Purpose built art museum by JPW defined by human scale and natural light
The National Portrait Gallery is sited in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle and provides exhibition space for 500 portraits in a simple configuration of day-lit galleries.
The building responds to its site by connecting key vistas, levels and alignments around the precinct. Five fingers of space, arranged perpendicular to the land axis, refer to Walter Burley Griffin’s early planning concepts for Australia’s National Capital.
The building illustrates its purpose as an art gallery with two principal elements - walls for display and reflectors to control natural light. The clarity of planning – with all public spaces on one level – is ideal. Despite the simplicity of the plan, the National Portrait Gallery creates a rich visitor experience and adds a variety of new public and civic spaces to the precinct that are unique to Canberra.
Use of natural light was a specific brief requirement. All spaces enjoy controlled natural light from translucent glazed clerestory windows, significantly reducing reliance on artificial lighting. Within the galleries a simple blind system enables control of light levels down to 50 lux for delicate works.
Intimately scaled circulation galleries run between the primary bays and counterpoint the light, airy character of the main galleries. These spaces pace the visitor experience and provide rest and information access points. Unlike many galleries, views in and out of the building are important design strategies to connect visitors to the landscape and passers-by.
Linear plant rooms below these spaces enable energy efficient servicing and maintenance without compromising gallery security. Since opening in late 2008 the building has proven to use less than 50% of the energy consumed by comparable art museums.
A rich palette of materials and plants from around Australia counterpoints the directness of the concrete structure and adds a human scale to all spaces. Detailing highlights the method of construction, and the crafting of materials, both natural and manufactured, making the character of the building both bold and intimate.
The design is inspired by the Vitruvian notion that the proportion of a building should correspond to that of a person. This is particularly relevant to a building for portraiture and for the scale of works in the collection. The building’s siting in the landscape and relationship to its neighbours, its external form, the internal spaces and the individual components and details are all based on the golden section– creating a harmonious relationship between the visitor, space, material, light and art.