National Portrait Gallery

Canberra, Australia
Limited competition

Through a series of built and unbuilt projects over the last decade we have investigated the potential of the outer skin of the building – initially as a shading device (Kew House, Carter/Tucker House and the parasol of Future Shack) then as a shading and filtering device (Peninsula House, CIPEA + St Andrew’s Beach House) and then as a shading and filtering device and energy source (Westwood House un built, RMIT University Design Hub). Within the context of Australia as part of the South East Asian region we have coupled these investigations with an analysis of the verandah (fluid perimeter space) as an iconic architectural element common to both eastern and western cultures. In the Peninsula House we used re-cycled timber to make the coarse outer hide of that building. For the CIPEA project we have kept all of the bamboo cleared from the site and are using it to make the protective outer skin of a house for Chinese artists and their families.

The aim of our evolving research into this building element is to attempt to emulate the physical properties of human skin in the ‘lightweight enclosing membrane’ of our buildings.

Human skin has six functions. It

• Protects the body from injuries, substances, trauma (mechanical, thermal, photic)
• Regulates body temperature ie regulates the exchange of heat with the environment to maintain a constant internal temperature
• Excretes water, fat and other substances
• Is a sensor to touch, temperature and pain
• Converts pre-cursor compounds to energy in the form of vitamin d
• Is a social communicator – is tactile, vascular, muscular

The ‘cells’ which form the building skin of the NPG project are comprised of 2000mm diam x 1500mm deep oxidised steel tubes. Each tube has the capacity to house air filters, photovoltaic collectors, rain and moisture sensors, sprinkler heads and so on. When combined over a large surface area this artificial skin has the potential to emulate human skin – to ‘sweat’ to help keep the building cool, to absorb energy and to protect the internal environment from impurities.

This feature combined with a digital interface (computerised building management system) give the building operators the ability to pre-programme the skin to perform to local climate conditions or to override ‘auto-pilot’ and fine tune the performance of the building in either extreme or atypical weather conditions. The benefits of this system are twofold – first the building becomes more self-sufficient in terms of energy consumption and second it relies less on CFC based cooling and therefore has a long term benefit to the environment.

In summary the cells will perform the following functions:

• shade the building from radiant heat
• control the extent of the ingress of sunlight
• insulate the building from heat loss
• convert solar radiation into electricity and hot water
• filter dust and pollutants from entering the building
• harvest rainwater, incorporate moisture content meters and saturation sprinklers to wet the outer layer of the building allowing air to move over the surface of the building to assist in natural cooling (sweat)
• incorporate climate and intruder sensors
• be integral to the aesthetic of the building

Burying the building so that only one floor is above the ground also assists in its environmental performance however this was incidental to and the reason for this decision. Canberra is a vast wasteland of mediocre public architecture all sitting politely on greenfield sites, one after another. All about the same scale and most quite disappointingly predictable. Given its proximity to the High Court – the highest court in the land and a brutalist building on an artificially raised site accessed by a ceremonial ramp and set well back from the street, I was concerned that the same old Canberra response (which, incidentally was what the government ultimately selected) would destroy the presence of the High Court in its urban context. Lowering the gallery was a deferential gesture, not only to the High Court but also to the National Gallery of Australia – the third building in this triumvirate. This decision allowed me to explore ideas of the ‘horizon’ and ‘inverted topography’ both of which are integral to my investigations of an Australian architecture.

The earth removed as a result of this idea was to be retained on site and sculpted into a series of corrugations within which the building was placed. The corrugations represented the Outback and anyone who has flown over Australia during the daytime will understand how compelling this aspect of the Australian landscape is.