An ode to Vastness and Nothing Much More
“Inspiration for the design came from the stories of the land, sea, sky and WA’s people. Specific to the space and taking in the scale and vastness, much like the state of Western Australia itself, many elements are inspired by the natural objects from the Museum collection”
– WA Museum Boola Bardip Opening Guide
Western Australia is a vast state. To put this vastness in scale, at 2,646,000 km2, its land area is 3.8 times the size of Texas, a state which epitomises America’s cultural love affair with all things big.
For such a vast state it is fitting that Western Australia’s new Museum Boola Bardip reflects this, not only in its scale, but also its budget, ambition, urban planning strategy as well as the boldness of its architectural gestures. The project was conceived with grand intentions in 2012 when the then government pledged $428 million for a new state museum on the Perth Cultural Centre site.
The Perth Cultural Centre site originally consisted of 2 urban blocks infilled with small scale mixed used allotments as well as a host of historic public buildings. The pedestrianisation of James Street and subsequent modernist interventions including the Main Gallery Building of the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1977) and Alexander Library Building (1982), blatantly disregarded this traditional urban fabric. The consequence was a desolate space consisting of a smorgasbord of buildings, lacking any clear relationship to each another or any defined urban structure (Image 1). Situated in the north-eastern corner of the Perth cultural precinct, the new intervention attempts at reconciling the complex historical urban condition of the site.
The overall intention of OMA and Hassell’s architectural intervention is clear, to unify the hodgepodge of existing heritage buildings housing the previous museum, including the Old Perth Gaol (1855), the Jubilee Building (1899), the original Art Gallery (1908) and Hackett Hall (1913). The urban strategy was to define the site as a singular city block, utilising the massing of the existing structures with the new intervention used to delineate the north-eastern edge bounded by Francis St and north-western edge fronting the state library forecourt(Image 2). With this perimeter boundary firmly established, the Old Perth Gaol, once hidden and forgotten, is elevated in stature as a feature object within the central courtyard ‘void’.
To promote whole site activation the architects introduced a porosity to the now imagined singular perimeter block massing through the creation of new entrance ‘thresholds’ of varying scales, on all four edges. The gap between Hackett Hall and Jubilee Building as well as the transition space between existing and new massing are cleverly exploited for this purpose. A puncture is also created through the original Art Gallery building by the surgical removal of massing (The Beaufort link).
Arguably the defining architectural gesture of OMA and Hassell’s building and largest of the entrance thresholds is the ‘City Room’. Formed by the cantilevering mass of galleries above and bookended by Hackett Hall, this vast opening warmly welcomes the city and incites the curiosity of any passer-by. The ‘City Room’ is ingenious solution to carve out a civic space distinctive to the museum in an overwise contested forecourt area- a space already subservient to the state library as well as functioning as a pedestrian throughfare onto museum street.
The success of the ‘City Room’ as a distinctive civic space is not in question, what is however, is the logical consistency of the ‘City Room’ as a threshold. It is acknowledged that the conceptual understanding of the ‘threshold’ in architectural philosophy is one that cannot be rigorously unpacked in this article, however Till Boettger’s understanding of the term as discussed in his book Threshold Spaces: Transitions in Architecture. Analysis and Design Tools, gives an authoritative framework.
Till Boettger discusses that a threshold is an interruption in a spatial boundary with the simultaneous function of both separating and facilitating the transition from one spatial zone to another. Threshold spaces by extension, as Till Boettger describes, are the intermediate state between two spatial areas. Given that movement is a principle means in which space is experienced, a threshold can therefore be also thought as an architectural device for the organisation of spatial sequence.
Given this understanding, it is intuitive then that the ‘City Room’ is thought as a threshold space. It is neither fully exposed and external to the site, nor part of the enclosed building envelop. Furthermore, it establishes a spatial sequence operating as intermediary between outside and inside, one that the visitor must navigate before entering the building (Image 3).
