The National Museum of Australia is one of ARM’s most inventive, daring and controversial buildings.
ARM and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan architects jointly won an international competition in 1997 to design it. The Museum wraps around 11 hectares on the Acton Peninsula on Lake Burley Griffin, opposite Romaldo Giurgola’s Parliament House.
There are two big architectural ideas that guide the building’s shape: the Boolean string, which embodies our views on Australian history as tangled and incomplete, and the jigsaw puzzle, which signifies that the Museum is conceptually unfinished. It is a work in progress towards the articulation of the Australian experience that evolves over time.
What does Boolean mean?
In ARM’s work, the word Boolean describes strings, ropes, snakes, threads, cuts, recesses, joints and knots. Boolean maths (named after English philosopher and mathematician George Boole) allows our architects to work with objects that are wholly, or partly, imaginary.
NMA’s Boolean string is mostly imaginary: it coils and folds and tangles in three dimensions around the site but is corporeal at a few important points in the structure such as the knot that forms the Main Hall’s ceiling and the huge forecourt loop. Our Hamer Hall redevelopment is similar: its curves are sections of a giant rainbow serpent.
Our overall design concept is a set of jigsaw-puzzle pieces, each with a different stylised appearance and construction type. Together, the pieces form an incomplete circle around the central Garden of Australian Dreams.
The Main Hall, three levels of galleries, staff offices and shops look inward to the Garden and outward to the lake, our Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the National Library and other major cultural institutions.
“I like the idea that a building isn’t really an animistic thing. It enables people to reflect their own ideas and stories.”
The Main Hall, its form generated by a pentagonal Boolean string, is shaped like a giant knot seen from the inside. The knot represents the tangle of stories that bind Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Outside, an unraveling 30-metre loop, an extension of the Boolean string, lands on a thick red footpath that points to Uluru.
The NMA opened in 2001 and we have been involved in works ever since to expand and develop it, and adjust it to changes in usage. In 2013, we completed a new café and a new administration wing for NMA’s expanded staff numbers. The administration wing is a new puzzle piece that slots neatly in between existing ones; the café is a pentagonal tube—the end of the Boolean string sticking out of the building.
We are currently adding new outdoor elements to the Garden of Australian Dreams: a softfall beach, barbeques and loose furniture for various public events, and a lunch area for school groups.
Explore the virtual tour of NMA from NMA and Google downunder.