Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photo: Pedro Szekely

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BY ANNA FREELAND

The Development Application for the Sydney Modern project has received hundreds of submissions following its month-long public exhibition, which closed on 15 December.
Among those objecting is a group of advocates for the Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), comprised of former RBG Trustees Ros Andrews and Gillian Appleton, urban designer and architect David Chesterman AM, and former Chair of the Environmental Defenders Office Bruce Donald AM.

The group submitted a 40-page objection to the proposed location and design of the project based on concerns about the prospective loss of open green space, the removal of significant trees and destruction of both the natural landscape and heritage value of the 19th Century architectural precinct.
“The proposal totally changes the cultural, historic and heritage value of the area and the green environment of the city,” said Ros Andrews, who contributed to the submission.

A horticulturalist and passionate advocate for the RBG having served as a Trustee for eight years until 2005, Ms Andrews said that, while the group are not against the project, it is “A win for the Gallery and a loss for the Gardens.
“Rather than being something that would benefit both, it’s a huge loss for the RBG that will be felt for generations to come,” she said.

The proposed structure, which would extend the built environment to the north of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), spans a projected 8,000sqm. According to Ms Andrews however, the total space to be appropriated may be closer to 16,000sqm including a sculpture and an art garden.
“There are a huge number of unknowns,” she said. “We have deep concerns about the fact that the whole entrance to the Gardens is lost. My particular concern is that, instead of coming into a leafy environment as you cross the land bridge, you’ll enter a hard, built environment which totally changes and is at odds with the 19th Century landscape.”

The National Trust, and the Friends of the Botanic Gardens, the National Parks Association, as well as prominent cultural assets expert Kylie Winkworth and heritage consultant Dr Bronwyn Hanna lodged other significant objections to the proposal.
Ms Andrews and her group are calling upon the AGNSW and the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) to reconsider the proposed site.

“Our ultimate position is that we don’t want the Sydney Modern in that location because it will totally ruin the entrance and the feel of the Botanic Gardens and Domain,” she said.
There is limited reasoning provided in the Development Application as to why the proposed site was chosen. According to Ms Andrews, the justification is superficial.

“It’s not at all clear that alternative sites were even considered. There are two or three lines about why the area just south of the Gallery is not suitable but that could have been interrogated further,” she said. “Also, like other major art galleries around the world, they could have explored a second site in another part of the city, like Barangaroo or Parramatta.”

The proposed building design is the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa who head up the Tokyo-based architectural firm SANAA. Their previous work includes the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Serpentine Pavilion in London. According to the AGNSW website, the project design will, “Sit lightly on the site, shifting gently along the natural topography of the land to preserve existing trees and sight lines.”
It also states that the design will be “sensitively complementary to the historic grandeur of [the] existing Gallery building.”

Ms Andrews remains sceptical however. Plans for an extension of the Gallery have been in the works for over a decade and gaining state government support was considerably hard fought. The project was finally greenlit last June with a commitment from the government of $244 million.
Ms Andrews believes that the root of many of the objections is a lack of “genuine consultation.” She says the RBG Trust was given little power to negotiate.

Ken Boundy, the current Chair of the RBG Trust said that plans for the extension, “Took on an air of inevitability some time ago.
“Within that context, management and the Trust of the RBG have co-operated with the AGNSW, but fought hard within government to achieve optimal recognition for the land given to alternative use on Yurong Headland.”

While acknowledging that any given outcome is unlikely to be supported by all stakeholders, Mr Boundy said, “A solution, which we regard as the best that could be achieved, is in the process of being embedded, and will be announced by the government in due course.”

Ms Andrews maintains that the Gardens have been given “the short straw.”
She is also concerned that, without amendment, the project may set a precedent for future development that would further reduce the green space of the RBG and Domain.
“It’s a genuine concern,” she said.

“Public open space is invaluable. The Botanic Gardens and Domain are the lungs of Sydney; its backyard, its playground and an area that Sydneysiders use and value as part of the fabric of their city. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

A spokesperson for AGNSW confirmed that they are still awaiting delivery of the submissions via the DPE but that they expect to receive them in a fortnight.

“As part of the State Significant Development Application process, The Art Gallery of New South Wales will carefully consider all submissions and respond to the Department of Planning early in the new year,” the spokesperson said.

The Minister for Planning and Housing will determine approval for the project, a DPE spokesperson confirmed.
Sydney Modern is slated to open in 2021, in line with the AGNSW’s 150th anniversary.