Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Three years of change mean all bets are off at MCA
E.M. Farrelly. E.M. Farrelly is manager, special projects, for the City of Sydney.
Time for a new vision at Circular Quay, argues E.M. Farrelly.
No doubt about it. Whether you’re talking architecture, politics, money or just straight old Sydney goss, the MCA project is the sexiest thing in town just now. This is principally because of location, location and the other thing. Call it cliche, but that bridge-harbour-opera-house backdrop still sells, well, virtually anything. Circular Quay is not only absolute waterfront, it’s absolute front door and absolute A1 heritage. An address to die for. A recipe for controversy.
Predictably, much recent writing on the MCA is misinformed or mischievous, sometimes both. Ian Perlman’s misdirected plea over Kazuyo Sejima’s role as MCA architect (Herald, August 15) muddies the waters further still. Sejima is a good architect, possibly a great one, but she has no moral prerogative over the MCA project.
The MCA building is a moderately distinguished example, no more, of postwar neo-fascist Stripped Classicism. One or two good interiors, but basically it’s 1930s architecture built in the 1950s, when Sydney was still well behind the stylistic eight ball. More problematically, it’s a government office building from an era when these were designed to impress but not to welcome, much less entice. In 1991, the building was converted with some simplicity into an art museum, but the intervention, and the budget, was insufficient to overcome its native, cardigan-wearing stuffiness.
The institution itself has existed for a decade. Throughout that time the number of visitors has been fairly low, especially when you discount the strictly coffee-and-party-goers. But there’s more to it than bums on seats. Like opera, contemporary art is something a fully fledged city must have, and have on show. A status symbol, if you will. You couldn’t seriously move the MCA to an Alexandria warehouse, any more than you would put the Bang & Olufsen in the dunny. Speaking of seats.
For most of the MCA’s history there has been a push for a cinematheque next door. In 1997 the MCA selected Kazuyo Sejima from an international field. Her concept was schematic but chic, her portfolio small but lucent, her selection unanimous. The judges were wowed.
Then, without warning, the funding dried up, the director resigned, and buried treasure, in the form of three old colonial dry docks, was discovered under the site. An embarrassment of catastrophes. The docks, Australia’s oldest, represent the source and origin of Sydney’s maritime history. Pretty sacred stuff.
This in itself might reasonably have provoked a major rethink. Then the funding for the entire MCA started to quiver. The Power Bequest was only ever intended to fund the MCA for 10 years, of which 1999 was the last. Foreseeable, perhaps, but the Premier had a quiet word to the Lord Mayor.
So. Much water has flowed since the dreaming of 1997. The MCA now has a new director, a new chairman and, it seems likely, a new future. The City of Sydney’s proposal is an entirely different proposition, despite similarities. For one thing, in order to double visitor numbers, the City proposes to spend roughly half the $59 million budget on improvements to the MCA building itself. It would move the lift core from the centre to the outside and add new gallery spaces to both frontages. Thus, in place of the mini-mausoleum that currently greets visitors from George Street, the view would open through to the Quay, making art, activity and water visible from the street. The space would also open lengthwise, with the existing cafe reconfigured in a more casual and open manner along the harbour frontage. Entry from the Quay would be enhanced with a major sculpture court replacing the paraphernalia of hedges and what-have-you which currently impede any intending visitor. And the lift would glide with a full 180-degree view of the Opera House. Never mind getting them in. Keeping humans out might be the problem.
The City also proposes to establish a new, semi-autonomous moving images centre (call it SHMIC Sydney Harbour Centre for the Moving Image) on the northern site. Physically, this is similar to the earlier proposal except for a broader program (including e-art), a different client body, different funding arrangements and new site constraints. In particular, a plausible strategy is now required for dealing with the sacred remains. This is likely to significantly affect any redevelopment, but the dramatic potential of juxtaposing part-exhumed sandstone docks with the wackiness of contemporary art makes it a change to be welcomed not deplored.
Until a building proposal is approved, however, the City has no direct responsibility for the MCA. Any contract between the MCA and Sejima, if it exists, is academic. Most architects, after three years of silence, would probably assume the job was no longer a breathing entity. But then most clients, in that time, might be expected to pen a Dear John.
Either way, because of her talent and her knowledge of the site, Sejima has been invited to participate again. In the interests of best-possible design, as well as best-practice tendering, other architects have also been invited. Far from constituting a threat to her position, as Perlman suggests, this is a perfect opportunity for her to dust off her scheme, recycle the best bits, and generally strut her stuff. Hope she takes it.
Readers are invited to heckle.