Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Subsection: News Review
James Colman, Joan Domicelj, Philip Jenkyn, Geoff Bailey, Elizabeth Farrelly, Terry Smith, John Birmingham.
What should we do with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the West Circular Quay? The Herald put those questions to a group of experts involved in the debate about Sydney’s most contentious harbour site.
JAMES COLMAN, architect and town planner
Canberra is where the MCA should be, not on the shore of Sydney Cove. As a nation we are too small to be able to afford more than one such institution, and that should be in the national capital along with our other great collections. And during the move, let’s rename it. The current name might satisfy the aficionados but it won’t pull the crowds. It evokes images of incomprehensible abstractions cobbled together by largely unknown artists, so let’s go for something a little more enticing.
After relocating the institution we can safely demolish that dreary, cumbersome, tired and uncouth structure, the MSB building, and clear the site for something quite different. At the George Street level a simple landscaped deck or terrace will extend out to the east, opening up splendid views across to the Opera House from the properties along Lower George Street. The deck will provide public open space, free of clutter, free of structures except for a single landmark tower rising eight to 10 storeys above deck level.
That tower an elegant sculptural form will house the offices of all the city’s non-government organisations as well as a rooftop restaurant and observation deck, offering 360 degrees of fascinating mid-level elevated views of The Rocks and the Quay. Beneath the deck, and lit by skylights, will be shops, eateries, a branch of the city library, basement parking. Here and there along its edges, flights of stairs will drop down from the deck to the grassed areas below. Lower George Street will once again be open to morning sun; and sunshine will flood across to the eastern lawns in the afternoons. The place will also accommodate a simple low-level structure housing memories and messages relating to Aboriginal life in Sydney.
So: any takers?
JOAN DOMICELJ, heritage consultant It’s West Circular Quay from the water, but the tumbling Rocks from the land. What we need to build here is links, not barriers, between land and sea.
The most rasping and poignant of cultural encounters happened here, and the eventual tying of a continent by sea to the distant world. A hard, scrambling sandstone place, with boats and goods coming and going, people handling them, trading, rebuilding and, with the plague, off to the Quarantine. And across the water the posh world of the east the Governor’s domain. It was crowded working diversity to the west versus grandiose space on the eastern ridge.
Then the big ones appeared Harbour Bridge, MSB building, overhead expressway, overseas terminal, international hotel and the new, exquisite view of raised sculptured shells across the way. Some great structures, but when we’ve gone big, we’ve gone wrong. It was a relief when the bulk of the Overseas Terminal was actually carved back in the ’80s.
I should love The Rocks to stay non-paying, public, busy. Local people not only visitors living, meeting, working, shopping, enjoying exhibits, a sandwich, a glimpse of the sea, and boarding boats. By all means, add innovative, beautiful buildings and new forms of cultural exchange, but connect them to paths and shared views, to sing alongside older lanes and terraces. By all means remember the commercial, but don’t swamp everyone’s lives. This patch of foreshore is scrutinised by so many, some of them eyeing short-term gain. So many official “decision-makers”: the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning is preparing a regional environment plan, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority a heritage management plan for The Rocks, and the SCC is running design competitions. With so many “stakeholders” talking, who hears the place itself?
PHILIP JENKYN, environmentalist and inaugural chair of Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshores I’ve had a look at the proposals for the MSB site and to suggest either of these is a disgrace. This is not the 1950s and to put up such proposals in 2001 is incredibly stupid. They’re both appalling.
The outer shell of the building should stay as it is. Sure, it was built after World War II to a ’30s design, but it’s right for that location and, importantly, it has real open space around it. It’s appropriate in scale and position for that side of Circular Quay and for its proximity to The Rocks which, we should remember, we only have because of the actions of Jack Mundey. Those are important things to maintain on West Circular Quay.
There are always compromises in regard to the foreshore. People are always insisting that we’ve got to change the buildings or pull down what’s there and build all over it. My response to that is, Oh no, you don’t.
People love this building and they love the open space. That’s been lost on the east side of the Quay.
I am great defender of the MCA when it began I put money into it but if it can’t survive in that building, it must go elsewhere. If the MCA is to expand on that site, there’ll be huge backlash against Sartor and against the MCA itself. Sartor has been put in an impossible position and it will lead to a poor result.
I call upon the community to take a close look at the exhibition, think of the effect on West Circular Quay and make their views known.
GEOFF BAILEY, former manager of Architecture, Conservation and Planning, The Rocks, and a board member of National Trust of Australia (NSW)The Maritime Services Board building should stay, unmolested. If the Museum of Contemporary Art cannot succeed in it then the museum should find another venue. The MSB building may not be the best art deco building in Sydney but it resonates with many Sydneysiders and is located on a site of great significance.
Sydney Cove is arguably this country’s most significant historic site and it was the particular characteristics of the place the topography that caused Governor Phillip to settle there. Yet these characteristics have been all but obliterated on two of its three sides.
In First Fleet Park, where the MCA now stands, the remains of that topography are still there the original shoreline, the Tank Stream still flowing and the early docks. They’re buried, to be sure, but still there. The possibility of recovering and acknowledging them still exists, but not if we keep redeveloping the site.
The MCA’s problems, financial or otherwise, are a separate issue. Where historic buildings are concerned, long experience has shown that the right occupant respects the limitations of the building and rejoices in their uniqueness. The wrong occupant seeks constantly and cumulatively to destroy what makes the building worthwhile in the first place. The latter is what is happening with the MSB building. Instead of trying to shoehorn an inappropriate use into an unyielding building, the MCA should look for alternative venues or collaborations with State or national galleries. It should not attempt to redevelop such a crucial site.
