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Ma: The Spatial Logic of In-Betweenness and Pause

“The in-between spaces are as important as the gallery spaces”                                                                        – Dr Michael Brand, Director, Art Gallery of NSW

1997 was the year when the Sydney public was first introduced to Architect Kazuyo Sejima through her winning design for the Museum of Contemporary Art. In typical New South Wales fashion, one that has come to characterise the state’s treatment of architects, her entry was unexplainably shelved.

After 25 years, the 2022 opening of the Sydney Modern – an extension of the Art Gallery of NSW, is a redemption of sorts. Sydney has finally been graced by SANAA’s architecture, a competition winning vision selected from a final shortlist of similar top tier local and international designers including Kerry Hill Architects, Sean Godsell, Kengo Kuma & Associates and RMA Architects.

The Sydney Modern is a significantly higher profile commission than the previous 1997 competition. The scheme adds 17,000 sqm in new floor area to the Art Gallery of NSW, bringing its total area to 40,000 sqm, while nearly doubling its exhibition space from 9,000 to 16,000 sqm.

Situated directly adjacent to the existing Art Gallery of NSW building and within the Royal Botanic Gardens, the site presented several challenges to any intervention. These included the sloping topography downwards towards Woolloomooloo Bay, mitigating the loss of parkland, the technicalities of constructing on the existing Cahill Expressway land bridge as well as treatment of a disused WW2 diesel storage tank.

To truly grasp SANAA architecture, the proposal must be evaluated within the context of the existing Art Gallery of NSW complex. Upon first encounter it is obvious that the new addition presents a clear juxtaposition to the existing gallery in terms of materiality and structure. The transparency of SANAA’s ‘pavilion’ like glass and steel structure, when viewed from Art Gallery Road, is in absolute contrast to the gravatas of Walter Vernon original stone-clad classical revival style building, constructed in 6 stages between 1897 and 1909[1].

It is beyond simple aesthetic appearances, however, and in the spatial logic where SANAA’s proposal must be analysed and compared to the existing gallery to be fully appreciated. Furthermore, it can be argued that SANAA’s spatial logic is what fundamentally distinguishes the competition entry from other shortlisted proposals.

According to neoclassical architectural principles, the original building is organised along a central vertical axis, with visual symmetry expressed in plan, section and through the front façade elevation. In Walter Vernon’s design, galleries are arranged as a series of connected spaces. The entry portico and vestibule are the only designated circulatory space. It is important to note the absence of circulatory space as an organisational element between exhibition spaces. From the completion of Walter Vernon’s design in 1909 to the present day, the main gallery building has undergone both minor and major alterations. Most notable being, The Captain Cook Wing (1972), The Bicentennial Wing (1988), The Asian Wing (2003) and most recently the Contemporary Art Galleries (2011).

A significant portion of the original north-eastern galleries were demolished for the construction of the Captain Cook Wing in 1972. Although expressively modern in its tectonics of an exposed structural system, the spatiality of the exhibition spaces mirrors that of the original – that is as a series of connected spaces.

The 1988 Bicentennial Wing extends the massing of the gallery beyond Vernon’s original 1909 footprint. The new exhibition space is partitioned as a hybrid, allowing for the potential of both interconnected spaces and/or individual rooms, arranged around a defined central foyer.

Further spatial evolution occurs in the 2003 Asian Wing addition, where a ‘white box’ scheme is created with circulation regulated to the periphery. Space is clearly demarcated, yet the architecture recedes into the background, designed to highlight the collection within. This is a spatial typology characteristic of many contemporary galleries, most notable in Peter Zumthors’ Kunsthaus Bregenz.

Housing the gallery’s contemporary collection, the 2011 repurposing of existing basement storage into 3300 sqm of exhibition space explores a more open plan and flexible spatial arrangement. While the spatial characteristic of each added exhibition space has evolved, the underlying spatial logic inherent in each design is the same. Every new addition has kept to the orthogonality of the original building and space is demarcated as an enclosure.

