Deep designs

The Australian Institute of Architects this month bestowed one of its highest accolades on Nonda Katsalidis. Not that the Melbourne architect is any stranger to awards, but as designer of the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Katsalidis shows why he is one of Australia’s most daring and successful engineers of the built environment.

Last week in Perth the Australian Institute of Architects gave its highest national award for public architecture to Fender Katsalidis Architects, the celebrated practice that has been responsible for some of the most iconic high-rise residential buildings in Australia. But this time Nonda Katsalidis was heading in a different direction. MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – the largest privately funded museum in Australia – was designed in collaboration with its founder, the eccentric art collector David Walsh.

MONA’s very existence is based upon presenting antiquities and contemporary art from Walsh’s collection. As a self-made millionaire, Walsh set out with MONA to subvert the very notion of what an art museum is.

The multi-million dollar gallery opened its doors in January 2011 and two of its exhibits give a taste of its distinctive content. One of its key works, Cloaca Professional, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is a machine based upon the human digestive system, which relieves itself at regular intervals and produces excrement. Another work exhibited last year was by Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis; Untitled comprised a steel frame from which joints of beef hung that slowly decayed. It required a change of flesh every three days.

While such art might be considered on the nose for some, MONA drew 600,000 visitors in its first 18 months and recently won the 2012 Australian Tourism Award for best new development. David Walsh, who made his fortune by developing gambling systems, has described the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland

Carved out of a vast sandstone escarpment along the Derwent River, MONA’s giant subterranean sandstone walls provide the backdrop for its provocative exhibits. Its 6500 square-metre underground gallery space has no windows and extends over three levels.

Arriving by ferry from Hobart, the museum’s jetty transforms into a flight of steps cut into the escarpment. According to Walsh, the inspiration for the steps was the path to the temple on the summit of the Greek island of Naxos.

Australian Institute of Architects’ jury chairman Brian Zulaikha praised MONA’s temple-like, largely underground structure. “This beautiful, poetic and still very functional museum is imposing but it’s not unfriendly. You feel like you’re entering a new world of art.”

Nonda Katsalidis told reporters that whilst he had been initially daunted by the personality of David Walsh “who has got very strong ideas” the collaboration had been a pleasure.

“This museum has actually struck a chord and we’ve won lots of awards for all the participants – the lighting, engineering, and the graphics. It is very satisfying when the whole team gets this sort of pat on the back,” said Katsalidis.

Known for their distinctive sculptural qualities, Katsalidis’ buildings often feature diverse materials and textures such as exposed steel left to weather or rough-hewn timber.

Katsalidis was born in Athens and in 1951 migrated to Australia as a five-year-old. A graduate of Melbourne University and RMIT, his cutting edge high-rise tower designs – including Melbourne’s Eureka Tower – have won a plethora of awards in Australia and overseas.

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