Finalist 2023

James Makin Gallery

Tristan Wong (Architect) / James Makin / Axiom / Hugh Makin

James Makin Gallery is a contemporary exhibition space, with a series of spatial interventions that reframe the traditional gallery experience

James Makin Gallery is designed as a contemporary art display space, but with the addition of small but impactful ancillary spaces. It seeks to deformalize the often ‘institutional’ gallery space typified by white only, square-set walls and in Makin’s words “reframe the viewing of art”. At the heart of this design counterpoint is a series of blackened, and curving, timber objects, walls and cutaways.

Visitors are drawn in and through a belly-like space: dramatic, textural and tactile. Only glimpses of the art beyond are given as one journeys through the social spaces of reception, bar, viewing room and library.

Design Brief:

James Makin came to me in 2020 with the brief to create a new gallery space for him – he’d been located in Collingwood, Melbourne for some 15 years already but had outgrown his Cambridge St address. He happened across an old warehouse in Islington St (also in Collingwood).

James was after a reframing of the gallery experience, he wanted to move away from the ‘white box’ only stereotype, adding an experiential part to its peripheries.

Ultimately the ‘hanging space’ would need to be white washed (or light grey as is his preference), but what could be done around the edges of the gallery, the entrance, the arrival, vestibules, perhaps a library space, a secret room for private viewings, a bar and reception area.

James has always wanted to make art more accessible, less instituitionalized. And to create a sense of intrigue around the space itself, not only the art.

This project was developed by:

  • Triston Wong (Architect)
  • James Makin
  • Axiom Built
  • Hugh Makin

Design Process

The traditional ‘all-white box’ gallery space is subverted to a moodier experience and a somewhat dramatised entry. Much of which is intended to reframe, in some small way, the sometimes ‘institutional’ feeling one might experience entering a gallery. A short journey, firstly through a giant 4m high sliding timber door, and then alongside and past a 4.5 metre high bent wall that narrows at its end, all work towards giving only a glimpse of what lies beyond. All is not revealed immediately, but rather gradually through glimpses into coves and recesses that also house works before arriving into the main space.

The new JMG becomes more than just a gallery space, it becomes a place for storing artefacts and the gallery owners’ own books, a place to meet and entertain, a place for quiet contemplation and enjoyment of art from local artists, a space that itself creates delight and engagement and encourages exploration of its very self.

All spatial interventions, and joinery have been constructed of timber, a small but important approach in using more sustainable materials. The black stained timber defines strongly what is the informal gallery space, versus the formal gallery space. These timbers have been subjected to a wire brush that peels away the softer grain, resulting in a mesmerising, almost topographical, textural surface and grain.

Two blackened steel ‘oculi’ provide a beautiful softened light (lightbox-like) into the library, hidden behind a ‘secret’ 400kg oversized door. Almost no artificial lighting is required during daytime hours - nor in the formal gallery space itself. Like the works of art themselves, the gallery space also seeks to talk to the idea of the hand-made and the craft of making with a team of carpenters - including the gallery owners’ own brother - engaged to cut and shape the spaces.

Design Excellence

A number of small but important sustainability initiatives were implemented into this project, primarily around materiality and lighting. Two quite key considerations in any gallery design.

From a materiality perspective, timber was the primary building material for the major design interventions – and for the framing too. It was selected obviously for its low embodied energy, its C02 sequestering qualities, and its renewability. Additionally, its tactile and textural qualities, and its inherent aesthetics and ‘soft feel’ made it a wonderful counterpoint to the colder plasterboard gallery walls. Despite the black stain applied, it retains a wonderful warmth and calm-inducing qualities. The biophilic benefits for visitors and staff engaging with the timber is small but important.

One of the key construction benefits of this material was its ability to be worked with onsite. And as a lot of site measuring, testing and workshopping of ideas was done onsite, during construction, this was added value to its selection and waste minimisation.

One significant challenge at the time, and still, was the cost and availability of timber. Even for this small volume. Galleries typically require significant artificial light. However, given we were working within the confines of an existing warehouse building which already had a series of linear clear corrugation strips on the roof, we decided to harness this existing condition. Initially considered a constraint.

A new translucent, and UV protective, polycarbonate sheet was slung under each of the existing corrugated clear strips. The translucent polycarbonate ensured no direct light penetrated the gallery, but rather a soft, glowing light. So effective has been this approach that very little artificial lighting is used during daytime hours. Additionally, low energy and low heat producing specialised gallery LED’s have been installed.

