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.

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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

  • Alex Walter May 4th, 2012 4:57 pm

    Stunning piece of work, David! The perfect way to close up shop before heading off to sing Poulenc and Mozart at the Opera House. The debate, will, no doubt, continue, and I for one look forward to your continuing contribution.

  • Shane Thompson May 4th, 2012 5:24 pm

    I have only witnessed the new MCA in a taxi, but passing by on one of my always too short visits to Sydney. I admit a liking for the work of Sam Marshall. I find it generally a critical and enquiring architecture resonant with the visiccitudes of the program and process,often in thought and making a Taoist manifestation of the great Australian traits of acceptance, making do and no bullshit. Parsimonious and direct, and free of imported and cliched fetishes and frippery which characterises much public architecture in Sydney. What seems to be lacking in the critique by some to date is a genuine curiousity or any attempt at appreciative enquiry where an authentic receptiveness and empathy can lead to greater insight and an opportunity for some self realisation. Open up folks, enjoy finding out something, don’t be scared, its only a building.

  • Ben Giles May 4th, 2012 5:26 pm

    Great first hand account of this gloves-off event. Let’s have more of these.

  • Elizabeth Farrelly May 4th, 2012 6:00 pm

    Nice piece David. I must try & be late more often… :}

  • Make Space Open Conversation MCA at UTS reviewed by David Neustein in ADR « School of Architecture May 4th, 2012 6:19 pm

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  • Brooke Dunlop May 4th, 2012 6:56 pm

    I feel like I was there…sounds like the evening could have been a lot more entertaining had there been pre-debate drinks for the prize fighters…sorry speakers…
    I look forward to the same discussions migrating north…
    Maybe the blue collar state(not to be confused with the blues and maroons) might be a little more forth coming to blue!… and a real spectacle could be had!!!
    Architecture needs more open and rigorous debate …
    A good architectural response should be able to hold its own…

  • Simon Nelson May 4th, 2012 10:35 pm

    Surely it is essential that we have robust critical discourse in order for the discipline to progress. What David’s report reminds me of is the Architecture School crit, where the student is over defensive and the crit panel pulls too many punches. Neither approach helps. The students that progress the best are those who accept the harshest critique and use that critique, while the panellists who properly engage add to the whole learning experience. One wonders if that simple understanding of critique is forgotten once qualified, or whether ego and pride get in the way on one hand and the general feelings of fraternity make it hard to hold vigorous debate face to face.

  • Sam Crawford May 4th, 2012 11:54 pm

    Thanks for this piece. Sounds like a lively debate. I am sorry that could not make it.
    I am keen to understand what makes a benefactor third rate? You may not agree with everything that Simon Mordant says or does, but the man gives very large sums of money in support of arts and culture. I wonder as proportion of income what you have donated to arts and culture? I have read much criticism of Mordant for giving away money and expecting to have a say in how it is spent. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Careful lest he and others choose to spend their money elsewhere. The debate might have been a little more theoretical had he not.

  • Mano Ponnambalam May 5th, 2012 8:55 am

    Its ironic that as professional architects we are sensitive of critique – from the very beginning of our education and training we are asked to pin up and a jury critiques the work that is presented. The most beneficial are that where the jury critiques the work (both positive + negative) with facts and succinct analysis, not open ended statements and opinions.

  • eman drut May 5th, 2012 11:49 am

    Open conversation?, more like gawking at the scene of a horror smash. A forensic crash analysis would have been be more useful. Who put Sam Marshall in the driver’s seat?
    Why pick a good architect and shaft him when you can pick a second rate commercial hack in the first place? Is this an evolution of the Sydney procurement method for civic works?
    And DN, the benfactors name on the building is the least of its problems.
    The great 80′s architect, Nic Boschler is talking to his copyright lawyer.

  • george May 7th, 2012 9:00 am

    Did anyone ask if their concept was to design Zaha Hadid’s contemporary arts center in Cincinnati…

  • Daniel May 7th, 2012 12:03 pm

    The new MCA extension interiors are great. Anything is an improvement over the viewing spaces in the old part of the building.

