Room11′s GASP! Boardwalk is the first stage of an art and sculpture park in the Hobart suburb of Glenorchy. Building on the success of MONA, it revitalises the edge of Elwick Bay with creative architecture, bringing exuberance to the waterfront.

Photographer Jasmin Latona
Author Judith Abell

Down on the river, within the bounds of the City of Glenorchy, something extraordinary is happening. A park for art is gradually making its way into being, and the first built stage, designed by local practice Room11, has just placed a walkable rainbow in the ‘front yard’ of the city. It’s part of the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP!), which runs around the edge of Elwick Bay on the Derwent River, and is linked to David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in more ways than one.

Back in 2006, within sight of the bay, the construction of MONA had begun, a project that even at that point was stimulating a shift in thinking about Glenorchy’s waterfront assets. There was optimism that the museum could allow this working-class city to be seen in a new light, and while local government and business leaders were considering plans for the bay, including an adventure playground involving considerable earthwork, a brief conversation between former mayor Adriana Taylor and Walsh may have turned the situation towards GASP!.

In his inimitable fashion, Walsh queried why you would want to spend so much money on moving dirt when you could spend it on art. Flippant or not, the comment recognised the potential for this large public space to be a significant part of a waterfront art precinct forged by MONA. With the new museum less than two kilometres further east along the shoreline, there was even potential to physically connect the two sites. What followed was a master plan allocating a waterfront margin for a ‘sculpture garden’ and the appointment of designer and strategic thinker Pippa Dickson to bring this art space to life. Through consultation and business planning, the council developed a vision and brand for a park that was about art, environmental regeneration and community.

Following a design esquisse to establish a spatial vision for GASP!, an invited design competition was launched for Stage 1. Submissions were required to incorporate the key concept from the esquisse: a giant arc in plan intended to stitch together the irregular edges of the bay and form a series of notional ‘art rooms’. With an exuberant submission that included ‘art bombs’ and a giant sandpit, Room11 in collaboration with Megan Baynes won the competition. A hook in their proposal was that their long, low boardwalk be defined by balusters painted in a cacophony of colours to represent Glenorchy’s diverse community.

The boardwalk comprises three fully accessible lengths totalling some 800 metres, a large barbecue pavilion (the ‘Grove Pavilion’) and a small entry pavilion (the ‘Little John Rivulet Pavilion’) at the northern end. Room11’s Thomas Bailey describes the built outcome as the result of paring back the brief to its essentials. Regarding the boardwalk’s giant curve, he says, “this gesture is convincing because that’s all there is, without a lot of other extraneous things to take away from the effect”.

Sitting just above the high tide level, the boardwalk cuts a consistent datum line through the site.

As the structure maps the arc, the experience of walking the path is a little like being on a train, where you can look back and see the tail curving around in the landscape. The ‘hit and miss’ construction detail of the treated timber structure breaks this line into a series of coloured verticals formed by the balusters.

Cleverly, colour is restrained to the inner faces of the balusters, with the outer faces black, so that the look of the boardwalk changes in movement. In true elevation it’s a black frame overlaid on the view. Oblique views reveal the 44 rhythmically composed colours and a striking moiré effect rolling across the structure, matched to the walking or driving speed of whoever views it. The structure is wired for sound and Turner Art Prize winner Susan Philipsz will christen it with a commissioned sound work within the next two years.

Spanning the space between landmark trees, the partially enclosed Grove Pavilion offers a place to sit or barbecue out of the wind at the walk’s midway point. Concrete blade walls clad in ironbark battens form the vertical structure and a very thin, flat, pre-tensioned roof is designed to complete a frame to the river view. Bailey explains that the most important thing here was to offer a seat towards the view. A long timber bench running along the length of the pavilion invites repose, with its ironbark cladding at an ergonomic angle, while a lovely quirk is a large pane of orange glass in the rear wall. From the road, it shifts the river view into sepia. From within, it looks back to a dramatic, amber-toned Glenorchy sitting at the foot of Mount Wellington. For Bailey, this is about seeing the familiar anew.

As a waterfront settlement, Greater Hobart is remarkably unfocused on the water’s edge as a civic space. Everyone orients towards the view, but there are few spaces where that edge condition is actively shared. The GASP! boardwalk realigns the civic status quo by offering an experience almost as if one is in the bay. Room11’s tiny pieces of architecture are bold, but they deftly weave between existing natural features.

While providing access and comfort, the pavilions do not distract from the main game – the ability to walk through this vast windswept, tidal environment. The modesty of the pavilions leaves space for future artworks to become a focus, yet there is a sense of generosity in the detailing, which refuses to buy into the argument that everything in the public domain should look like it is made to resist vandalism. Deterrence of damage is built in, but isn’t immediately apparent.

Walkers or joggers populate the new boardwalk, the barbecues are being used and the vandalism is minimal. Like many ‘users’ of the park, though, I drive past it more than I walk through it, and the changing wash of colour, chased by its kinetic effect, never fails to make me smile.