Melbourne Recital Hall & MTC

Mar 27, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Peter Bennetts
  • Designer
  • Architect Ashton Raggatt McDougall

Shane Murray: Howard and Ian, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I suppose the very first question to ask is really to do with the context around the project – two quite different clients, with divergent personalities. So how was that presented to you in terms of both intention and a practical brief for the building?
Ian McDougall: The original brief actually was for an arts centre. One building with shared facilities, specifically shared foyers, and we thought that wasn’t a good idea – that it should actually be like two shops in the street, two buildings that actually address the street, and that came out of the idea that in fact they’re two completely different cultures. I mean they’re two institutions with their own histories, completely different groups of audiences, completely different cultures.
Howard Raggatt: So we encouraged them towards the non-identical Siamese twins.
IM: Separated.

SM: So I think what you’re saying is that was really a concept you introduced to the clients, and they must have embraced it.
HR: It wasn’t quite that we introduced it to them, was it? It emerged pretty strongly, given the fact that there were two different client groups that we met with. The other pragmatic factor that also encouraged it was the possible layouts on the site. But I think it was happening before then. It was while we were doing global master planning of the site and understanding what the issues were.
IM: As it turned out, it actually meant that it was way more work for us, because we had two discrete clients basically, with that strong willed, “This is what we’re doing – no, we’re not doing that….”
HR: On the MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) you have an individual creative director, who just said, “This is what we’re doing.” On the Recital Centre, we had lots of musicians as our expert advisors, and they expressed themselves very strongly through the early stage of the process in regard to discarding a number of our options in a fairly forceful way.
IM: Very early on we were told it has to be acoustically perfect. I’ll deal with the MRC first. A number of the musicians said, “Please build us one that works, just about every postwar music space in Australia doesn’t work from an acoustic point of view.” So we were forced towards the idea of the box, and that meant that we essentially said, “Well all right, we’re going to deal with the traditional form as it occurs in the 21st century.” So it’s kind of a take on the traditional in the way of the parti. Likewise in the theatre, it’s not Gropius’ total theatre experience; it’s a traditional proscenium theatre.

SM: One thing that’s quite distinctive experientially from other theatres or complexes such as this is there’s not the same undulation in levels, which I understand was also a deliberate aspect of the way you wanted to arrange the spaces. You can enter at ground level more or less; particularly in the Recital Hall, you have a sense of the foyer being under the volume of the Recital Hall and then you ascend to enter it. That’s quite different.
HR: It was essentially driven by the layout of the box elements of the two buildings. You can try as many things as you like, but basically you’ve got the theatre at the MTC, starting on the east side, you’ve got the rehearsal room of the MTC and they pretty much end up side by side; they can’t really fit in front or behind because they’re both big volumes, and then you take the salon and the hall, and they could have ended up on the ground on the same level, but then you would have had no foyer space. The other thing was we were trying to stay out of the ground, because the ground is muck, and very expensive to touch, and therefore the scheme was to not have to dig into the ground. If you put it on the ground floor, you would have been digging down.

SM: The circulation path seems relatively clear for what is quite a complex array of spaces.
HR: We tried to get a strong street aspect. They’re very big, black box buildings, with a kind of event space in the front, where we wanted to stack everyone on the street.

SM: Maybe you would like to give us some insight into the treatment of these spaces. One of the statements you made previously described the two buildings as Siamese twins and, at least superficially, I would find it difficult to read them as Siamese twins.
HR: Non-identical Siamese twins.

SM: The MTC seems to be much more concerned with a more abstract fractured evocation, possibly painterly, a quite distinct treatment to the Recital Hall, which is more figurative than abstract, or connected to certain aspects of commodity culture.
HR: We’ll start with the MTC. There were quite a lot of issues there that we probably deal with in lots of our projects, which is they’re a bit frugal and we’ve got to focus our dollars carefully, and that becomes a conceptual issue as well as just a pragmatic one. The MTC is a great big machine, really. There were lots of things about it that we didn’t want to constrain conceptually, so early on you’ve got to visualise an architecture, and yet on the other hand, we hadn’t actually resolved lots of the pragmatic issues. So we wanted something that was pretty rattly and in fact we made a virtue out of that.

SM: When you say rattly, [do you mean] a loose fit that could take a lot of transformation?
HR: A lot of transformation, yeah. We formalised that rattliness as we went along in quite a few ways. So maybe that was one concept, this kind of rattly concept, and then the other one was we got interested in I suppose the idea of designing in the dark. The building is essentially a night-time experience.