Yet when the architectural gesture of the ‘City Room’ is interrogated using the conceptual framework laid out by the urban strategy, it becomes apparent that the placement of the museum’s main entrance introduces conceptual inconsistencies that undermine the scheme’s architectural intent.
If one was to attempt at generalising the board conceptual function of a natural history museum, the architect’s task should be to create a whole new world. To elaborate this point further, a successfully designed museum should be a place where the curiosity of every adult is unleashed and where the imagination of every child is realised. The literary classic The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the humble wardrobe becomes a portal, encapsulates an important function of museums and the role thresholds play in meditating between two worlds, the real and the imagined. The architectural embodiment of these fictional ideals is the cabinet of curiosities that is Sir John Soane house.
As previously established the parti diagram for the scheme can be illustrated as a courtyard typology. The original buildings along with the new interventions form a boundary, clearly separating the city and the courtyard space within. The city is the real world, the courtyard space the imagined inner sanctuary. Although the three openings on James Street mall, Beaufort Street and Francis Street, achieves this transition, the visitor entering from the ‘City Room’ is never forced to completely traverse this metaphorical threshold, given the placement of the museum’s main entrance.
The visitor is held in state of purgatory. This sense is aggerated when visitors are held in limbo awaiting entry – imagine being stuck in-between a door frame – neither in nor out. Instead of a vast activity filled plaza it becomes a processing area during peak periods. Further exaggerating the suboptimal visitor experience is the spatial sequence and scale of the entry foyer. Visitors must first pass through a small antechamber before entering the museum ticketing area. It is expected that after the confinement of the antechamber, a release would greet the visitor. This sense, however, is ultimately denied in the underwhelming foyer, too small to handle even modest crowds.
An alternative design solution could have been to reposition the entry of the museum within the courtyard space. This would have involved sinking the museum entry on the basement and sloping the ‘city room’ plaza to meet this new lower level. The visitor would therefore complete the traversal of the metaphorical ‘city room’ threshold before descending into the entry portal to enter a whole new world.
In the completed building the visitor’s transition into the museum world is less dramatic. Once finished at the ticketing booth the visitor is immediately confronted not by cultural curiosities but by an explicit homage to capitalism – the museum gift shop – awkwardly positioned in a space otherwise too small or directly exposed to sunlight to function as a gallery (Image 4).
The initial spatial experience is more reminiscent to that of an airport than a museum, the entry through generic automatic doors, the queue at the check in counter and the navigation of the duty-free – the magic of a museum seems lost.
Once inside the museum, the definition of circulatory routes is also problematic. Although it must be conceded that in the original scheme a basement gallery under the ‘city room allowed the building to be fully circumnavigated, the omittance of this space, due to bureaucratic interference, proved a fatal comprise to its architectural legibility. The consequence of the circulatory illegibility occurs most pronouncedly at the south- west corner, where visitors are met confronted with a stark choice, the descent through a backdoor exit or backtrack to view the remaining galleries. Despite the post rationalisation of the circulatory scheme – as horizonal loops facilitating the concept of self-initiated navigation – the horseshoe floor plan configuration and verticality of the museum is not inducive of such a spatial concept.
SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (2004) provides a counter example of a plan which clearly does demonstrate the logic of a self navigatory circulatory scheme. In SANAA’s architecture, the museum is conceived as a circular field in which individual galleries spaces are placed within (Image 5). The circulatory spaces are defined by the left-over spaces and are analogous in organisation to an urban street network where visitors are free to explore. Using the perfect shape of the circle to delineate internal space further reinforces the notion of spatial neutrality, the form neither infers nor imposes a route of travel on the visitor.
The treatment and scale of ambulatory spaces suggests architectural largess rather than careful consideration. The generous front of house lobby area is not only underutilised, designed to only service secondary and tertiary circulatory elements such as lifts and fire stairs, but also redundant in its contribution to overall circulatory legibility. Another example of the unnecessary vastness is the linear corridor connecting the heritage gallery to the front lobby resembling an airport concourse (Image 6). Its bright strip ceiling lighting and repetitive floor to ceiling glazing system is not out of character if one was to design a passenger terminal overlooking tarmac.