SANAA’s Sydney Modern breaks with this spatial logic, instead introducing a spatial paradigm which emphasises the in-between, characterised by the Japanese concept termed ‘Ma’. Richard B. Pilgrim in his 1986 paper, “Intervals (Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan’’, provides a comprehensive overview of this concept, as a foreigner.

Without being immersed in the Japanese cultural milieu, the difficulty in grasping cultural paradigms that goes beyond surface level description, should be cautiously noted. As Richard B. Pilgrim explains, the concept of Ma is identified in many aspects of Japanese religious and artistic culture.

Etymologically the Japanese character for Ma consists of two Chinese characters. The outer character denoting door/gate, while the inner script symbolising the sun/moon. Translating this into a visual metaphor, the gate represents phenomena in the world while the light that shines through the gap of the gate is the Ma[2]. With this understanding, the concept of Ma takes on, as Richard B. Pilgrim identifies, 1) descriptive objective and 2) experiential subjective connotations.

On an objective level as its script visually infers, Ma, is a gap or interval between things and is associated with negative space. A commonly applied objective understanding would be the silence between notes to create emphasis or break in musical composition. In many cases it is this silence that is of greater importance than the sound. With the second script of the sun/moon, it is unsurprising that Ma also takes on temporal and dynamic connotations. Like light shining through a crack, Ma becomes a revelatory force, however this aperture does not reveal all. The shifting light quality of the diurnal cycle adds to the ambiguity, and Ma therefore becomes a space for imagination – a gap in one’s mind to be filled.

With both spatial and experiential temporal connotations it is therefore unsurprising that Ma is closely related to the Japanese conception of space and time, featuring prominently in Japanese architectural design. For the Japanese, space and time are not thought of as singular concepts but take on a relational nature. Space is conceived as both dependent and identical to temporal events. This contrasts with the western Cartesian paradigm, where space and time are thought of independently, an idea epitomised famously by Superstudio’s totalising architecture [3].

Using the conceptual framework of Ma, it is evident that the architecture of Sydney Modern can be understood beyond simple aesthetic judgement and descriptive reporting.

It can be reasoned that the most successful gesture of Sydney Modern is its siting strategy which clearly separates the new extension from the original gallery. It is therefore ironic that this gesture was not proposed in either SANAA’s stage 1 or stage 2 winning scheme. The only schemes to propose such a clear visual separation of all the stage 2 shortlisted entries was the design by Rahul Mehrotra Architects and Sean Godsell. The separation of massing in SANAA’s scheme was only conceived after consultation, when concerns were raised regarding the diminishing effect any new grand connecting foyer would have on Walter Vernon’s original entry portico.

The resulting gesture of two distinct buildings, ultimately created the opportunity to conceive Sydney Modern’s welcome plaza – an incredibly successful space and the very embodiment of Ma as a spatial concept. The welcome plaza is the architectural equivalent of the power of silence in musical form. This break in form makes the resulting negative space the focal point of the entire gallery ‘campus’, while simultaneously allowing the importance of the original entry portico to be retained in relation to the existing gallery. Emphasis is therefore on nothingness rather than built form, placating initial criticism over the loss of open space and overdevelopment. Rather than a degradation of cherished harbour views a vista of Woolloomooloo Bay and beyond is framed by the gap in elevation.

The spatial potential of the welcome plaza, however, could only have been realised due to SANAA’s subtle rotation of the adjacent massing off the defining orthogonal grid. As a counterpoint, Sean Godsell’s submission proposed an adjacent gallery aligned with the original building, resulting in a spatial break with qualities akin to a laneway rather than a grand civic space. In continuation with musical metaphor, Sean Godsell’s gesture of the spatial break would be equivalent to a pause separating a repeating musical idea. The welcome plaza, in contrast, is a pause of greater effect, demarcating two entirely distinct expressions.

To further accentuate the logic of Ma and the resulting spatial effect of SANAA’s massing, is to conceptualise the placement of stones in a stream. The stones can be considered positive space, the channel negative space, and the stream, Ma. The subtle off grid rotation of the foyer, like the considered placement of a stone, changes the dynamics of the stream from laminar to turbulent flow.