SM: My feeling when I looked at it was a sense of night writing. Would that be an appropriate analogy?
HR: Absolutely, yes. So we were pretty interested in that somewhat inside out building where the props are on the outside and the inside is the event space.
IM: It was that thing about you go into a theatre in the night and it’s this magical place. You go into the theatre in the day and it’s kind of tawdry and you can see all the tricks.
HR: The other idea I suppose is in working to formalise that idea; I guess we were trying to find a notion about conceptual space or conceptual place in a theatre where there’s a lot of invention about time and space and activity, and agreement about the experience.

SM: You mean we agree on the illusion. And is there a sense that we agree on the external, therefore there was a sense of a coming together?
HR: That’s right. Yes.

SM: Is this why therefore there’s a certain perspectival point of configuration, which is never quite achieved?
HR: It is.

SM: So it’s allegorical in a way?
IM: It is really, yeah. The real experience is that when you look at all these contrived perspectival illusions from any point, it’s actually more interesting, or certainly as interesting, for them not to be achieved as they are to be achieved.
HR: The other thing is that it actually was a discourse that theatre and architecture could have, so this perspectival rhetoric was also a theatrical experience, and so it became the common ground that we could talk to [MTC artistic director] Simon Phillips about.
IM: That’s why you could have that discussion and they took it on and said yes.
HR: And then of course there’s the context of that zone in the city with all its white pipe and stuff, like the spire and so on, and the concentration of a lot of architecture on structural integrity and the whole notion of expressive structure, which we like to subvert and complicate.

SM: There’s a sense of the MTC being an anonymous black box completely manipulated by the art director for each different performance. It’s totally illusory and you experience the volume in darkness, other than what the director and the performers wish to reveal. It seems that the Recital Hall is a quite different space, because it has the great challenge of being illuminated throughout its occupation. Is that why there’s a sense of difference in the treatments?
IM: It’s also technical. The technology that the theatre requires is far more complicated, and they require essentially the black box.
HR: The Recital Hall is the opposite. It’s less mechanical. It’s actually a solution to a very precise problem, which is the acoustic.

SM: The main hall of the Recital Centre is an extremely distinctive space. It’s a timber box. It’s characterised by an over-scaled wood grain effect and, at the moment, you can even smell the timber. It’s also in some ways a quite traditional proportion. Would you like to comment on those observations?
IM: Well, it is a traditional proportion. We were sceptical of what acousticians say, “We can scientifically make it work.” For 300 years from the 1700s there were traditional halls that were built in which music was written, and so the traditional proportions of the room are connected with that capacity for classical acoustic music to be performed so that it will sound precisely as it’s supposed to sound.

SM: But a traditional box wouldn’t be made out of wood, or have the illusion of being made out of wood. So why did you choose to do that?
IM: Well, if you look at postwar modernist spaces, the acoustic strategies try to deal with reflectance and diffusion.

SM: So is the graining doing what decoration would traditionally do in a theatre?
IM: Yeah, in the Recital Hall absolutely. In the postwar modernist halls there’s a tendency to actually make facets and dislocate the various treatments into panelling and that sort of thing. Whereas the best halls have got figurines, bare torsos and cherubs and all sorts of things all over, which actually agitate the sound, and that’s why they work.

SM: So to some extent, you’ve made a decoration out of the abstract?
IM: Yeah. And, as it turns out, acoustically it works fantastically. And that surface treatment is rattly, it had to be tested each iteration. So we had to have a strategy where you didn’t have to redesign it every time, or add another panel. It was a pattern that we could actually illuminate, flatten out, articulate, pixelate…

SM: We have the Recital Hall, in some ways, the precious object: almost like the big Stradivarius, it’s then encased in styrene and bubble pack and finally enclosed with a little bit of the remnant cardboard packing. What do you think that connotes in the sense of a public building and what might it say to the user? Particularly considering you’ve used a similar iconography in a very commercial building, Melbourne Central?
IM: The big box?

SM: Yes, they’re quite different. Melbourne Central wraps consumption whereas this actually does wrap something precious.
HR: Precious was a term that we used in developing that notion. The movement to our interest in packaging, I suppose, came through the idea of the cast, which is what we developed at the National Museum.
IM: And the unsuccessful Fed Square. The difference between packaging and the cast is that the cast is a sort of precise rendering of something, it’s an invisible object of expectation and the cast is the reflection of that. Packaging is a bit different because, especially styrene packaging, it’s a loose fit. It’s approximation and in fact it’s an approximation that’s usually quite ambiguous and there’s quite a lot of speculation about what it is that it’s packaging. They’re something that’s an engineered relationship to containing something precious, and we’re a bit fascinated by that and so, yes, the styrene in the box is the big idea or the interest, and clearly it’s blown up to an equivalent six-storey building, so it’s a grand version of that. It’s quite a traditional form on the one hand, and it’s quite speculative and problematic about the nature of the precious on the other.

