The first thing you’ll notice the northern Victorian town of Shepparton is its endless flatness, with the topography and nutrient-rich soil of the Goulburn River floodplain contributing to the area’s reputation as a “Australia’s food bowl”. The second thing is the Shepparton Art Museum (SAM). Designed by Denton Corker Marshall, it stands tall and proud on the main road into town, in stark contrast to the flatness.
John Denton, founding director of Denton Corker Marshall, explains that there are three reasons for this size. The first is to mitigate flooding, which Denton Corker Marshall did by raising the building on its own man-made “art hill”, under which the building’s services are buried. The second is to be a “cultural artifact” that signals the arrival of a visitor to Shepparton. And the third is to provide a high vantage point from which to take in the scenery across the scenic Lake Victoria Park to the red gum forest of the Barmah River beyond.
Denton Corker Marshall won a design competition in 2016 for the project, with a project described by the jury as a “lighthouse in the landscape”. Of the five shortlisted projects, it offered the smallest footprint, with the gallery spaces stacked vertically in a five-story building.
The new SAM replaces the old Shepparton Art Gallery, which protruded from its house beside the council offices on Welsford Street. The gallery aspired to have an international standard facility that would house its permanent collection of ceramics and Indigenous art, as well as allow it to borrow and exhibit art from galleries and museums around the world. The ambition is to put Shepparton on the map as a destination for arts tourism, in the same way that other regional galleries have done for towns such as Bendigo, Ballarat and Benalla. Following a feasibility study for the project in 2015, council approved the selection of the lakeside site for the project as it offered “a sense of arrival” to visitors from Melbourne.
Denton Corker Marshall responded to the brief with a single cube that houses gallery spaces at each corner and a grand staircase that traverses the building internally. Each side of the building is fixed with an L-shaped face plate. The horizontal plane of the “L” is a quintessential abstraction of the verandah commonly found in country towns. The four plaques are offset from each other, creating corresponding narrow windows with views from within the gallery spaces to different parts of Shepparton. The sides of the building – each a different color and material – house the entrances to four different areas: the SAM itself, the visitor center, a cafe, and the local Kaiela Indigenous Art Center, where the earthy color of the Corten steel blends with the adjacent natural landscape. The “verandas” are all placed at different heights, subtly denoting hierarchical importance, with the SAM side being the highest.
Angled askew, the building presents a bold, windowless face to arriving drivers, and a dramatic angular angle towards the bridge over the lake. “We tried to create a set of very clean sculptural elements in which the gallery functioned,” Denton said.
“We did quite a bit of building in the Australian countryside, and we were interested in the kind of European intervention of something very clean, crisp and clean in an indigenous landscape as a counterpoint to the Australian bush.” This building has a dominant presence in the landscape, as if it were both a gallery and a fortress. Its “counterpoint” is tangible.
Shepparton is one of Victoria’s most deprived communities. The 2015 project feasibility study highlighted the high unemployment and youth unemployment rates in the region, as well as the social issues associated with economic disadvantage. Two days before SAM opens to the public in late November 2021, Jesuit Social Services released a report in which Shepparton and neighboring Mooroopna have been listed as deeply disadvantaged areas for years. 1
Additionally, Shepparton is home to the largest Aboriginal community in Victoria outside of metropolitan Melbourne. Like many places, its history with its local indigenous population is charged, in part due to the failed claim of indigenous title by the Yorta Yorta people in the 1990s. The city is also home to a growing multicultural community , with recent migrants arriving from Sudan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Understanding Shepparton’s complex social context was a key part of the architect’s design task, said Rebecca Coates, the former artistic director and CEO of SAM, who was also on the competition’s jury. (She quit two weeks after SAM opened to the public.) “Shepparton is relentlessly flat and I think it’s a tough area. So you need something that has a strong presence and a very strong language,” she said. “A part of [the other shortlisted schemes] were beautiful, but they created more social challenges… The last thing you want to do is create blind spots or spaces where things can go wrong. In 2013, the former visitor center that stood on the site now occupied by SAM was destroyed by a deliberate fire. Denton Corker Marshall’s building is designed to be lived in the round, increasing passive surveillance.
Coates sees the museum as playing a vital role in addressing social and economic disadvantage in the area through its multitude of programs that engage with and provide employment to the local Aboriginal community, as well as multicultural communities, school groups and others. “We know that if we can keep people in employment there’s a much greater likelihood that they’ll stay in some kind of education – and education is about change,” she said. declared. “It’s about the legitimacy of an aspiration – that you can have a job and a safe place to live, and you have the right to have that. Arts and culture is our language and it is how we can work to change agendas and change the sense of pride and possibility.
A laudable ambition, but the design of the museum and its relationship to the landscape belies a tension between the desire to reach out and a defensive attitude, as if the building were an extrovert in an introvert’s shoes. Its location next to a highway that physically separates it from the center of Shepparton makes it even more difficult to integrate, integrate and engage with the local community. Only time will tell if Shepparton reaches out to SAM as much as SAM reaches out to him.
During its opening weekend, SAM organized a round table with the architect and the director of the museum. The title “Build it and they will come” sums up the developers’ strategy for the building. Built for Shepparton’s vision of the future, SAM’s audacity is a statement of his sincere confidence that ‘they’ will indeed come.