    It’s not the first time a similar building has been erected (see George’s comment above and Eman’s above that) and it won’t be the last. If we continue to set an agenda based on nothing more than a modern aesthetic then we run the risk of creating a city that lacks it’s own voice and above all sense of place.

  • Peter Farman May 7th, 2012 8:40 pm

    I applaud the impetus of organising such an event (much needed in sydney), however I will be extremely disappointed if future events head the way of an ‘analogue’ BLOG of rich intelligent comments such as but not limited to “I don’t like it!!” whilst bewilderingly insightful and leaving me with much to consider I do feel a serious and intelligent evidenced/and descriptive based critique or ‘opinion’ is needed NOT whimsical baseless opinion. I would also argue that those privileged (and deserved) few with genuine access to the media regardless of being an opinion or other do have a responsibility to position that opinion in some basis of fact. This is particularly relevant in sydney where opinion is so easily blurred and assumed as FACT!

  • Danielle Z May 7th, 2012 11:44 pm

    Agree with Shane above; how sad, this reads like a schoolyard bully match. The white blocks add a fresh ‘wake up’ to the sandstone colonial heritage. One of few structures on the Sydneyscape that says ‘hello world’. “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.”

  • Terence Byrnes May 8th, 2012 3:54 pm

    Though personally absent from the event, David’s recounting seems horribly familiar. Overviews of forums the likes of the ‘open conversation’ can always be observed from a number of view points, as David’s piece shows.

    For example, some elements of the audience just can’t resist a shot at anyone whom they perceive to be a taller ‘poppy’ Challenging Elizabeth Farrelly for being only a professional critic is in itself not only presumptuous, it is also pointless and unproductive.

    Another level of criticism is of those saying little more than ‘it’s not what I would have done’ and often only articulated with the clarity of hindsight. There is, of course, nothing wrong with observations from a different angle however they might have been derived. It is when they are delivered as a failing of the author not to have been taken into account, that personal egotism often obscures the clarity of a sometimes valid point.

    However, allowing for the fact that the manner of address in these discussions so often diminishes their worth, I think it remains incumbent upon the authors of the works in question to always invest more time in establishing their original brief and the contexts in which the final results were resolved. ‘I would have demolished the building if I could’ is no substitute for an apparent absence of justification of what realities might have otherwise dictated.

    The potential for criticism is endless in the absence of worthwhile parameters being set. If events such as the forum help to explain results and even with hindsight, justify food for thought, then they can be both informative and entertaining – surely the result that is intended. But if able only to be measured in gladiatorial terms , then the results can be little more than demeaning, not least for the audience who will always be disappointed. The measure of failure being when the audience itself becomes the event, and the object for discussion lapses into being merely the vehicle for their own amusement.

  • Tony Coote May 8th, 2012 4:58 pm

    Terrific piece Mr Neustein. I’m sorry I missed the event. My first visit to the new MCA was with the grandchildren, so I was somewhat distracted and will need to go again for a more thorough viewing.

    I have already shared some first impressions on the HDAA architects’ chatlist, which were as follows (in no particular order):

    The general level of finishes internally and externally in the new wing is pretty low rent – eg the polished concrete floors and what looks like a badly applied paint finish on concrete for the black and white elements of the new building.

    The new foyer and entry space is cramped and lacks any vertical dimension to visually connect one to the upper levels. The ceiling height is low and somewhat oppressive.

    The stairs coming up from the Quay side are way too steep and lack a centre rail.

    The entry from George St is simply terrible – a ramped corridor reminiscent of the access way to the toilets in a shopping centre.

    There is a general lack of generosity in the foyer with the cloak room and main info desk combined and the shop area really pokey.

    The level of information and interpretation of the museum in the foyer is absolutely abysmal. A visitor coming for the first time would have no idea what was on or where to find it.

    Because the new entry is so far off centre (i.e. down one end of the old building) the access to the galleries, which are all in the old building, is via long hallways and there is a real lack of hierarchy in how the galleries and video rooms are arranged off the corridor. It is quite possible to completely miss one of the main exhibits because the space is so hidden away.