The choice of polished terrazzo tile flooring throughout is also questionable, successful in its intention to facilitate rolling luggage no doubt, but when combined with an overly luminous homogenous artificial lighting scheme, Perth’s piercing sunlight, and the golden lustre of the interior design scheme, a sensory overload is induced. The overall disorientating sense is akin to a generic corporate lobby than a carefully curated cultural building designed for thoughtful cultural appreciation.
In affect what OMA and Hassell have successfully created in the numerous vast foyers, lobbies and corridors that dominate the spatial experience of much of the museum are ‘non- places’, to use the term coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé. Airports, highways, superstores, supermarkets and hotel chains are just some examples of non-spaces which have come to characterise our age. These spaces are designed for circulation, consumption and communication, devoid of any connection to identity, relations or history.
To assert that a museum, a typology supposedly antithesis to such a concept, could house non-places seems absurd, yet when analysed through Marc Augé’s framework the argument becomes clearer. Non-places are the expression of space in a condition Augé describes as supermodernity. Supermodernity is likewise characterised through three excesses, 1) the excess of events, 2) the excess of space and finally 3) the excess of ego.
It can be shown that WA Museum Boola Bardip is the architectural expression of such a condition. The very commission of WA Museum Boola Bardip and the proliferation of museums globally is the product of this excess of events.
“This need to give a meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we could call ‘supermodern’ to express its essential quality: excess”
The need for commemoration for the sake of the spectacle is felt as one wanders the corridor where historical objects are placed out of context – take the replica dinosaur, or the vintage ute (Image 7). One is left no more informed of their significance and their display is more akin to an abstract sculpture, for personal contemplation, than having any educational merit. The point is also poignantly illustrated in the aptly named ‘reflection’ gallery where even the trivialities of WA’s recent history deserve a podium.
To expand on the second notion; the excess of space, Museum Boola Bardip exhibits such abundance on both the literal and metaphysical registers. In the literal sense, the massing is large, and the circulatory spaces are overly generous to fill this envelope (Image 8). Seating has been lavishly placed, in desperation to encourage a semblance of human activity. Unfortunately, the linear articulation of these connective areas is neither conductive to gathering nor dwelling. Paradoxically, the loneliness of the corridors is only exacerbated by the unoccupied seating (Image 9).
“The space of non-place creates neither singular identities nor relations; only solitude, and similitude”
On the metaphysical register, the excess of space is symptomatic of the irreconcilable architectural aims of being locally contextualised yet globally recognised. In commissioning OMA with the intent of creating an international architectural icon, the space of WA Museum Boola Bardip consequently becomes decontextualised, despite being physically grounded. The constructed space is not locally distinct to Perth but is linked through a common architectural expression found in other OMA buildings throughout the world. The rectilinear cantilevering volumes supported by visual trusses is in fact not a site-specific response but is also characteristic of Pierre Lassonde Pavilion located in Québec City, Canada (Image 10) or Lujiazui Harbour City Exhibition Centre in Shanghai (Image 11), or the Shenzhen Stock Exchange (Image 12), to name a few buildings. Similarly, the angular folds, another defining gesture of the form are also features in Seattle City Library (Image 13) and ARI Hotel, Amsterdam (Image 14). In short, context becomes irrelevant and the WA Museum Boola Bardip is reduced to another reference in OMA increasingly homogenous global catalogue of works.
The excess of ego is a condition where, to quote Marc Augé, “the individual wants to be a world in himself; he intends to interpret the information delivered to him by himself and for himself.” On the political arena this mindset is succinctly summarise by the idiom what is in it for me? An attitude mistrustful of greater agendas with the effect of destabilising the collective identity and undermining common good. More concrete examples occur in advertising where the focus has shifted from the features and benefits of products to messages targeted to satisfy individual desires. The infamous corporate slogan of L’oreal – “Because you’re worth it“- explicitly exploits this excess of ego.