Like water, the circulatory flow of people entering the space forms eddies, certain paths are fast moving, others in momentary stagnancy. The placement of a circular kiosk, information booth and Francis Upritchard sculptures, like pebbles, into the plaza, further contributes to its spatial- temporal complexities. Experientially the welcome plaza is transformed from one of supposed formality to the celebration of the incidental and chaotic.

The informal nature of the plaza space is further affirmed by the transparent pavilion cover, its roof constructed from asymmetrical wave-shaped channel glass panels. Like the quintessential Australian patio or veranda, it operates as an in-between space, meditating outside from inside.

Taking a bird’s eye perspective of the architecture, its form appears as an arbitrary arrangement of overlapping terracing boxes. It can be postulated however, this unceremonious layout, embodies (intentional or otherwise) the tradition of Karesansui or the Japanese dry garden. The first written treatise on garden planning can be traced to Tachibana no Toshitsuna (1028–94) and is a documentation of earlier oral traditions. Originally untitled, the treatise acquired the name Sakuteiki during the Edo period (1603–1868)[4].

The Sakueteiki outlines five styles of gardening, all characterised by the art of rock composition as well as white gravel placed in the spaces between, used to represent water or emptiness – yet another manifestation of Ma[5]. The introduction of Zen Buddhism into Japan shifted the emphasis of garden design from historic symbology to an emphasis on the spiritual[6].

The importance of nature is a central feature in the Buddhist tradition. Musō Soseki,a Buddhist monk and prominent figure in Japanese cultural development viewed the garden as a tool for religious education. In Musō philosophy it is thought that ‘Budda nature’ resided in the natural environment and its essence could be distilled in abstracted landscape forms to aid the process of meditation[7]. Examples of such abstraction is evident in the world heritage designated Saihō-ji temple garden in Kyoto. The temple itself was established by the monk Gyōki but the structure and its gardens were remodelled between 1339 and 1344 by Musō Soseki[8]. The two-level terraced garden features several rock compositions, one such is the Kare-taki(枯滝), an arrangement consisting of a series of flat moss-covered granite stones emulating a terraced waterfall. The dynamism of flowing water is paradoxically captured by the placement of static rocks. The scene is like a suspension of time, the imagined movement, accentuating the sense of stillness – the ‘Buddha nature’.

The paradigm of Ma is again present here, in the objective sense, as the physical space between stones and in the experiential subjective sense, in the mind of the viewer filling the gap reality has left. The Karesansui tradition not only embodies Ma but illustrates how closely space and time are intertwined in Japanese thought.

Like the imagined movement of the Kare-taki, the illusion of dynamism is also reproduced in SANNA’s architecture. The clear articulation of the structural grid is a defining aesthetic feature of the ceiling. For the viewer the grid becomes a static superimposed reference plane in which the rotated massing of the lower floors is contrasted with. The dynamic gesture of rotated forms and movement of visitors is accentuated by the regular ceiling grid above.

The circulatory journey through Sydney Modern can be likened to a cascading stream, to borrow the visual metaphor of the Kare-taki, once again. Inside the building, the streams of visitors are initially pooled in the volumetric foyer space, a pause in their journey. Ultimately, however, the stream succumbs to the natural pull of gravity, finding the path of less resistance – the slits in-between form.

Sunlight too flows through the gaps in form. Natural light infiltrates the primary circulation spine through the irregular aperture like windows, reflecting off the ceilings and walls of the conflicting geometry. The atmospheric effect is like being within a canyon and the monumental, rammed earth feature walls only affirms this sense.

As noted by Dr Michael Brand, it is the in-between space that defines Sydney Modern’s architecture. According to this logic, circulatory foyer space occupies the negative (in-between) spaces while the ‘positive forms’ house formal gallery spaces. Like the self-similarity of fractal geometry, this logic extends to the interior scheme of each individual gallery. Each gallery is itself divided by a seemingly arbitrary arrangement of interlocking square partition walls. Again, the in-between space is circulatory, and the ‘positive’ space bounded by partitions become the galleries.

