Like many people who visit the iconic National Gallery of Victoria, NGV International building on St Kilda Road, Melbourne, I go there to immerse myself in a current art exhibition, browse in the design shop, look up in wonder at the art above in the stained-glass roof of the great hall, enjoy lunch with a friend in the first floor tea room, or have a coffee at the cafe.
Spending time in the luxurious space of the NGV Grollo Equiset Garden, where the sculptural art is replaced often, is always a privilege and there is always something new to see, with the exception of Henry Moore’s well-known bronze sculpture Draped seated woman (1958), which is the one constant to count on.
Poetic descriptions of gardens down the centuries have, in the past, been very alluring. Their organization at different times, and in different places, has often been based on assumptions about ‘man’s relationship with nature’ and as well, as an allegory for the cycle of human life and death.
Gardens are today especially designed to engage our emotions on many levels, including sight, scent and sound and it is suggested any civilisation ‘without its garden traditions and life may be judged impoverished, flawed and incomplete’.
The NGV Grollo Equiset Garden with its backdrop of Melbourne city buildings, is for me a sacred haven of beauty and silence. Conveniently located in the heart of one of our busiest cities in Australia, it is a space where you can take time out for a few moments in your busy day, to refresh the spirit and soul.
In that regard it is sacred, which to my mind is not about religious beliefs, but all about inner well-being. Within easy access of the CBD, there’s no excuse for busy professionals to not visit often. If they did they would find the experience invaluable.
My understanding of valuing the gift of beauty and silence at any age in our development as a human being is paramount to our living a happy life. It helps us to contribute our best in the advancement of human society.
This is something I discovered as a teenager, completing homework projects, studying and reading at my local library in Sydney. In those ‘golden days of 50’s’ innocence in Australia, following the English model, no one was allowed to talk or intrude upon another person’s need for silence at the local or state library.
It made me realize early on thankfully, a space where silence was experienced and attained, was indeed luxurious.
Luxury today is a word often banded about in terms of objects and arts. However for me in 2018 and in this day and age, silence is about enjoying my own space; a place to sit quietly, reflect and contemplate hard choices.
In that space, whether it be a garden, on a seat by the river, or by turning off the noise at home, we can also be motivated and inspired by our inner feelings and emboldened by our imagination.
The NGV Grollo Equiset Garden has undergone many changes over the last three years, as it became the space used to present an award winning NGV Architecture Commission each summer. So far, I have been to all three openings.
The fourth competition winning entry Doubleground, which also celebrates the NGV’s 50th anniversary, was recently unveiled. It conforms to these ideas and ideals.
However, you are not aware of an intrusion into this gorgeous space, but gradually become aware when engaging two creative parties in an intelligent collaboration between architectural elements and landscape, you can change people’s perceptions a great deal.
A relaxed, gentle and enlightened conversation with the principal and founder of Openwork Urban Designer and Landscape Architect. Professor of Architecture, Industry Fellow at RMIT Mark Jacques, stimulated and helped me gather my thoughts.
He eruditely explained how he and his colleague Amy Muir approached creating this very successful space in which Melbourne people and visitors from and to the state of Victoria, would feel not only blessed and at peace but also in touch with all their senses, including humour.
In the past I have to say I was very much aware of how the buildings produced intruded on the landscape. This year 2018 it is very different.
It reminded me of when I used to share my knowledge of ancient architects and builders with adult students of design history and the decorative arts. At the heart of ancient Greek philosophy regarding the natural environment was the conviction all architectural intervention – whether it be by a temple, theatre, agora or a house in town must be in harmony with, and respective of the ‘landscape of the gods’.
This meant it was not just a parcel of land surrounding a man-made construction, but a holy place embodying and reflecting the character of its deity; a genius loci, or guardian spirit. Searching out and identifying the sacred spirit fundamental to each location was the duty of the builder. Then, and only after the spirit was divined would the architecture be able to become part of a holy partnership with the existing features of the topography of the land.