In the architectural realm, the diminished authority of the Architect is symptomatic of the elevation of the individual ego. Architectural intent is no longer respected, what matters is individual opinion and more crudely the instagrammability of form- the flattening of space, its interpretation as well as experience to that of the most sharable image.
In using the concept of self-initiated navigation, the architects have abdicated the responsibility of interpreting and navigating the museum to the individual.
“Instead of prescribing a singular interpretation of Western Australia, the loops enable visitors to engage with the Museum’s collection in distinctive ways, and tell the manifold stories of the place” – David Gianotte
This begs the question, if architects, the very profession tasked with the creation and by extension curation of spatial narratives, recoils from this responsibility, who else qualified is there to make sense of our jumbled collective history. Certainty not the individual, trapped increasingly in their own myopic world.
A praise frequently bestowed on the museum is in its treatment and incorporation of the heritage buildings on site, blessings used by the architects to emphasise their thoughtful consideration of the local context. Despite the rhetoric proclaiming restoration and revitalisation, the heritage buildings have been reduced to a taxidermy. If the modern condition is coexistence of histories, then the supermodern condition is its trivialisation.
“What is seen by the spectator of modernity is the interweaving of old and new. Super modernity, though, makes the old (history) into a specific spectacle, as it does with all exoticism and all local particularity.”
Short of being enveloped by the overbearing mass of the intervention, the designers have chosen to juxtapose the minimalist façade of the new with the ornate of the old (Image 15). While such a strategy is not without merit, when the essence of these heritage buildings is disregard, to the extent that their windows are blacked out, the only conclusion one can make is that their restoration is for the spectacle. Take for example the Jubilee building, none of the intricacies of its forms are exploited in the gallery fitout that may as well be housed in a generic black box. Even more unashamedly treated is Hackett Hall, the former state library reading room, a space where a spectacle is created by the surgical removal and display of its ornamental plaster board ceiling (Image 16). The histories of these buildings have been designated to a label rather than revived through clever imagination.
Instead of creating a whole new world, WA’s Museum Boola Bardip is in fact a reflection of supermodern condition we all find ourselves experiencing.
Considering its high budget and arguably hollow architectural outcomes, the project should be an indictment of the flawed design procurement process which seem so characteristic to Australia currently. The standard operating procedure favouring international high-profile architects and assigning local design talent to a subservient role, is one which has been repeated throughout the country on similar state significant projects, including the Parramatta Powerhouse Museum and Adelaide Contemporary Museum.
It is understandable that given its isolation, there was a strong urge to create an architectural icon to pronounce Western Australia’s place on the global stage. However, in an explicit attempt to satisfy the ever-increasing appetite for cultural consumption in a competitive global marketplace, lip service has sadly been given to place specific design and local architectural expression.
Despite high praises by both politicians and the architectural media, WA Museum Boola Bardip is a lost opportunity to create something uniquely Western Australian and extend the conversation beyond the notion of vastness.
 Till Boettger, Threshold Spaces: Transitions in Architecture. Analysis and Design Tools (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014), pg. 9 – 14
 Jennie Officer, “Many stories: WA Museum Boola Bardip”, Architecture Australia, issue 5 (2021)
 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), pg. 75
 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), pg. 40
 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), pg. 29
 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), pg. 103
 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), pg. 37
, “New Museum for Western Australia,” Hassell, accessed April 22, 2022, https://www.hassellstudio.com/news-event/new-museum-for-western-australia-designed-by-hassell-oma-reaches-building-completion milestone#:~:text=%E2%80%9CWestern%20Australia’s%20natural%20resources%2C%20culture,the%20place%2C%E2%80%9D%20says%20Gianotten.