    The roof level restaurant and sculpture gallery has, simply by its location, one of the best views in Sydney. It looks straight across to the Opera House. However what should have been the very best corner of the outdoor sculpture gallery is not accessible. It contains the black roof of the black box element, which is set at the same level as the handrail to the rest of the open space. While we were there visitors where hopping up onto the roof to have their photos taken and the restaurant staff were kept unnecessarily busy having to order them down.

    This seems a classic example of form not following function at all.

  • Vanessa Carnevale May 11th, 2012 1:26 pm

    What a storm in a teacup! Aren’t there other issues in Sydney more deserving of passionate outbursts by her architects? This is a fine building, judging only from the photographs. It’s restrained enough to form part of the backdrop to the Quay and Opera House, yet interesting enough to draw attention to its cultural program.

    I agree with Gerard Reinmuth that critique and dialogue are essential to architecture, but antagonistic debate – architect vs architect – is not helpful to architects in Sydney or elsewhere. This time it did, however, raise some points that are ripe for discussion, such as Philip Cox’s statement that Circular Quay is “sacred”, and the assertion that a work of architecture should have one big idea.

  • Angela Ferguson May 11th, 2012 2:01 pm

    this is a great article, and its always good to see some form of debate around our built environment in Australia – commendations to the organizers. unfortunately (and as much as i dont want to – i prefer to applaud and revere our home grown talent!) i agree with most of the criticism about the MCA. Cox sums it up perfectly when he says “The building makes promises on the outside that it doesn’t keep”. what also struck me when i visited was the extremely poor build quality/detailing internally, which on a global scale is embarassing.

    That said i do feel for Sam Marshall. We have long tradition in Australia of those with power and authority (but not necessarily vision or intelligence) dictating many aspects of how our built environment is designed and procured – with the outcome invariably ‘dumbed down’ to its lowest common denominator in an attempt to please the various meddling parties.

    those in the profession know what happens when a brief is diluted or changed mid stream, when the focus is on cost alone (with the importance of quality ignored), when a project can seem ‘cursed’ from the start, when there is no committment to a vision or idea and there is a lack of understanding that you can never please each and every stakeholder 100%.

    everybody has their own perspective on events and i doubt we know the full story of the ‘saga of the MCA’. however not all criticism should be leveled at the architect as it certainly takes more than 2 to tango in any project no matter how big or small.

  • Danny B May 17th, 2012 2:50 pm

    The Quayside facade is a visual delight. Makes me feel good to be alive overlooking it while I have my early morning coffee at Guylian. It respects the scale of the existing MSB and adds to the potpourri that is the skyline to the West and the OS terminal to the North.
    I was already a slave to the MoCA and Sam’s enhancing design has intensified my addiction. I am a frequent visitor living nearby and am always planning the next dose as I depart.
    The criticisms of the interior circulation are shallow and I am sure reflect brief encounters by the scribes and are not the observations of frequent visitors. The gallery now has a presence and can house significant exhibitions without clutter. Christian Marclay’s current “clock” exhibition is mesmerising and I recommend it to all, especially movie buffs.
    The above notwithstanding, the George Street facade could have been handled better and is indeed a scaffold solution and the execution of the detailing by the builder demands a significant “defects list”.

  • marco pompili May 20th, 2012 6:53 pm

    in the context of a city like sydney, where there is little, almost no opportunity to attend public open talks on architecture, this event is an achievement. uts and make space are really to be praised for this.
    the talk itself sounded to me like a lot of whispering though.
    because of its controversial and suffered background, the merit of the mca is that it finally came to life.
    my expectation was that the conversation topic would be treated as a pretext for a discussion on public architecture in sydney – absent in this city – and on the public potential of architecture today.
    wheeler did not just make a remark about the budget, he threw on the table critical issues, such as architecture and public clients. i was surprised that the central table didn’t pick them up.