The siting of a Greek building was not a rational, but an explicit and well-planned exercise, one that was all at once intuitive and subtle. As well as being an emotional process with implications for the participator that only now in our own time are only beginning to be fully comprehended, it was meant to collaborate, not dominate its surrounding.
This confirmed the belief wild though the elements may be at times, there was some yet unrecorded harmony and inner balance between man and nature.
A mixture of open and closed spaces in architecture and gardens, provides a great contrast of light with darkness. It promotes an element of mystery as hidden views slowly reveal themselves along a completely calculated, but often-disguised progress.
Doubleground is a great success and for me the best to date. This is because it is reflecting the past in a contemporary way by telling a complimentary story. Amy and Mark in creating various garden rooms, accessed through misty ‘chasm-like passageways’ lead you on an exciting journey of discovery.
Originally designed by Roy Ground and renovated on the interior sympathetically by Mario Bellini and Metier 3, the NGV building although on a civic scale with its beloved water-wall and stained-glass ceiling of what is a modern medieval great hall, has become for its civic owners, a People’s Palace.
What these two designers commissioned to create a new space in the garden were sure of was the layout. They knew to both reference and compliment the stunning modern building Melbourne people love so much by using its architectural components to complete their design blueprint, would work.
How wonderfully they have achieved their aim. Especially when you look down on the garden from the perspective of a drone hovering above, which reveals the stunning layout with such clarity.
As Mark Jacques explained, they decided to create “… a canyon-like corridor, which references the triangular patterns of the NGV’s façade and glass wall of the Great Hall” he said. They also featured a decking area, which recalls Roy Grounds original timber design for the Gallery foyer.
A bamboo garden, inspired by the building’s original Bamboo Court courtyard, is also included.
The architectural invention itself, is like a garden wall and has been appropriately painted black to blend beautifully into the landscape. Only its zig-zag form is featured; a memory of the signature zigzag windows at the top of Roy Grounds’ original exterior walls for the NGV, which today are no longer a source of interior illumination at the NGV.
Arranged around its symmetrically placed inner courtyards that provide a hierarchical plan, the NGV and its Grollo Equiset Garden is a place where people can come from all walks of life and all backgrounds to meet and greet their neighbours, friends and family, as well as talk to visitors who have come from near and far to experience its ambiance.
Now throughout this summer coming they can also experience the addition of this very special architectural/landscape commission until April 2019. Entry is FREE
Amy Muir, Director, Muir said, ‘… we hope the commission will allow visitors to see the NGV Garden in a new way” she said. Confirming her thoughts, I have to say I was not only surprised but also gob smacked by what she and Mr Jacques have achieved in such a short time.
They have built on the dynamic opportunities of the original layout design of the building by Roy Ground, adding art works, flora and foliage and a contemporary grass ramped amphitheatre, where throughout summer the NGV will present special events. There is also a kitchen garden surrounding the nearby garden restaurant.
Visitors will be able to enjoy this wondrous space in many ways, which ensures it certainly lives up to our changing expectations, while creating an additional sacred space where we can form unexpected relationships both with nature and people.
On the lovely spring day at the opening when I was there, all the flowers were nodding their happy heads at each other and shining their faces at the overhanging stands of trees with joy. Overnight rain had ensured they were all well and truly singing in harmony.
The various shades of colour in the ‘yellow garden’ recalling the original colour of the carpet in the nearby Great Hall, both illuminated the site and represented the warmth and beauty of the glorious sunshine we enjoy so freely in Australia in grand style.
The ethereal nature of the planting of gardens nearby, punctuated the landscape with their form, shape, colour and style, especially in mass display where colour cast a lasting impression, reminding us of all those Impressionist artists who have contributed so much to the world of visual art since the days when synthetic colour finally began to imitate nature.
Thanking Mr Jacques, I moved on as others arrived. However, I was left very aware of how much his personal passion for his profession had aided the very successful result before me.
Before I left, as I traversed the garden once more, I have to say the addition of artist Julian Opie’s galloping horse, animated birds and other animals scattered sparingly within the garden, ensured I laughed out loud as well at the joy of it all.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
All Drone images, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria
All other garden images, by Carolyn McDowall