New bars, cafes and galleries are mushrooming in the rapidly gentrifying inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale. One of the most intriguing is The Phoenix; a $32 million private art gallery, garden and performance space, funded by the arts philanthropist Judith Neilson.
There’s not much to see yet at the site at 37 – 49 O’Connor Street because excavations are just beginning. However, if you tap the surface and find out more, it is clear that this will be a remarkable space, bringing something completely new to the art scene both in Sydney and Australia.
The project – a gallery, theatre and garden – is coordinated by the Malaysian-born, Adelaide-based designer Khai Liew. Liew, who has exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has brought together a team of some of Australia’s very best artists, architects and designers to develop the project.
The west wing of the building will contain a performance space designed by Sydney-based architects Durbach Block Jaggers, whose previous work has included the North Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club and the UTS Faculty of Science and Graduate School of Health building.
The east wing will feature gallery spaces designed by Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects, responsible for the Westfield Sydney CBD development, the Shearers Quarters in Tasmania and the Melbourne School of Design for Melbourne University. The top floor of each wing will contain an apartment for visiting artists.
Both sides of the building will be joined by a central installation space which will include a garden designed by conceptual artist Janet Laurence and landscape architects 360 Degrees. Khai Liew will provide the speciality furniture and joinery for the building.
Neilson, who trained as a graphic designer, has a strong record of supporting the arts in Sydney. She is the founding director of the nearby White Rabbit Gallery, a converted Rolls Royce factory dedicated to contemporary Chinese art. She has also donated $10 million to UNSW to fund research into affordable housing design for people displaced by natural disasters, geo-political conflicts, and economic and environmental factors.
Neilson told The Australian Financial Review last year that The Phoenix grew out of a realisation that the performing and visual arts are joining together.
“The visual arts have moved off the wall and become very interlinked with the performing arts. You can see it, it’s happening everywhere. And I don’t think there is any going back,” she said.
John Wardle, Principal, John Wardle Architects, told DHub that the project has presented an extraordinary opportunity to go beyond a normal brief.
“Judith said she wanted to give us the kind of brief that an artist would receive – an open invitation to create something rather than designing something which is highly prescribed,” he said.
His comments were echoed by Neil Durbach, Principal, Durbach Block Jaggers, who told DHub that there were two particular elements that made this commission a remarkable experience.
“Firstly, Judith has asked us to search through our project for the perfect ideal of architecture itself – the beauty of space and the poetry of light; the pleasure of use and the magic of materials. Secondly, it is an amazing privilege to work so closely with Judith, Khai, John and Janet,” he said.
There are many different creative and design elements that set this project apart.
Firstly, the City of Sydney has given its blessing for the building to transcend the usual height limits for the area and to rise above the surrounding terraces and warehouses.
An array of skylights will draw light from the top to the bottom of the east wing and the overall gallery space will be comprised of rooms of differing sizes – including two minute spaces designed for just one person.
“The galleries will be a sequence of spaces to extend the experience of those who visit. Visitors will be taken on a journey that allows the orchestration of the arrangement of art into discreet and separated spaces. This will allow the character of the collection to be pronounced to its audience,” John Wardle said.
An ancient material – clay – will be used in a contemporary way to make the bespoke bricks which will give the building its very pale, slightly grey façade.
“The bricks will be made by Krause Bricks. We are working through the further development of them with Khai Liew and with the ceramicist Kirsten Coelho, focusing on the design of a slightly uneven glazed surface to create a subtle variance and a series of moods across the facades of the building,” Wardle said.
Working in collaboration on such a complex and high-profile project could present significant challenges. However, according to Wardle and Neil Durbach, the experience is proving to be positive and rewarding.
They said honesty, respect and a good sense of humour have brought the different teams together.
“Through a merging of ideas, geometry and architectural strategies we’ve allowed each other to have strong opinions and open discussion about each other’s space planning, materials and development of details,” Wardle said.
“It’s not often that we get to see inside the artistic experience of the day-to-day struggling and striving for something exceptional,” said Durbach. “It’s been invigorating, surprising and enormously enjoyable.”
“In this way it feels close to a studio environment where creativity is the binding element. And this is Judith’s vision. She made this possible by putting us together and then letting us work,” said Durbach.
The Phoenix is expected to complete in February 2018.