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The new Christchurch Art Gallery makes a statement while respecting the works of art it contains

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Although many buildings are works of art in themselves, a building designed to display art -is another issue. One option is to create a building that makes a statement, such as Santiago Calatrava's Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth by Tadao Ando, and of course Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao.

When designing the new Christchurch Art Gallery – Te Puna o Waiwhetu, David Cole of The Buchan Group had no intention of making an architectural statement at the expense of the works of art the building would contain.

"I believe that the aesthetic quality of an art gallery building should be unmistakable. It should be a confident artistic expression – though not to the point of the architecture upstaging the art that it houses and holds," says Cole.

The result is an undoubtedly iconic building, its public face wrapped in a curvaceous sculpture wall of steel and mica-impregnated glass. The boundaries between inside and out are blurred by this translucent wall and continuous red granite paving, which extends under the sculpture wall to form the foyer flooring. Cole says a key requirement was creating a public open space, in the form of a sculpture garden. Forty percent of the site was required to be used for this purpose, as a condition of a NZ$3.8 million grant from The Community Trust. The garden wraps around three sides of the building, with the main entrance oriented towards the sunny northwest.

"The importance of sunlight in creating a sense of welcome and external amenity cannot be underestimated," says the architect.

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It was also important that the architectural qualities of the building did not compromise the functional needs of the gallery.

"It needed to be open and welcoming, but the interior spaces for the display of art are, on the whole, better to be fairly neutral spaces in order that they not compete with the artworks. They also need to be secure and have controlled light."

The result, says Cole, is "a duality of the ordered and the organic, the rectilinear and the curvilinear, the impenetrable and the permeable".

"The union of these seemingly opposing characteristics is expressed in the ordered, rectangular masonry elements of the exhibition spaces, placed together with the organic, light and flowing forms of the glazed sculpture wall." These elements also make reference to the layout of Christchurch, which was based on a rectilinear grid but with the Avon River meandering through it.

The foyer is designed to be a light-filled, transitional space. Varying degrees of transparency in the sculpture wall's glass panes throw patterns of shadows on the paving and water features that flow underneath it. A floating ceiling allows light to play on the bluestone walls, bringing out their colour and texture, says the architect.

The exhibition spaces, accessed via a single, central grand staircase, are spread over two floors and are linked by a series of balconies overlooking the foyer and sculpture garden. All service and support areas are located at the rear.

"While the building has been very much designed for its context, there was no attempt to make it blend in," Cole says. "Nevertheless, its reposeful horizontal forms and lines and its materials demonstrate the intention that the building be on good terms with its neighbours.

"Christchurch is a unique city with a fine and rich architectural heritage – both 19th and 20th century. For this building, which so distinctly pronounces this new century, the intention was to provide a building that is both worthy of that heritage and is in itself distinctive."

First published date: 03 July 2003

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Credit List

Location Christchurch Art Gallery – Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Architect The Buchan Group
Main contractor C Lund & Son
Glazed façade contractor JML Engineered Façades
Façade engineer Ove Arup Sydney
Project manager Carson Group
Civil, structural engineering Holmes Consulting Group
Electrical engineering Pedersen Read
Fire engineering Holmes Fire and Safety
Mechanical and hydraulic engineering Connell Mott MacDonald
Landscape architects Boffa Miskell
Acoustic consultants Marshall Day
Quantity surveyor Rawlinsons
Lighting Erco, PDL, Aesthetics Lighting, Rexel Lighting
Carpet Cavalier Bremworth
Vinyl flooring Tarkett Optima
Stone flooring Red basalt from Timaru Bluestone
Sealant Equus, Fosroc
Stone Italian marble and Chinese black granite, from Designsource
Ceramic tiles Brymac Industries
Furniture Toomey Interiors, John Cochrane Commercial Furniture, Design4Work, Bishop Interiors
Fabrics Instyle
Signage Signtech The Signmasters
Glass Pilkington, China Southern Glass, Glasstech
Paints Resene
Whiteware and tapware Mastertrade