Don’t blame the MSB building for the MCA’s financial woes. More pertinently, David Marr put his finger right on it when he pointed out that we are being offered a $100million solution for a $3million problem.
TERRY SMITH, Power Professor of Contemporary Art and director of the Power Institute, Foundation for Art and Visual Culture, at the University of SydneyImagine yourself sky-gliding high above the water along the harbour, steering left at the Opera House and sailing down in to the Quay. If you even notice the current MCA building, you see it as a fraying doorstop, a stolid lump to one side of Sydney.
West Circular Quay deserves a structure to match the Opera House. Not to mimic it, but to explode the horizontality of a dead spot on the waterfront.
The Opera House predates Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Gallery at Bilbao, and his planned Guggenheim for downtown Manhattan. These buildings set the standard for destination architecture.
Hutton and Sauerbruch’s Scheme 1 is early 1980s funky: hide the doorstop under a gigantic frame of kiddy furniture. Late modernism meets early Moderne. Two compromises enlarged.
Scheme 2 is late 1990s cool: better, but still haunted by the ghost of the current building. It caps off its understructure now two pavilions and an open shed with a light box. The upper section, to my eye, should be twice the size, and much more volatile in form.
It needs to be bigger to include collection, storage and conservation space. Curators need to be able to wheel artworks in and out from close at hand, not have to dial them up for cartage from a distance.
Artist John Power, whose bequest to the University of Sydney is the basis of the MCA collection, said: “Bring the latest … contemporary art … to the people of Australia.” These works should be at a place of maximum access.
Leaving West Circular Quay as is would be a failure of nerve. Clearing the site for a park would open up a view of miniature, chocolate box pseudo-heritage. Let’s make a place that is committed to contemporaneity, open to the future a manifestation of Sydney style.
JOHN BIRMINGHAM, author of Leviathan: the Unauthorised Biography of SydneyA couple of years back this pair of philistines were touring the MCA at the same time as a couple of buds of mine. My friends found these two infinitely more engaging than any of the incomprehensible crud then passing itself off as incomprehensible art, and followed them as they moved from installation to found object, booming out a nonstop critique which culminated with a lot of thigh-slapping and belly laughs in a room full of blow-up reindeer. Or maybe it was blown-up reindeer. It was appparently pretty funny.
This is the core crisis at West Circular Quay. Not the building, of which most of Sydney’s simple village folk are quite fond (in the same way they’re quite fond of Neddy Smith, Chiko rolls and the walking dead football club known as Souths). No, what the people have uno problemo with is the so-called art inside, which they variously fear, loathe, fail to appreciate and find confronting in a non-artistic way. As in, “Sybil, I am confronted by the fact that I have just unburdened myself of a considerable wedge of the folding stuff to inspect a worthless load of old cods”.
The coffee table redevelopment, which seems to me a nifty scheme to load the city up with an option so odious we’ll have to back Frank’s alternative vision, is so unpopular because, to borrow from art-speak, it externalises the internal. For you and me that means it takes what is worst about what goes on inside that building, straps a turbo charger on and takes it out for a spin in the fresh air where nobody can avoid it.
You want my advice? Turn the building into expensive apartments and move the blown-up reindeer somewhere more fitting. Like the concrete bunker the cops built in Surry Hills. It’s ugly, vaguely threatening and surrounded by a ‘burb full of know-nothing art-wankers. It’s perfect for modern art.
ELIZABETH FARRELLY, Herald architecture critic and a former manager of the MCA project for the City of Sydney Sydney needs contemporary art and a place to show it. But contemporary art is a fringe activity with minority appeal; radical, subversive and experimental by nature. These qualities require space spiritual as well as physical and the kind of freedom that $100 million buildings on prime, dress-circle real estate are unlikely to provide. Some of the most successful contemporary art galleries have operated, without permanent collections, in fringe-district warehouses. Such locations happily tolerate unlimited intervention.
It’s not that the MCA doesn’t “deserve” its current site; rather that the site can never be sufficiently uninhibited to do the MCA justice. Demolishing the MSB building will not solve this problem.
It is patently obvious that the site, even including the car park site to the north, is too small to house the three essential elements: an MCA, a Moving Images Centre (MIC) and enough office space to support them in perpetuity. There is a strong argument, therefore, to move the MCA and the MIC to another site, be it a rust-belt warehouse, Walsh Bay or even, on a temporary basis, the Customs House.
West Circular Quay has long been earmarked as a cultural precinct, and this should stand. Nothing is more deadly, though, than government-funded artistic pursuits with no essential life force. Further, the requirement for self-funding has always been a killer for the MCA, requiring its directors to hone marketing skills above all others. And the building will never make a really good gallery.
If government support for the MCA cannot be found, a reasonable proposition might be to convert the MSB building into a hotel, its ground and top floors replete with restaurant and function spaces, and to dedicate the revenue to support the institutions in their new, more comfortable home.Public briefings on the MCA project will be held by the chair of the design competition, Professor Wilfried Wang, and the architects Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton today and tomorrow at
11am and 4pm in Customs House. Information: 0417 254 668.
In Monday’s Heckler column, architect Ken Maher sets out his vision for West Circular Quay and the MCA.
ILLUS: The two options …
demolish and rebuild at a cost of $100 million (above), and (below) the coffee table redevelopment a light box added at a cost of $80 million.