There is no doubt that Dangove is an impressive building. A concrete and steel sculpture, beginning at 8m high and soaring to a remarkable 30m at the far end. Dangrove is Judith Neilson’s architectural masterpiece designed by Tzannes (Design Director, Alec Tzannes in collaboration with Chi Melhem) as a home for her revered collection of contemporary Chinese art; the most extensive privately-owned collection in the world. However, once the details of the building are explored and experienced, the building’s design takes on greater meaning. It becomes more deeply understood as architectural design of immense beauty and substance.
Right from the beginning, you can see the hand of Alec Tzannes. His passion for sustainable environmental design reverberates throughout the build. It is evident from the striking steel and concrete of the exterior façade. From a sustainable perspective, the use of steel was a vital project requirement for TTW, the engineers behind the build. While concrete has a high embodied energy content, Australian steel has a much lower environmental footprint. TTW and Tzannes’s design sought to limit the building’s ecological footprint by reducing material, artificial lighting and energy requirements wherever possible. With a 100-year design life, the building can be adapted for multi-use over its lifetime.
The attention to urban conditions is astounding. The floodproofing system is multi-tiered, as was a requirement in the initial brief, to allow for two backup systems should the water penetrate the first line of defence. For a storage facility, it is highly adaptable and transformative, reflective of Judith Neilson’s always evolving collection and of the ever-changing landscape of contemporary art itself. Practically this includes exposed utilities for easy changes or retrofits. Functionally, it allows for artworks of any size to be displayed within its 10,000sqm of internal space and frequently changed to allow for the rotation of Judith’s collection. The Great Hall is multi-purpose and widely utilised for everything from performance art to regularly recorded musical pieces from both developing and renowned musical guests.
We begin in a carpark behind a sliding security gate, a fact Alec finds endearing and surprising considering what lies ahead, before climbing the solid stairs to the first floor of Dangrove. Light floods the top step as you are welcomed with a full window to the courtyard garden. Following the light, you are greeted with a beautiful flow of office space and open plan creative spaces, a wonderful marriage of efficiency and imagination.
Judith’s original brief to Alec was that there was to be both a courtyard garden and a library and he did not disappoint. The ever-changing garden courtyard moves with the seasons; the leaves of the trees are never the same tone for long. The courtyard works to create a whimsical seasonal display set around a large, striking sculptural piece. Beyond this, a library lays hidden from the larger space, creating an intimacy well suited to the generous depth of knowledge of Chinese art in the pages of the books inside. The research library, an integral part of the original brief, concentrates on publications related to twenty-first-century Chinese art, as well as supporting materials related to Chinese culture, history, and politics more broadly and is available to students and artists by appointment.
This forecourt section of Dangrove feels almost homely. A warm familiarity envelops you as you sit surrounded by nature and art. The sustainable quality of the materials and softness of the furnishings create a tranquillity. The effect is accentuated by the clever layout of the chosen sculptural pieces within. Journeying through from this area to the Great Hall, you can’t help but draw breath. Large folding doors glide open to the vast expanse of the 90m by 20m room. The roof climbs from 8m at the street-facing end to an impressive 30m at the other – an additional feature Alec tells us was to facilitate the vast size of some artworks living inside the complex. “The steel framing of the Great Hall is innovative in its aesthetics, lack of cross-bracing and its ability to intelligently resolve many of the issues faced by art storage facilities. Namely: water ingress, temperature control, service distribution and the requirement for natural light while restricting the ingress of UV radiation.” Says TTW of the build. This UV reduction is thanks to an innovative polycarbonate double wall system that allows natural light into the Great Hall but blocks 99 percent of UV rays.
As impressive as all of this is, your attention can’t help but be drawn to a standout feature – a beautifully designed and crafted steel and bowstring truss bridge that links both sides of the Great Hall yet is another work of art within a building full of them.
The details in Dangrove are many, but it’s the link to the human scale that makes the building so personal. As Alec Tzannes walks through the 10,000sqm of internal space, he smiles as he approaches a pillar towards the back end of the Great Hall. “This is the width of a human hand,” he says fondly as he reaches out and touches the rounded corner. Alec recalls how they focused a lot of the design process on humanising the building. So, that just as the exterior fits and enhances its surrounds, the interior warms to each person that enters it. For a building so impressive in size, it is certainly still capable of achieving a familiarity and warmth, due equally in part to the thoughtful attention to detail in the Tzannes design and Judith Neilson’s incredible love for the artworks inside it.
The purpose at the core of all of this, of course, is Judith Neilson’s collection of contemporary art, and at heart it is. Although not available to the public, the Dangrove art storage is accessible to scholars and artists with the permission to journey into the sub-terrain, making it unlike other storage facilities. The artworks slide in and out from carefully positioned trestles, and each piece can be accessed with ease. Access and retrieval were a crucial part of Judith’s brief to Alec – a facet that allows Dangrove to stand apart from its counterparts.
Photographs by Ben Guthrie