While the division and spatial function of positive and negative space appears unambiguously straightforward, black, and white, the interstitial spaces created are more akin to a grey zone. Similar to the change of translucency when opaque sheets of paper are overlaid, the sense of informality and flux is reflected in this expression of overlapping forms. The most notable example is experienced in the gallery cafe. Formally, the dining area is defined by the intersection of two overlapping squares on different planes (the floor and roof), however the unrestricted public circulation from the curved staircase interrupts this formality and staticity of seated diners. Other examples of ‘grey zones’ are the roof overhangs, creating sheltered space conducive to incidental activities- gathering, lingering, loitering and even children’s play.

Despite the thoughtfulness and cultural depth of the design there is criticism regarding its lack of contemplative spaces for the proper display of art. In rebuttal to this reservation, there is an intimacy in the partitioned cul de sac exhibition spaces not found in the archetypal neo-classical museum, were exhibition chambers in fact double as circulatory thoroughfares. Furthermore, Lee Mingwei’s installation, titled, Spirit House, a special commission incorporated into the architectural fabric is a deeply meditative space. The womb-like void, seemingly sculptured from the monolithic rammed earth walls, is reminiscent of the concept of Kekkai. The notion holds various interpretations but in Japanese language alludes to a sacred space, boundary, or separation. In Shinto tradition it is thought that spiritual forces referred to as Kami would temporarily manifest in objects, and space would be demarcated by rope in anticipation. In Buddhism, Kekkai is a designated sacred space within temples used for a priest’s spiritual rebirth[9].

The spectacle of the architecture is the second criticism and behind this argument is uncertainty over its timelessness. While it is correct in concluding SANAA’s architecture is a break from how galleries are traditionally understood, be it the neoclassical or the black box model. Emphasis of SANAA’s architecture is indeed less on art, but nor is the attention given to the architecture itself, despite first appearances. Consistent with the concept of Ma, the spaces cannot be thought of as a static volumetric construction but are relational in nature. Like how the space within a vessel depends on both the viscosity and volume of encapsulated fluid, SANNA sets up an architectural framework that shapes the metaphorical stream of visitors and celebrates the spatial temporal complexities which arise. The architecture of Sydney modern is ultimately one of dematerialisation, while the crafting and form of the vessel is important, emphasis is on what it contains – people.

Adjectives such as tranquil, calming, light, minimal, immaterial, elegant are some words commonly associated with SANNA’s architecture. While they are accurate in a descriptive sense, they fail to properly articulate the underlying reasons why SANNA’s architecture is so. Aesthetically, visual parallels can certainly be drawn from the abstraction seen in SANAA’s architecture and the Karesansui tradition.  An uncanny resemblance can be drawn between the museum’s green roof and the moss-covered rocks of the Kare-taki. Could the terraced boxes of Sydney Modern be an emulation of Musō Soseki’s strive to express the essence of nature, or in the former’s case the essence of architectural context?  Perhaps, but to understand SANNA’s architecture from a simple visual or literal perspective fails to acknowledge the cultural milieu it arises from. Sydney Modern is a manifestation of a unique Japanese cultural paradigm – the concept of Ma is just one example. Although this article attempts at analysing its architecture beyond the visual, to truly appreciate its enigmatic qualities is a journey into the depths of Japanese zen philosophy.



[1] Johnson Pilton Walker, “Art Gallery of New South Wales – Sydney Modern Masterplan Framework’ ,48

[2] Pilgrim, “Intervals (Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan’’,256

[3] Pilgrim, “Intervals (Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan’’,258

[4] Nonaka, “The Art of Setting Stones”,5

[5] Takei and Keane, “Sakuteiki: visions of the Japanese garden’, 162

[6] Winters, “Buddhist Meditation Gardens”,49

[7] Winters, “Buddhist Meditation Gardens”,48

[8] Winters, “Buddhist Meditation Gardens”,49

[9] Pilgrim, “Intervals (Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan’,262