inserted boxes into them—‘gallery prisms’ the guidebook calls them—in order to create new exhibition spaces on each level. The square boxes are very slightly askew in the square courts and the space between the boxes and the bluestone walls has been used to contain glass-floored ramps which link the different levels and provide easy access for the disabled at the same time. Each of these courtyard towers has been clad in glass, which gives them a jewel-like quality and they fan out at the top to join a glass roof over the space. My description might sound a bit mechanistic—it is hard to describe in words—but these ramp spaces look wonderful with sunlight grazing and enlivening the original bluestone and the new glass walling in the late afternoon. Hence, visitors get visual relief while travelling up these daylit ramps before plunging back into the artificially lit galleries.

The old high ‘salon’ galleries remain as before, with new parquet flooring and painted walls in traditional colours, which change according to the period of the display—elegant ‘doorways’ connect the galleries. Bellini’s subdued palette of materials compliments Grounds’ bluestone and mountain ash. The lighting and the display have been carefully considered everywhere to great effect; the big Tiepolo The Banquet of Cleopatra for example, is viewed more successfully at a lower height. Cleopatra and all other artworks simply look much better under such sophisticated lighting; the collection is seen again with new eyes.

Bellini’s skills in industrial design are revealed in the beautiful seamless glass and steel display cases. The concealed lighting of objects in the Asian Collection, the Egyptian Antiquities and the Pre-Columbian art is genuinely superb. The use of fibre optic cable lighting—with up to 16 cables coming from one light source—makes the display of objects in the showcases very complex with stunning lighting effects. One ceramic shepherdess, for example, has a separate light shining on an apple in her hand.

I have always thought of Rodin’s sculpture—previously on a high plinth in the central court—not as Balzac, but as an irascible Roy Grounds brooding over his building. It has been moved out into the garden but Grounds has not been banished: I think he would approve of what Bellini has done.

A postscript: It’s convenient to talk as though Mario Bellini alone was responsible for everything in the building. He was, no doubt, the initiating creative and guiding light, but the final result was  the collaboration of many creative architects from his Milan office, combined with the local Richmond-based architectural firm Metier 3, scores of engineering and lighting consultants, and not least the Gallery’s own curatorial staff when it came to hanging and lighting. 

Don Gazzard is an architect who works in both Sydney and Melbourne. Photos by John Gollings, 2003, courtesy of NGV.


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