Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Behold! A crystal palace never to be built
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture critic and a former manager of the MCA project for the City of Sydney.
The winning design for the MCA is unlikely to be realised and for good reason, argues Elizabeth Farrelly.
I will pick up the hook. You will see something new.
Two schemes. And I call them Scheme One and Scheme Two
“Have no fear, have no fear,” said the Cat in the Hat,
“These schemes are good schemes.”And he gave them a pat.
“They are tame, Oh so tame! They have come here to play.
They will give you some fun on this wet, wet, wet day.
(with apologies to Dr Seuss)
Perhaps it’s a kind of vitamin deficiency the sort of chronic deprivation that impels Europeans to tear off their clothes on the first day of spring and sprawl palely in city parks, fearing the sun may never rise again.
In much the same way Euro-architects, invited to work in Sydney, are inclined to toss off the habitual heritage sensitivities for which they become known, even revered, and design something radical. Yes! they appear to think. Here at last is a land without history, a terra nullius which will bear my stamp, and make my name. Watch my lips.
Some sites, some projects respond well to this treatment. One thinks of the tram-shed replacement on Bennelong Point, for example. Others, however, are less well suited. The Museum of Contemporary Art, set about as it is by heritage, archaeology, underground services, arts mafia, iffy landfill, Sydney harbour politics and urban feuding of all types and descriptions, is one of these.
The architect selection process began in August last year with the invitation of three international architects (Rafael Moneo from Madrid, Francesco Venezia from Naples, and Sauerbruch and Hutton, an Anglo-German partnership from London/Berlin) and two Australians, Nonda Katsalidis (Melbourne) and Richard Francis Jones (Sydney). Of these, Moneo is by far the most distinguished.
But, after an agonisingly drawn-out and expensive selection process comprising three phases instead of one, the commission has been won by Sauerbruch and Hutton, although the competing schemes will be exhibited from next week.
As asked, Sauerbruch and Hutton have made two proposals, call them Scheme One and Scheme Two, respectively keeping and demolishing the old Maritime Services Board building. Both options were described by the jury as having responded well to the iconic context (Bridge, Quay, Opera House), on the one hand, and to the “scale and detail of the Rocks precinct” on the other.
They achieve this by constructing an enormous white coffee-table that stands almost 60 metres above the ground and hovers over the existing building Scheme One or replaces it. The tabletop, some 6 metres deep and 3,500 metres square in area, houses the MCA gallery-space, while the MSB building, its fibreglass-topped tower protruding through a small hole in said tabletop, reverts to its original function as an office building. Two cinemas, which together comprise the new, George Miller-supported Moving Images Centre (MIC), will be accommodated in a new building clad in red, orange and claret-striped glass called The Rock. The Rock sits to the north of the old building in Scheme One and to the south in Scheme Two.
Of the two proposals, Scheme Two is the jury’s preferred option. Professor Wilfried Wang, who stepped in valiantly and at short notice to chair the jury when Renzo Piano was laid low en flight, compared Scheme Two with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao and Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London. This may have been unwise, for although Wang was prepared to place Scheme Two ahead of both being, he said, more practical and responsive than Bilbao and more humane than the Tate the comparison is odious.
Both Gehry and Herzog and de Meuron were invited to participate in the MCA project. Both were politely busy; Herzog and de Meuron have since won the Pritzker, arguably architecture’s biggest prize. And, in fact, Sauerbruch and Hutton may be seen as a kind of poor man’s Herzog and de Meuron, working as they do within a similar retro-modern vogue. But where Herzog and de Meuron’s work is marked by elegant austerity, Sauerbruch and Hutton appears to prize a contrived ugliness which is distinguishable from authentic common-or-garden ugliness only by its intellectual content. To the naked eye, the difference is slight indeed.
Thus we have a kidney-shaped office building (oh, please) whose facade comprises a loose, glazed fabric “woven” from 2-metre-wide strips of coloured steel (the warp) and stuck-on sandstone (the weft). A vast, echoey quadruple-height space with a flat stone floor and exposed waffle-ceiling all but indistinguishable from some of modernism’s worst mistakes is the combined MCA/MIC foyer, with a stack of TVs at one end and a reception lozenge in the centre. Set into this floor are the remains of the old docks the colony’s first which one might have been dramatised in some exciting, three-dimensional way but sit flatly here as if laminated in plastic.
Marcuse warned us how establishments swallow and disarm the radical, but can you really imagine decent contemporary art vividly subversive by nature in this vast glass shed with all the warmth and conviction of a major transport terminal?
Even accepting the demolition of the MSB building, which may prove a biggish pill for Sydney to swallow, one might wonder whether this is really the way to go. Then again, is anyone really going to build the thing? At $100 million and rising (compared with an original absolute-outside budget of $56 million and a meagre $30 million council allocation), it seems unlikely. Maybe, unless Sydney needs more overseas passenger terminals at the Quay, it’s just as well.
Elizabeth Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture critic and a former manager of the MCA project for the City of Sydney.
TWO ILLUS: And the winner is …
architects Louisa Hutton and Matthias Sauerbruch, above, with their plans for the MCA, which includes this interior, left.