New life for historic trees at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)

Industry News
Jeff Harvey

Between 1996 and 2010 the Millennium Drought caused a number of significant trees in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens to die. As soon as local artist, Geoff Nees, heard of the existence of these rare timbers with their rich history, he had an idea for an art installation. He put forward the idea for a collaborative pavilion to Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, who immediately saw it as a unique opportunity to breathe life back into these trees.

When McCorkell Constructions were contracted by the National Gallery Victoria (NVG) to construct the ‘Botanical Pavilion’ within the gallery’s confines, they invariably called Bowens. This project required us to specially machine this beautiful lumber, some of which pre-dated European settlement.

The circular structure is made in the Japanese tradition of wooden architecture and is designed as a sensory walkway in which to approach and consider the painting ‘Dialogue,’ by South Korean artist, Lee Ufan.

Buildings that evoke a sense of fragility and modesty have always been trademark Kuma, the architect behind the stadium for this year’s postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“I would compare it to walk in the forest”, Kuma says of this indoor structure, held together by nothing more than tension and gravity. He has a love of local materials and methods and aims to preserve the traditions and culture of a community. The ‘Botanical Pavilion’ is no different.

The process was long, with a contractor employed to mill the timbers into slabs and planks, which were then air-dried for 10 years. They had to be carefully machined because the species were extremely rare, and the pieces were irreplaceable.

The most notable piece machined came from an Algerian Oak planted by Lady Loch, wife of the first governor of Victoria in 1889. The piece that was retrieved from the fallen tree was about 1.0 metre wide, 150 millimetres thick and 1.5 metres long. This species was particularly dense, and it took 4 men to lift it into position for machining. Not surprisingly, this majestic oak had limbs that were 20 metres long and a canopy that spanned 43 metres. Its demise took place in 2007 when it had split down the middle.

In building the pavilion, rather than classifying the timber into botanical species, it was colour coded. This classification decision was to question science and its reductive reasoning during the colonial era, which was at odds with Indigenous cultural beliefs.

Trees are living beings that evolve and adapt, yet like all living things, sooner or later they will die. However, in breathing new life into these majestic species, this installation can remind us of the relationship between nature and each other.

The ‘Botanical Pavilion’ is an example of the precision and care it takes to preserve our history and a project that allows Bowens to continue supplying out of the ordinary timbers. If you require timber for a special project, feel free to contact myself on 0412 550 740 or Frank Di Stefano 0438 087 587, for advice.

Botanical Pavilion is part of the NGV Triennial, which runs to the 18th of April 2021 at NGV International.

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