Canberra tales: NGA steps to nowhere

Paul Costigan 19 April 2016 6


The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) opened its new wing in 2010 and amongst several key improvements was the realignment of the main front entrance. This new southern entrance makes sense and is totally logical. It has not always been so.

The former entrance was via a ramp that was a bit of puzzle to the uninitiated. Many tourists would stop and wonder where the real entrance was. The unlucky ones used to stop near the southern side of the building as they came across from the main car park.

Unfortunately this piece of bitumen was also the main delivery entrance road and it was not uncommon to see tourist and truck eyeing off each other. Usually the truck won! But even this obscure entrance was not the original.

Go back several decades. As the building was being built, the original design allowed for the main entrance via two ceremonial flights of stairs. These stairs were to be on the northwest side of the building and I have read that there was an ambition to have visitors arrive at the lakeside of the building. Maybe there was to be some form of royal barge operating to bring people across the lake.

Unfortunately for those with such architectural ambitions, the then planners quietly changed the layout of the streets around the new gallery and high court making the entrance from the lakeside almost redundant.

But it was too late for the staircase. They were already in place.

Today if you make your way from the underground car park and walk to the northwest corner, you will find the magnificent staircase. There the two flights of stairs sit waiting for someone, anyone, to use them.

When the gallery was opened, apparently the Queen made her way up them, but since then, not many souls have found the stairs, let alone floated up them in royal style.


At the moment the gallery has one artwork on the higher steps. Rather than having a grand stairway to nowhere, maybe the gallery could reuse the steps as an extension of their sculpture park.

The NGA could introduce a range of commissioned artworks upon the steps so the space becomes an outside maze of sculptural pieces for visitors to enjoy whether the gallery is open of not. It would then become a popular photo-stop for anyone and everyone and provide fun to be had by all amongst a staircase of art outside.

Instead of steps to nowhere, it would then be a ‘stairway to heaven’.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

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6 Responses to Canberra tales: NGA steps to nowhere
Shouldacoulda Shouldacoulda 1:04 pm 06 Aug 15

I use these stairs every time I go to the gallery. Pretty much always have. Perhaps its force of habit. but if you park at the back of the car park and exit at the end there – it’s the most logical way to go up to where the old entrance is.

astrojax astrojax 1:03 pm 06 Aug 15

my boys [3 and 6] love running in this space. i enjoy its quiet and the massive dog head thing.

madelini madelini 5:04 pm 05 Aug 15

It’s a beautiful staircase – it shows off some of the architectural design elements that are sometimes overlooked (especially when entering through the “new” doors). The honeycomb ceiling comes to mind.

Making them an extension of the sculpture garden is a great idea. It might not even mean commissioning – perhaps going through the archived collection would be a great place to start.

creative_canberran creative_canberran 2:35 pm 05 Aug 15

Those stairs are used frequently and I believe most school groups use them. But agree their a design error that break many practical rules. Introducing more artworks is one idea, but because its in a blind spot suspect security will be the issue. Enclosing it with glass might mitigate that and make it more inviting.

Paul Costigan Paul Costigan 11:10 am 05 Aug 15


you have just added a wonderful twist to the tales about these stairs

and maybe an idea for a commissioned work of art – will the NGA rise to the challenge?

PS: I have a few more tales to tell about the NGA’s building and gardens – sometime soon.

Holden Caulfield Holden Caulfield 9:11 am 05 Aug 15

I run up those stairs from time to time when jogging around the lake. They’re good for that because they are quiet.

And I remember a time many years ago, well before the relatively recent upgrades to the building, walking down those stairs to access the sculpture garden and being greeted by a snake on the lower flight. That certainly caught my attention!

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