A place for a museum? Could this building house an Australian Museum of Architecture?

We have museums for the arts, sport, technology, industry, and a host of other subjects, but somehow architecture has been forgotten, consigned to worthy but minor institutions or the occasional exhibit in State museums and galleries.

It’s a pity, because the story of architecture in Australia is rich and exciting. The fusion of function and art inherent in the discipline describes and illustrates the social, economic and cultural development of the country in ways that other disciplines can’t.

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Architecture (including urban design) isn’t a minor sub-branch of the arts; it plays an important role in the functioning and quality of life of cities in one of the world’s most urbanised nations.

Establishing an Australian Museum of Architecture (AMOA) would be a way to enhance understanding of the contribution architecture can make to life in Australia. It could tell the story of architecture with all its rich regional and historical variation.

The built environment offers plenty of scope to make a museum offering exciting exhibitions with broad appeal.

In my vision, AMOA would be independent of existing museums/galleries. It would have both an on-line and a significant physical presence in a capital city with space for permanent, rotating and visiting exhibitions.

It would offers visitors a curated program of exhibits and events via:

  • Detailed physical models of important building and streetscapes. Reconstructions of the interiors of key buildings.
  • Photos, drawings, artefacts, and histories associated with important buildings/objects and movements.
  • Examples of landmark objects e.g. Boyd’s Featherstone chair.
  • Architecture-related events.

There are good reasons to establish AMOA. It could:

  • Provide a recreation and tourism drawcard for the host city and enhance its cultural offering.
  • Showcase the work of Australian designers past and present.
  • Enhance community appreciation of the contribution of good design to the private and public spheres.
  • Provide a way for current and future generations to understand Australia’s social history.
  • Provide a way of “preserving” in detail valuable buildings that will otherwise be lost or significantly altered.
  • Provide in-depth understanding of the “biography” of particularly important buildings e.g. how it was proposed, how it was designed, how it was used over its life.
  • Promote knowledge sharing between disciplines and help capture spill-over benefits.

It’s premature to prescribe how it would be curated but it’s nevertheless useful, in terms of conveying the idea, to contemplate the sorts of activities it might undertake. For example, there might be exhibitions on:

  • How important movements evolved in Australia and adapted to local circumstances e.g. art nouveau, federation, brutalism, nuts and berries.
  • The development of regional styles; rural vs urban; suburban living; the Victorian terrace house; the homestead; the Queenslander; the six pack; the beach house; high rise living.
  • The saga of the Sydney Opera House; the life work of significant practices e.g. Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler, Glen Murcutt, ARM, Donovan Hill; indigenous architecture.
  • The evolution of public and commercial architecture e.g, the architect who built 600 schools in five years; university architecture; railway architecture; the beauty of bridges.
  • Provocative exhibits e.g How distinctive is Australian architecture? Does beauty matter?
  • The work of small practices; architects in regional and remote locations; the work of specialist practices e.g. airports, hospitals.

There are some important questions that would need to be resolved; for example, where is the dividing line between built-environment design and other design disciplines?; which city should host the primary campus (not Canberra!)?; should it be located in an existing cultural precinct or elsewhere?; should it have outreach programs?

Of course there are some basic questions too, like how much would it cost?; how would it be funded and administered?; which activities would be delivered primarily on-line vs physically?; how would it relate to existing arts institutions in the host city? what can be learned from similar institutions elsewhere?; what ancillary activities like a library and meeting rooms are needed?

Brisbane celebrates the bicentenary of European settlement in 10 years; could AMOA be the sort of project that captures perfectly where the city sees itself now and where it wants to go in the future?

What Melbourne could have had instead of the Gas and Fuel Corp towers. One of 2,000 entries submitted in the 1978 Landmark Ideas Competition (source: Missing the Mark exhibition)