21 April 2023

New CMAG show builds on reputation of Canberra's first government architect

| Sally Hopman
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Man and woman in gallery

Curator Ian Wong with Acting Director of CMAG, Dr Anna Wong, in the Alastair Swayn exhibition. Photo: CMAG.

All people, said Alastair Swayn AO, were born equal and have the right to be heard equally.

Not only did the acclaimed Canberra-based architect live by this philosophy, he also worked by it: creating commercial and public buildings designed around the theory that architecture could support equality.

The life and work of the late architect – named the first ACT Government Architect from 2010 to 2016 – is being celebrated in a new Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) exhibition, Showcase: Light, Colour, Humanity – the Legacy of Alastair Swayn.

Acting director of CMAG Dr Anna Wong said the exhibition was based on how Swayn developed his specific style based on the worlds of light, colour and humanity.

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“He used these as his key design principles,” Dr Wong said, “but it was particularly wonderful how he brought colour into what he designed.”

“Canberra was seen by some as pretty benign but he enlivened the place, made it more colourful,” she added, using the Brindabella Business Park near the airport as an example of such work.

She said light was also a central element for him, especially when it came to bringing people together.

Art installation

Images of the Brindabella Business Park feature in the new CMAG exhibition, which honours the first government architect Alastair Swayn. Photo: CMAG.

The Swayn exhibition is housed in CMAG’s newest gallery in the former home of a next-door restaurant. Dr Wong said the new space, with its stunning natural light, was perfect for this contemporary show.

She described Swayn as an Australian designer who helped change people’s lives, “or at least the way we see things”.

“I think people now appreciate what he was trying to achieve,” she said.

“He shaped how things would look like, from the 1970 to 90s to the 2000s. Those who knew him say he was a very inspirational and encouraging architect.”

Exhibition curator Ian Wong, from Melbourne’s Monash University, reinforced the three-pronged concept of the exhibition, using photographic images taken by John Gollings to represent Light, Colour through a grouping of Australian-designed objects from the curator’s own collection to the exploration of Humanity through the narrative text that focuses on design elements.

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Dr Wong said the exhibition also showcased some of Australia’s best functional designs – items that we both loved and hated.

They included Canberra-centric pieces such as the F!NK jug designed by the late Robert Foster, along with the loved and (loathed) yellow Stackhat designed by Bryon Fitzpatrick.

CEO of the Cultural Facilities Corporation, Gordon Ramsay, said, “The celebration of Alastair Swayn’s design legacy through immersive architectural cubes, Australian design objects and augmented reality installations is the perfect inaugural exhibition for Canberra Museum and Gallery’s newest gallery.”

Green art installation

Colour is one of the three key elements used to illustrate the tribute to Canberra’s first government architect Alastair Swayn, now on show at CMAG. Photo: CMAG.

“We have transformed this former restaurant space into a multi-purpose gallery that allows visual connection and engagement to Civic Square and the community,” Mr Ramsay added.

“The interactivity of Ian Wong’s exhibition exemplifies the objectives of CMAG’s new gallery.”

Opening the exhibition, ACT Arts Minister Tara Cheyne said it was a testament of Canberra’s status as a centre for creativity and innovation.

“It highlights the influence and impact of Australian designers on the global stage, many of whom studied, taught and started their careers in Canberra,” she said.

Light, Colour, Humanity – The Legacy of Alastair Swayn is at Canberra Museum and Gallery on Civic Square until 28 May. Entry is free.

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