MCA: open conversation or guarded debate?
May 4, 2012
Last night in Sydney, the architects of the new MCA fronted up to their critics in an open conversation about the contentious new public building. Did the event deliver an architectural KO, or did the critics – and the audience – pull their punches? David Neustein steps into the ring.
There was an air of expectation in the room, tensions charged by the prospect of imminent bloodshed. The venue was the new fluoro-lit, bare concrete floored multipurpose foyer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Faculty of Design, Architecture & Building. We massed in rows either side of a central table, like the ringside crowd at a boxing match. This was clearly not going to be your usual Sydney architecture talk.
We’d witnessed the undercard bouts: the first jabs on twitter; below-the-belt comments at the pub; Philip Cox’s opening salvo in the Herald; Elizabeth Farrelly’s prods and jabs in her opinion piece. Now, we were ready for the title fight. Billed as an “Open Conversation”, this round table discussion was to be the first public event organised by the recently launched not-for-profit organisation Make-Space for Architecture. The subject for discussion was The Mordant Wing, the contentious new extension to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) – a project Make-Space’s promotional material dubiously described as a “victim” of critique. On one side of the grudge match sit Sam Marshall and Andrew Donaldson, designers of the MCA’s new wing, while on the other are its most outspoken critics, Cox and Farrelly. Occupying the other seats are the referees: incoming AIA National President Paul Berkemeier, Make-Space Operational Director Imogene Tudor and moderator John de Manincor of DRAW.
At events such as these, one guest will always arrive late. This tradition establishes who the main draw is. A hush descends as the regal Farrelly, with her crown of pewter hair, sweeps into the room a full twenty minutes later than the other guests. As Tudor finally begins her introduction, a quiet intensity emanates from the 200 or so audience members. As she calls for a “robust debate on architectural criticism”, there is barely a murmur or cough around the room. It feels less like a cultural event, more a public mediation. Paraphrasing Aaron Betsky, de Manincor kicks off proceedings: “Architecture is everything that happens around buildings. Buildings are the tomb of architecture.” Though the talk has been advertised as “open”, de Manincor is quick to establish some “ground rules”, warning everyone that criticisms of the detailing and style of the new MCA are off limits. “If you don’t like the hand rail or don’t like the brown cladding please go to the Clare Hotel down the road,” he growls. I catch some nervous looks around me. No one leaves.
Invited to pre-emptively respond to criticism of his project, the denim-clad Marshall sticks out his jaw and adopts a defensive stance. “I’m not interested in designs in drawers, I’m interested in buildings,” he says. “Most architectural criticism is drivel.” Next to join the conversation is Philip Cox, an outspoken (and often cranky) commentator on Sydney’s built environment who, before the building was complete, had described the MCA addition as “bland architecture of old with bland architecture of new”. Asks the moderator: “What are our responsibilities when we’re asked to comment on others’ work?” Cox asserts that while architects are often chastised for “quarrelling”, “there is a right and a wrong in what happens in our city.” In a magisterial tone befitting an elder statesman, Cox outlines the basis of his discontent. “Circular Quay is sacred,” he says. “There was a one in 500 year opportunity to do a great building at Circular Quay. I believe they should’ve started again at the MCA.” Turning to Marshall, Cox delivers his solemn verdict. “Your building is a compromise based on an existing building which should’ve been demolished.”
Asked to reflect on her widely-read comments that the new MCA wing is “blocky” and that it “blatantly abandons” the necessity of “spatial delight”, Farrelly puts her guard up and backs towards the corner. “My view is not that it’s a bad building, but that it was badly briefed,” she says. By now, the conversation has devolved from prize fight to ping pong match, with no one willing to land a punch. “I would have demolished the building if I could,” says an apologetic Marshall. Suddenly, the speakers are drowned out by a loud and persistent banging sound. Is that the sound of the final nail being hammered into this evening’s proceedings? No, it’s only the sound of critics rapidly backpedalling.
Frustrated by this turn of events and starved of open conflict, at this point I decide to suicidally launch myself into the fray. I was supposed to write about the conversation, not get involved, but here I am pointing out the elephant in the room. “I don’t like the building,” I tell Marshall. He gives me the dead eye and says, “so what?” Well, I think, if the building wasn’t flawed and problematic, why would we be having this debate? Wouldn’t Marshall be delivering a triumphant lecture instead? Donaldson challenges me to explain my dislike. I tell him I hate that Simon Mordant – the building’s third-rate benefactor – has his name plastered in huge letters all over the new work. I express my disappointment that the curatorial notion of the “white box” has been misinterpreted in the building’s one and only formal response, with overlapping cubes appearing both as facade strategy and as a plasterboard-thin interior lining. I’m cut off, but I’ve said enough. After months of grumbling off the record, of sharing my misgivings conspiratorially with architect friends, it’s finally out in the open. I feel a mixture of dread and relief. Marshall’s wife quickly fires a sarcastic reply on twitter. “How nice of @dneus to share his opinions,” she quips. “What else does he like and dislike? He must care very deeply & have thought very hard”. Sydney architect Tone Wheeler booms from the back that the project was achieved on a budget of $40 million, not the $50 million that has been published. There is a burst of applause. Vacillating from moderator to critic, de Manincor fires back that Marshall has previously said that “budget shouldn’t be used as an excuse for what you built.”
The elephant is awake. Cox and Farrelly outline a series of problems with Marshall’s design. The classrooms provided in the Mordant wing should have been put into the existing building, claims Farrelly, creating improved space for art in the new extension. “The building makes promises on the outside that it doesn’t keep,” says Cox. Finally, the gloves are off. Assuming a haughty tone, Donaldson asks Farrelly why she studied architecture but went into writing. His risible insinuation is that Farrelly is somehow a failed architect, or ill-qualified to provide proper analysis. She responds with a subtle barb of her own: “Too often architects are said to be defending their own territory. I think it’s up to everyone to talk about architecture intelligently.”
Finally, we enter the final rounds, the weary audience punch drunk and clinging to the ropes. Shrieking from the back, a near hysterical audience member demands that Marshall explain his big idea for the project. He pretends not to understand the question. “What’s the next layer?” pleads de Manincor. “What does it give to the city?” Marshall responds by detailing his pragmatic response to the building’s contextual challenges, foremost among them site level differences and the “fascist symmetrically” of the 1940s era Maritime Services Building which has housed the MCA since 1991. “The boxes are random and inviting,” he claims. Asked for his closing comment, Tone Wheeler again booms from the back that “a more purposeful discussion would be about the health of the city.” But surely public buildings act as a thermometer for the city’s health. If they’re not vital, how can the city thrive?
We spill out into the Sydney night. At the pub, I canvass some opinions. Some have been energised by the debate, others traumatised. Some blame the moderator, others praise Make-Space. I thought it was a worthy event, with Marshall, Donaldson, Farrelly and Cox all exhibiting bravery in coming to the table. While not exactly “open”, conversations like this are rare in the harbour city. Next time, however, I’ll be hoping for fewer pulled punches. It was all pretty tame compared to one of my family’s Passover Seders.
Photo Museum of Contemporary Art, Sam Marshall Architect. Photo by Brett Boardman