In 1959 Melbourne architectural firm Grounds, Romberg and Boyd was awarded the contract to design the new National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) building. The completed building opened fifty years ago this year in 1968. Architect-in-chief Roy Grounds delivered an ambitious design for a new type of art gallery. Grounds’s vision was to prioritise the visitor experience and create a welcoming space in which the NGV Collection and temporary exhibitions could be viewed in an open, inspiring and modern environment.

Grounds’s design was based around the arrangement of three European Palazzo-like spaces each punctuated by a courtyard. These three volumes were conjoined to create one large rectangular volume housing the main galleries. The rectangle rested on a podium aligned to St Kilda Road. To the west, the podium extended as the topography dropped away to Southbank Boulevard and Sturt Street, creating a large triangular form, a semi-subterranean building capped with the NGV garden – one of the largest rooftop gardens in Australia.

As MUIR + OPENWORK, the winning architects of the 2018 NGV Architecture Commission Competition observed in their submission, ‘the garden tames the irregular shape and profile’ of the site necessitated by Grounds’s firm geometric plan. Thus, the garden, they considered, was ‘a geometry born of leftovers’, a secondary space enabling the primacy of the building within the context of the site form and terrain. This simple observation, compounded with personal memories of time spent in the building prior to its renovation by Mario Bellini and Metier 3 in 2004, were the seeds of an idea: to use the NGV Architecture Commission as an opportunity to delve into and resurrect some parts of Grounds’s design lost during renovations of the building that are now only memories for visitors.

At the heart of MUIR + OPENWORK’s winning concept Doubleground is a subtle, humorous and thought-provoking project – part-architecture, part-landscape, developed through a multi–disciplinary approach. Within the scheme, architecture and landscape architecture converge as generators of space and place, boundaries of practice are blurred, and a civic experience is created through interwoven and layered elements that reverberate the formal architecture of Roy Grounds.

Doubleground harnesses the principle that the garden could be embraced as ‘a geometry born from leftovers’, and that collective memories, or traces of Grounds’s design could be brought together as a new type of building, an architectural intervention created to re-elevate the idea of garden as civic space itself. And where better to do it than on the ‘leftovers’ of Grounds’s formal geometry – a place with trees, plants, sculptures and free space, a noble and vital civic space, connected to the ideals and aspirations of a contemporary museum fifty years on.

As MUIR + OPENWORK explain: ‘The “new” formalises a memory of a past time. Collage is used as a tool for stitching together a formal memory, a constructed memory, a memory blurred by time. A geometry is created that navigates the various elements that are presented within the existing garden. A geometry that defines a spatial experience, a spatial order, generating new memory. As architects are we place makers or agitators of place? By burying the architecture, it is revealed. With time it will disappear and become a memory.’

Doubleground reimagines the garden. Breaking open the flatness and the formality, it tilts the garden spatially and changes the way people experience and navigate through the landscape through the deft collage of structural forms and elevated terrain. Elongated seating podiums reflect from the façade forms of the walls they oppose; a large elevated bed of yellow flowers memorialises the original 1968 yellow carpet of the Great Hall. Homage is paid to the original Bamboo Court within a semi-hidden enclosure wrapped in a black wooden skin. A set of saw-toothed passages lead to intimate enclosures, alluding to fenestration patterns, forms and memorable moments within Grounds’s design. The result is a multi-level installation that offers new vistas and perspectives – of the past and present.

As MUIR + OPENWORK describe: ‘Each wall is accompanied by a fold in the topography of the garden that creates a kind of double ground. Spaces for the body. Room, Corridor and Field. On one side, the existing bluestone groundplane is left intact, but made into an interior. On the other, a wall raises the level of the garden up. Combined, these spaces create multiple choices for occupation: visitors are able to choose a place in the garden that is intimate, communal, sunny, shaded, active or passive. The spaces of the project offer prospect and aspect for extroverts and introverts. These rooms are not explicitly revealed, instead they ask to be discovered.’

The ambition of the Commission is to offer an opportunity for architecture to be enacted and experienced in the broadest sense. To this end the jury prioritises proposals that promote collaboration and multi-disciplinary thinking and demonstrate the capacity of design to actively engage the community. The challenge for contemporary museums and galleries in commissioning and exhibiting architecture is to create avenues to realise works of architecture at a scale and resolution that enable good ideas to become a reality and, through doing so, to create new ways for architecture to engage with people.

Doubleground is the winning concept for the 2018 NGV Architecture Commission because of its conceptual and formal strength borne from a collaborative and multi-disciplinary design approach. It allows us to examine and consider new pathways between architecture, landscape and civic space. In the backyard of Australia’s busiest gallery, it offers an open invitation, to physically engage with architecture up close – as a tactile sensorial experience.

For many Melbournians, touching the Waterwall at the Gallery entrance, or lying on the floor of the Great Hall under Leonard French’s stained-glass ceiling are strong memories, and it is patches of architecture like these that collage together in our minds to define how architecture shapes us. Doubleground makes this apparent. It strategically cuts, twists, realigns and positions pieces from 1968, delicately stitching them back together to explore the potentialities of architecture as a generator of place, experience, culture and memory.