  • Mary Byington May 26th, 2012 2:20 pm

    I love this addition so much that I just googled the architect. I had tuned out of this debate about the time the plans were unveiled…
    There is such an excitement entering the building… (I went straight to The Clock, so didn’t explore the addition right away.)
    Glimpsing the view through the lift and the other side… at first I didn’t think about where I was and thought it was a huge, beautiful water feature over there — which of course, it is, but no one at the MCA is going to have to pay for leaks and repairs in the years to come.
    To take a break from the coup of The Clock, we went up to L4 for refreshment in the most delightful sense of the word. Here’s where I commented that any worthy architect is able to visualise the experience from the inside as well as out. Not only is it a cheery place to eat and chat, but, oh, let’s just take a glance at the Bridge and the Opera House. Brilliant planning!
    Oh, yes…. the criticism about the old building. I have come to terms with what a boring government building it is (although the decoration in the old library, the former Boardroom is delightful). That we are tricked into entering the old building through the new, makes us realise that the display space is fine. We can’t really have glass and views in the display space, so putting study areas in the new space was a great solution.

    As I couldn’t watch all of The Clock in one sitting (actually, I could have, but my cohort couldn’t…) I went back at 5am on Friday morning. With no distractions, I approached the Mordant Wing… and there was nothing deathly about it. I liked the juxta of the cherished buildings in the Rocks with this very sophisticated sign beckoning me in the pre-dawn.

    I am very much interested in space, and am often moved by architecture when I go to Japan, especially Tokyo, but this is the most exciting architectural experience I have had in Sydney for quite a while.

  • Peter Farman May 27th, 2012 1:10 pm

    I agree with you Marco, particularly with regard to Tone Wheeler and his very insightful and observed comments.

  • David Neustein July 16th, 2012 7:58 pm

    I wish to issue an apology and a retraction. My flippant reference to Simon Mordant as a “third rate benefactor” is unfounded and could be easily interpreted as derogatory.

    Since writing this opinion piece, I have made a sincere effort to understand the actions which directed the recent renovation and extension of the MCA, and the roles of those responsible for them. I have engaged directly with Mr Mordant, who has generously and openly responded to my enquiries. Had I contacted him prior to writing the opinion piece, I would not have characterised his philanthropic endeavours in such a dismissive manner.

    I am sorry to Mr Mordant for the insinuation that his charitable acts have been anything other than sincere. I wish to retract the remark – but think it better that it remains visible above and that I remain publicly accountable for any offense that I may have caused.


    David Neustein

  • Rachel Buckeridge July 26th, 2012 10:52 am

    Looks and feels good to me.

  • Moses June 26th, 2014 10:28 pm

    I stumbled across this blog somewhat late and I’m quite horrified at the passive-aggressive superiority of the tone, and no doubt this was the feeling in the room on the night. Not much of an open debate even if masquerading as one. From this writing, it seems like everyone else was going to produce a better design. But in truth, there are realities to deal with: site levels, budgets, benefactors, limited space and a bunch of architectural critics who sound like they wouldn’t have been happy no matter what was placed there. One I thing I recall is the site available was small. The Maritime Building was staying. It has to function as a gallery. And the views are incredible. Thats what you have all missed, and perhaps appreciate now in hindsight are the things once can observe 2 years on:
    - the Quay side entrance is both grand and intimate at the same time
    - it’s become a meeting place, like the Town Hall steps
    - Marshall has thought carefully about how the building and its users get to interact with the view
    - arguably one of the best views in the world is the dining area Marshall has deliberately created on the top floor, facing out to the Opera House …if you have ever eaten there you will realise how special it is, and accessible to many…it is not a snobbish place for the elite only
    - the George St side entrance is intimate and the way it opens to the Harbour is fantastic
    It’s no MOMA, but it didn’t begin with MOMA bones nor the budget. And even MOMA, which is spectacular on the inside, is not much from the street side. So please people, calm your farm.
    Incidentally, Tone Wheeler sounded like the voice of reason…but I reckon that doesn’t sell newspapers nearly half as good as the negative views that we published.

  • karatechop July 18th, 2014 11:50 am

    With such comments by David Neustein against philanthropists such as Simon Mordant, it is likely such people will give so generously in the future, and unlikely Neustein will be commissioned for such projects.

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