The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Sydney Modern Project has doubled the Gallery’s exhibition space creating a new, collaborative and immersive landscape for the public to experience and enjoy art in all its forms.

We worked on this project from concept to completion, providing more than 15 disciplines, including civil, structural, and acoustic consulting, lighting design, fire and hydraulic engineering and security advisory services. 

Our work started in 2015 when we partnered with SANAA to bring their international design competition winning vision for the Sydney Modern Project to life. From 2016 we led the engineering design for the project and followed with construction supervision to Richard Crookes Constructions. 

SANAA’s design responds to the site’s natural topography, with interlocking pavilions that nestle into the surrounding landscape and integrates the land bridge over the Eastern Distributor motorway below and the subterranean heritage structures. Each pavilion connects with the outdoors – roof terraces, courtyards, public walkways, and a 24/7 accessible art garden. The design repurposes and transforms an underground heritage WWII naval oil tank into an immersive art space. 

The light and expansive design includes a new prominent destination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, performance overlays and education facilities catering for community and student activities. With increased space, the Gallery can showcase more of its outstanding collection and attract more of the best national and international exhibitions to Sydney.

The Sydney Modern Project connects people across Sydney’s eastern cultural precinct – from Woolloomooloo to the CBD – while taking in the natural beauty of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Harbour and the Domain.

Turning complexity into elegance

The Gallery’s unique location and steel-framed pavilion required creative thinking and smart structural solutions to realise SANAA’s architectural vision. 

Through close collaboration and careful modelling, our structural engineers determined the right place for the structure over the land bridge. This approach saved costs and time by eliminating the need for strengthening and major road closures. Detailed investigation, assessments and analysis of the oil tank structure minimised the need for strengthening and preserved the original construction for the next generation.

Working closely with SANAA and Architectus, our structural engineers achieved the vision for a high-quality gallery experience. Detailed analysis helped minimise column sizes and eliminate bracing in the entry canopy and pavilions. Non-linear time history analysis was undertaken to verify the seismic performance of the fully integrated chain of pavilions that step up the hill and further verify the sway columns. Connections are subtle and clean, and structural arrangements and load paths simple and direct wherever possible.

Preserving water and artwork digitally

Reducing water use and protecting precious artworks was a key consideration for our hydraulic and fire engineering design team. 

Our team developed a digital water balance calculation tool to assess and optimise onsite rainwater harvesting. The building rainwater system collects water from all roof and trafficable terrace areas for reuse in the Gallery’s cooling towers and landscape irrigation system. This approach helps reduce water use and protects the gallery and stormwater network from flooding. The tool was a contributing factor to the gallery being awarded a 6 Star Green Star design rating – a first for an Australian public art museum.

To protect the sensitive gallery spaces and art storage areas, performance-based fire protection systems were developed, ensuring robust life safety and property protection without the risk of water damage to collection pieces.

Simulating acoustic possibilities

Transforming a large empty decommissioned oil tank into a contemporary art experience required careful and creative acoustic treatment. To understand the space, our team took over 90 recordings and measurements to document this sonic part of the oil tank’s heritage. Using specialised audio equipment, our acoustics team went inside the oil tank to capture the soundscape before construction started. This work was critical to the Sydney Modern Project: The Tank Acoustic Design.

Using our SoundLab, our acoustics team simulated what the space would sound like in five different operational situations: during a conversation, a static exhibition, an event with over 800 people, a formal speech, and a music performance. Our team then simulated each of these situations with three acoustic treatment options.

This approach provided AGNSW with an accessible and human-centric view of the oil tank prior to construction commencing, helping the Art Gallery to think about the future potential of the space based on the acoustic outcomes experienced aurally. This process also provided valuable information to AGNSW on its future operational considerations in the space.