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Australian Academy of Science, Canberra

by Stuart Harrison
Thursday 30th April 2015

Following our recent story covering Canberra’s Hotel Hotel, today Stuart Harrison turns his architectural gaze to a classic piece of Modernism right opposite the new Nishi Building. The Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, was designed by Roy Grounds in 1959, and remains one of Australia’s most striking examples of post-war modernism.

Perhaps underappreciated when it was built, the ‘Shine Dome’, as it is also known, is another must-see building in re-emergent Canberra.

Following on from our recent visit to the super-cool Hotel Hotel in Canberra, we turn our architectural gaze to a classic piece of Modernism right opposite. Landing in 1959 is the spaceship-like Academy of Science, designed by seminal post-war architect Sir Roy Grounds – whose best known work in Melbourne is the monumental National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on St Kilda Road (1968) – the bluestone palace with the archway openings.

The Academy of Sciences is perhaps Grounds’ first radical work.  Dubbed the ‘Martian Embassy’, it joins other fruitier forms of experimentation in architectural modernism at the time – those by American Frank Lloyd Wright and Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s share a similar futuristic vision, one that draws from the grand classical types of arches, arcades, vaults and domes. And this is an uber-dome! The Academy promotes excellence in Australian Science, and they have a piece of exceptional Australian architecture to do it in. The best thing is that they know it, and have made great efforts to preserve the building, which is in excellent condition. Such care for a piece of post-war Modernism is rare.

As a singular idea – a big dome with no walls – the mastery of the design comes through its treatment of the edge. An arcade (a covered external space framed by arches – unlike a colonnade, which is the same with columns) wraps the base of the circular building, made through arched cut-outs in the dome surface.  Traditionally, domes sat on top of a base building, here, Grounds pushes them together.  The arches are cut from the dome itself – the arcade its edge, its way of getting people and light in.

Domes and arches are structural – they support themselves (we can thank the Romans for this). For many centuries domes created the biggest open, column free spaces – think of the Pantheon in Rome, St Paul’s in London, the Library of Congress in Washington. The dome comes with a rich history. And this one is up there.

The poured concrete dome of the Academy is covered in copper sheeting, a traditional material for roofing domes, steeples and roofs generally. Copper can be easily formed to curved surfaces, and is super durable. A moat (yes) surrounds the building (as it does at the NGV), implying the dome continues into the ground. Water becomes another key material, along with glass, brick and timber. These traditional materials and forms are fused in a pure, new way.

The dome sits low amongst the surrounding eucalypts and open landscape of inner Canberra – the park-like setting gives the building an unworldly and scaleless presence. In fact, the building is modest in size – it is essentially an auditorium surrounded by supporting rooms for meetings and events.  You enter the arcade by crossing a bridge from the forecourt – it’s hard not to walk all around, to experience this space before going inside.

The foyer enjoys a vaulted concrete ceiling and brick lined walls, external grade materials that transition from outside to in. This leads to wonderful side rooms for meetings and functions, but also to the marvellous Ian Walk Theatre. The building’s materials are warmest in the centre – its interior is lined with timber battens. These are a classic modernist treatment – a tactile surface, particularly good for acoustics. The Auditorium’s concrete ceiling is the underside of the big dome, featuring an array of beautiful disc light fittings that further push the circular theme. The mint-condition interior is made complete by the original furniture, which screams ’50s cool.

For Roy Grounds, 1950s Canberra was a site of experimentation. Underappreciated perhaps when it was built, we can now celebrate one of Australia’s best pieces of post-war architecture, and another must-see in re-emergent Canberra. For over 50 years this building has sat virtually unchanged, a geometric monument to science and architecture together.

Architecture’s relationship to science is an interesting one – both involve experimentation, method, materials and research. A geometric and scaleless form of circular architecture is apt for a home for science – a world of tiny atoms and giant stars that orbit impossibly large galaxies.

In addition to Sean’s great photos here, you can also get inside this building with this 3D tour (those things are rarely this good).

The Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, designed by Roy Grounds in 1959.  Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.


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