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Squaring the Circular: Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art

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On Sydney’s Circular Quay, Sam Marshall has turned the Museum of Contemporary Art’s back on the iconic Sydney Opera House, writes Alan Miller, winner of the 2011 AJ Writing Prize. Photography by Brett Boardman

To enter the AJ/BGS Writing Prize click here


Circular Quay is Sydney’s great public space, but it is no Piazza San Marco.

The presence of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at opposite ends of the magnet is powerful enough to allow the eye to glide around the curve past the decent, mediocre and bad architecture in between.

Instead of ancient stones, there is water teeming with ferries and tourist boats that promise varying doses of adrenaline. However unrepresentative of the unruly metropolis beyond, Circular Quay hints at the dream of Sydney.

Two cultural institutions front the Quay: the Sydney Opera House and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). A comparison between the two is simultaneously irresistible, revealing and a little unfair. As the last of the great monumental projects and the first of the modern icons to bear the weight of a city’s expectations, the Opera House is not likely to be repeated. It is proof that what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called the ‘tyranny of distance’ can inspire independence of vision as well as self-doubt.

Remember that the Opera House and the Lincoln Centre in New York are contemporaries; it took a certain naivety to attempt Jørn Utzon’s design rather than the bland late-Modernism of the competition’s runners-up. The Opera House has left Sydney with both a thirst for more buildings as wondrous and a fear of what such ambition might entail. The MCA falls into the middle of this dilemma and the more recent anxieties of a city that seems no longer to be its cheerful, sunny self.

The MCA’s history originates with its home in the former Maritime Services Board building (1952). The location was ideal, but the MSB’s strait-laced Art Deco spoke more of its public service origins than of contemporary art. Inside, the circulation was so abominable the museum seemed more a tenant than an institution. Two design competitions, the first won by Kazuyo Sejima in 1997, and the second by Sauerbruch Hutton in 2000, resulted in additions to Sydney’s ledger of lost opportunities rather than the museum. Nothing was built until the MCA engaged Sydney architect Sam Marshall to design a more modest extension. It seemed to go up overnight.

The new wing solves the museum’s circulation without demolishing the old building. Where previously the George Street entrance was as nondescript as neighbouring shopfronts, now there is a clear public path between the street and Circular Quay. A wide but steepish stair leads to the lobby, from which all levels are accessed by a new stairway and glass enclosed elevator. This may sound like the least any building could do, but relieving the old building of the burden of circulation makes it all feel much bigger. The MCA got an awful lot of architecture for its A$53 million (£34 million).

The nature of that architecture is more contentious. Should this have been an icon? Is this yet another missed opportunity, or a symbol of earlier missed opportunities? Unlike the eastern side of Circular Quay, which has only a handful of large buildings, most notably the stodgy ‘Toaster’ apartments and the Opera House, the MCA is part of a foreshore that has always been heterogeneous. The colony’s first water supply, the Tank Stream, divided the Quay near where the MCA now stands. To the east was the governor’s mansion; to the west, the convict barracks and the site of the city’s first hanging. 

From across the water, Marshall’s hovering blocks are shorthand for the message, ‘there is architecture here’. They are pleasing without being rigorous or enigmatic and it doesn’t help that a very rigorous, very enigmatic building looms just across the water. A layer of fascination or emotion is missing. You could argue that the art should provide that layer, but that is both a big gamble on the quality of the art and a grim future for architects consigned to design boxes.

Aside from preventing the waste of a perfectly inoffensive building, the extension spares the city from a new museum that could just as likely have been a standard-issue work of international architecture as the second coming of the Sydney Opera House. New plus old can be interesting, even when neither would have much to say on their own. Marshall’s architecture is neither sympathetic nor overbearing. It is a knuckle, which makes an injured finger useful.

The reconfigured galleries in the original building are varied in shape and size but their vocabulary of white plasterboard and polished concrete floors soon becomes relentless. The MCA evidently sought maximum flexibility but the debate between the white box and its expressive other need not oppose four rectangles of track-lit plasterboard against the sloping floors of the Guggenheim. There are subtler ways for architecture to provoke art: the downtown lofts that were the ancestors of the white box usually had a rickety elevator or some old trusses to add a bit of texture. The Art Gallery of New South Wales across town does this well. While no individual space stands out as a masterpiece, there is enough variety of finish and expression to sustain delight in what are essentially white boxes.

There are also views, the denial of which is one of the strangest shortcoming of the new MCA. There is an understandable desire on the part of serious architects to promote a Sydney that doesn’t depend on azure waters, for which only nature deserves credit, but by looking at plasterboard instead of ferries we miss out on the city’s performance art.

Some of the new galleries capture views of George Street, but in the original building all but a handful of east-facing windows have been walled over. In the new wing, comparatively private spaces – a library, café and classrooms – face the harbour towards the north-east. What is missing is not just a pretty view but a coherent relationship between architecture and natural light, a big thing to miss out on in a museum.

At a recent public forum on the MCA, one questioner blurted to Marshall, who bravely fronted the event, ‘I want the big idea!’ In architecture ideas are necessary, but they are usually a means to an end. In order to design, some architects hire mathematicians, some misread Derrida and others spill cornflakes on the floor and contemplate the result with a 3D scanner.

Solving functional problems is no small inspiration; the game is hard enough without having to satisfy the intellect of every student in the back row. Though for now provocation is confined to its art rather than its architecture, the MCA is an institution confident enough to build incrementally in a world that expects icons, even as it wearies of them. The trick to being contemporary is to keep the future interesting.

To find out more about this year’s AJ/BGS Writing Prize click here

Project data

Start on site August 2010
Date of completion Opened 28 March 2012
Gross internal floor area 14,193m² (expanded building) 4,500m² (new addition)
Form of contract Lump sum contract
Total cost $AU 53 million (£34.4 million)
Cost per square metre Undisclosed
Client Museum of Contemporary Art
Main contractor Watpac NSW
Structural engineer Simpson Design Associates
Mechanical and ESD engineer Steensen Varming
Electrical and lighting engineer Haron Robson
Quantity surveyor Altus Page Kirkland Group
Access consultant Morris Goding
Acoustic consultant Acoustic Studio
Archaeological consultant Casey & Lowe
Arborist Australis Tree Management
BCA consultant & Fire safety design engineer BCA Logic
Heritage consultant Tanner Architects
Hydraulic & fire engineer Warren Smith & Partners
Landscape architect Government Architects Office
Lift engineer Jim Campbell & Associates
PCA consultant Blackett Maguire + Goldsmith
Planning authority Department of Planning
Planning consultant GHD
Theatre consultant dBLux
Signage & wayfinding consultant Dot Dash
Project manager Root Projects Australia
CAD software used ArchiCAD

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