The National Portrait Gallery, opened December 2008, has finally given Canberra a lakeside building to be proud of. Unlike the National Gallery next door it’s scale is human, with intimate viewing rooms and abundant natural light. Portraits are fixed at eye level so that we encounter them indeed face-to-face.
Another over-scale neighbouring building, the High Court of Australia, also known as Barwick’s Folly after the Chief Justice at the time of its conception, dominates its surroundings – possibly intended to express man’s submission to the law. Across the lake, the Australian Museum with lego-like bits and bright colours is very dated already.
In contrast the portrait gallery is a low-key, harmonious concrete structure with Aussie vernacular iron pitched roof, designed by Richard Johnson. The entrance is welcoming and visitors flow easily into rooms dedicated to periods of our history, with 400 portraits and sculptures overall.
Curatorial vignettes on each portrait are also historical snapshots of that era, full of interesting insights, right up to contemporary times. It’s an accessible and fascinating way of approaching the characters and stories of the Wide Brown Land!