Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House has a new competitor for the public’s attention. Cascading down a prominent hillside toward the Sydney Harbor, the Sydney Modern Project isn’t just the most significant cultural project in the city since the Opera House opened in 1973, it’s also a work of art in its own right.

The SANAA-designed Sydney Modern project, a sprawling addition to the city's Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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Completed by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning studio SANAA eight years after the Japanese firm’s proposal won an international competition for the new building, Sydney Modern adds 7,000 square meters (about 75,350 square feet) of gallery space to the existing Art Gallery of New South Wales. It officially opened to the public on December 3rd.

Aerial view of the stacked terraces and public spaces comprising SANAA's newly-opened Sydney Modern project.

Public garden

The new addition connects to the original art gallery, a neoclassical-style building designed by British architect Walter Vernon and completed in 1909, via a public garden “land bridge.” It consists of a series of stepped platforms that give it a stacked, low-profile appearance from a distance — certainly a contrast to the bold, graphic Opera House and its unforgettable silhouette.

Gorgeous exhibition spaces housed within the Sydney Modern addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

For SANAA, the point wasn’t to rival that monument. It was to create an appropriate building for the site, with its stunning views of Woolloomooloo Bay and a backdrop of the city skyline. SANAA principal architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa wanted the building to be harmonious with its surroundings, “one that breathes with the city, the park, and the harbor.”

Central glass-walled atrium of the Sydney Modern addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

“There are two ways to create a landmark, which depends on the landscape,” says Nishizawa. “If you are in an open site, a landmark can appear with a positive form and clear outline, like a rock. But if you are in a forest with all its trees, this doesn’t work. You have to create a clearing and allow the sunlight in. But the light in the forest doesn’t have a clear outline. This is a very different way to create an icon.”

Covered terraces featured in the Sydney Modern addition allow for outdoor events and exhibitions.

The effect may be subtle architecturally, but its impact on the museum certainly isn’t. The addition’s rectilinear pavilions are arranged around a central glass-walled atrium with views of the water. Courtyards and rooftop terraces grant the upper levels a series of outdoor areas for open-air events, and the lower levels are made with rammed earth, anchoring them to the site.

Interior spaces include large exhibition rooms, including one solely dedicated to aboriginal art and another two with soaring 18-foot ceilings. Smaller exhibition rooms are devoted to children’s learning spaces and a studio for creating multimedia artworks. A large, columned underground art space repurposed from a decommissioned World War II naval oil tank will offer another 2,200 square meters (23,680 square feet) for special commissions and performances.

Sydney Modern underground art space repurposed from a decommissioned World War II naval oil tank.

The new land bridge reconnects the art gallery to the city’s Royal Botanic Garden, allowing pedestrian movement from the Woolloomooloo to the city center and creating an entirely public space in the process. The garden atop the land bridge is named “bial gwiyuno” (the fire is not yet lighted) and includes both indigenous plant species and an installation by Australian artist Jonathan Jones.

Sydney Modern addition and land bridge in the context of its surroundings.

“The Sydney Modern Project allows us to engage our audiences and work with our artists in thrilling new ways,” says Maud Page, Deputy Director and Director of Collections for the Art Gallery of New South Wales.