SM: One thing that slightly puzzles me is the ambiguity about what’s contained. On the one hand, you’ve used it to contain commonness in another project and, in this one, it contains a precious object, which is the theatre. So I can understand the interest in the ambiguity of the packaging material, but I suppose I’d like to hear a little further why you feel that’s appropriate for a civic public building, which traditionally we view with an expectation of differentiation.
HR: Well, I guess it fits with our general statement that architecture is the affirmation of the negative, rather than architecture saves the world or architecture is inherently meaningful. I mean negative in the sense that there’s some very significant absence in the work.

SM: But here there’s not a sense of the missing form as in the museum project. Everything is present.
HR: But if you provide the perfect packaging for the event, then the building becomes essentially about a waiting or a longing, or an expectation, rather than about the object, the fulfilment. And music is not an object of fulfilment; it is an experience or an event. So I guess our architecture has always been more interested in that kind of dilemma about architecture. It’s the architecture of the problem of fulfilment or, in a more affirmational way, the affirmation of the negative, it’s saying we affirm longing or we affirm waiting and we affirm expectation, rather than we provide the answer.

SM: Is there a sense then of also a prolongation, both experientially and conceptually, a sense that this is a more complex, therefore more engaging outcome for that reason?
IM: I think it’s not so much that we’re prolonging the experience; it’s actually about the idea of that. But I think the other idea is the ‘discarded’; it’s also the interest in the bits that are regularly not used. It’s not only absence, it’s actually the other bit, the bit that’s thrown away.

SM: Is there an enduring interest in that sense of the discarded or forgotten or ignored? In the past you might argue that’s been to do with the perceived exteriority of Australian architecture to mainstream discourse. Do those views still continue? Because your work is still quite different to what would be perceived as the globalised interests of architecture at the moment, which are either about scientific explorations at the level of system, or a fairly tawdry neo-minimalism.
HR: That’s a tough question. I think there’s a constant inquiry into the self-consciousness of the Australian. So maybe it’s a reasonably aggressive argument against some sort of mainstream Australianness.

SM: And how would you characterise mainstream Australianness?
IM: Well, like the bush myth, or the idea that sunlight and lifestyle pervade – these are old arguments, but somehow they persist, and I guess we’re constantly trying to counter with a more urbane and intellectual quality.

SM: So it’s more to do with a charged intellectual engagement with what you believe to be the questions of architecture here, rather than just a recourse to a national model.
IM: Yeah, that is just trotted out.

SM: You’ve discussed with me where the ideas for some of the forms were derived from, but then there is the issue that there’s a high level of treatment in what you’ve done. It very much feels like a special public building, especially the Recital Hall, there’s a sense of plushness. On the other hand, in the MTC there is detail, but not luxury. Do you want to talk about the materiality of architecture beyond its conceptual armature?
IM: When you go and see some of the new theatres that have been done, they’ve got marble and they’ve got stainless steel handrails and it’s all slick and schmick, but have completely lost that sense of the tradition of theatre, which is you make someone look good by doing the make-up well. So while it’s a cost-effective building, it is a deliberate aesthetic, and a lot of the money then goes into the technology and the show. In the Recital Centre I guess there’s a more luxuriant quality to it.

SM: I have one concluding question. A Recital Hall and a theatre are the penultimate dream commissions for an architect. You’ve actually been very fortunate in your public commissioning, you’ve got the major museum in the country as well, and a string of important cultural buildings. Could it get any better in terms of dream commissions?
IM: Well, it’s kind of an uncomfortable question. The jobs are fantastic, there’s no doubt about it, but the politics of them are almost debilitating, very complex, and in fact it’s interesting to see that other major projects that are done in this way I think are debilitated by the politics. To try and sustain an architecture that’s exploratory through the political processes…

SM: I also imagine on a building such as this, you learn an enormous amount technically, and I suppose the question is you’ve built up all this knowledge through the experience of executing such a complex building, it seems a pity that you couldn’t apply it somewhere else. I mean that is the problem of architecture isn’t it?
IM: It is. With the MTC we had the amazing participation of Denis Irving, who died six months before the whole project was finished. Denis was the doyen of theatre design, and he and Ian Cooksley, of the Theatre Company, actually nursed the whole project through and assisted us in how you do contemporary theatre. Now all Denis’ knowledge is gone because he died. Ours is a modest amount of knowledge from this project in comparison, but you’ve got to make sure that is sustained and passed on.

SM: So how do you do that?
IM: You do another one or you start a little course of people who know theatre and try to teach theatre design.
SM: OK, thank you very much gentlemen.

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