The expansion of Newcastle Region Art Gallery marks Lab Architecture Studio’s first major building commission in Australia since 2002, when the firm—with collaborator Bates Smart—completed the massive Federation Square cultural center in Melbourne. Newcastle, a 150,000-person town located in the state of New South Wales, has little in common with sprawling Melbourne, a city of 3.7 million that is widely regarded as Australia’s intellectual capital. But, thanks to some shared formal qualities between Lab’s previous effort and its new art gallery, this sleepy harbor town will get a bold dose of big-city sophistication.
Both designs explore alternatives to repeating a regular, flat facade. Newcastle Region Art Gallery’s upper two stories will be wrapped in staggered surfaces clad in black, oxidized stainless-steel panels. This reptilian skin bears a resemblance to the triangular pinwheel grid of Federation Square’s Yarra Building, but unlike Yarra’s so-called “fractal facade,” which was dominated by a single triangular module, the Newcastle design will deploy irregular shapes. Moreover, the voids between panels will be illuminated from within, suggesting the appearance of molten fault lines at night. Inside, jagged volumes, asymmetrical coves, zigzags of track lighting, and a crystalline skylight will echo the exterior’s uneven faceting.The 50-year-old gallery, whose inventory numbers more than 3,000 artworks, has been in its current home since 1977. Lab’s redevelopment will expand the building to 86,000 square feet without disrupting Newcastle’s low-rise urban fabric. In addition to trebling the gallery space, the project will add a new theater, educational and library spaces, and a shop and a café.