Design Innovation

This project is a distinctly unique interpretation of the gallery space and how the experience of such a space can be augmented. It puts energy and life into the areas that are often left more rudimentary – the entry experience, the bathrooms, the reception area, viewing area, library, bar – even bars in galleries are often just a fold-away table, this one is large, monolithic and fixed.

This was also in part to highlight the importance of the social aspects of the gallery. That is it not only a space for art itself, but for ceremonial aspects, the social moments, the human part of conversations and engagement. It reframes, in as much as it can around the gallery’s edges, the all-white box typology.

At the same time it is quite specific in the journey it intends to create and offer up to the visitor: a twelve meter long reception desk come bar, a belly-like space formed between the bar and 4.5m high bent wall deal with the ebbs and flows of people entering the space, conversing, grabbing a drink, before being funnelled into the main display area. There are at the same time moments of procession and also those of casual exploration. Art is presented and reframed in both an ‘institutional’ setting, and in a deformalized, casual setting. This is in response to Makin’s desire to make ‘more accessible’ the viewing of art.

Staff are prioritised in this new space. The space they spend most hours in daily are crafted and considered spaces – not simply a desk in a room. The gallery instills a wonderful sense of spatial generosity, thanks to the high ceilings and ‘bleeding’ of spaces. Subtle but important biophilic responses are created through the extensive use of timber. And the amplified timber grain makes it all the more visceral.

Design Impact

Importantly the design talks to reuse and regeneration. The old warehouse was, at first glance, far from appropriate for a contemporary gallery. However, through rigors of design, much of the original bones could be salvaged or re-used. And again, most importantly, the old and stained clear corrugated sheets of the old roof were embraced rather than discarded. The bands of glowing light that follow the roofs profile, not only amplify the old roofline, but talk to its retention and also speak to the idea of building ‘into’ existing spaces, not always having to build ‘over’ old things.

A large amount of potential waste was alleviated in not having to discard the entire roof and replace it. The floor too was embraced. Initially it was rough, unsealed concrete. Stained, and equally ‘unaesthetic’, it was also deemed unfit for use. However, we decided to grind the floor, to a semi-polished finish, then seal. The floor has a lot of character. Worn and wonky it too speaks to its previous use as a factory. There was no need to truck in large amounts of concrete to resurface the 400sqm+ of floor area. All of these measures were equal parts sustainability and re-use driven initiatives, but equally they saved the client many thousands of dollars given the tight project budget.

The project is small but important in contributing to the State’s design and creative culture, and in retaining and maintaining Collingwood’s semi-industrial character. And, as a public space, and one of cultural relevance (being one of Victoria’s longest running, small galleries) the space is certainly one exposed to a broad group of visitors, professionals, art enthusiasts and critics alike. The space reimagines the ‘typical’ gallery space, it is bold and memorable, yet well attuned to the programmatic and functional requirements it needs to fulfil.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

The project importantly demonstrates the reuse and regeneration of a rundown factory into a specialised gallery space. Though not historic, or memorable itself, the factory had sufficiently strong bones to be built within and around. Not the floor, or the walls, or even the old roof, or trusses were touched. Only some redundant internal walls were removed. The old trusses were repainted, and roof relined internally to preserve the external roof that was otherwise still waterproof and functional.

Building into spaces is an important way of retaining historic parts of our cities’ fabric, and though the original building is of no cultural value, the project still demonstrates the value of re-use and how it can be applied to buildings that are of historic value. An increasing push to regenerate existing buildings is permeating our cities, it is now considered one of the most sustainable ways to create new spaces. And the current competition launched by the Living Future Institute of Australia (for the heritage listed Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works building) exemplifies this movement. Again, all framing was timber, and all of the non-white walls were also lined in timber – for sustainability and biophilic reasons. Sustainability-wise the timber is of course regenerative, as a source, but also easily demounted, workable and reusable in the future should the gallery relocate.

Lighting throughout the space is almost entirely natural, with only minimal to no artificial lighting required during daylight hours. This is uncommon for such a space. But again a modest endeavour to reduce its power consumption. Though not ground breaking, the project embodies a number of sustainability initiatives that are important considerations as we continue to deal with environmental challenges. And particularly for this kind of project typology that is often stricken with the use of highly synthetic materials.

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