Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
MCA survival remains a matter of dollars and sense
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture critic and a former City of Sydney special projects manager.
The architectural contest found no winner, but it did reveal a solution, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
More column-inches have been spent on the MCA than on any other unvisited museum in the history of humanity. Nor, in all probability, is this the end of it. Why? Well, the site, the building, the museum itself. In that order.
No-one goes in (well, I do, but then I like contemporary art it’s a personal thing) but millions go past, and they value the solid sandstone backdrop, however architecturally undistinguished, to their waterfront passaggiata.
Let’s face it, though. The MCA never was the city’s problem. The museum is owned by the University of Sydney; the building by the State. An institution that nobody wants to fund, in a building that nobody knows how to use, on a site that nobody dares change. If you were trying to scare a politician witless, this would be the way to go. Bargepole territory.
And although it’s now clear that a $100 million cork for a $2million hole is less than apt, some useful points have emerged from the city’s two-year exercise.
One is about the nature of architectural competitions. Somehow I can’t help feeling that if Renzo Piano had not been struck with mid-flight gallstones, the wash-up may well have been different. Different process, different winner, different outcome. This is hypothetical, of course, but it’s well recognised that for a competition to run smoothly to a plausible end, a big really, luminously, incontrovertibly big architect on the jury stiffens everyone, from competitors to jurors to public, with that essential shot of confidence.
Another is about the nature of the site. It was always going to be hard reclaimed turf, sacred archaeology, high-voltage lines, sandstone building, Quay location, multi-warhead local-body hydra. But no-one knew quite how hard. Now, with green-bans protecting the building from modification, let alone demolition, and if (as seems likely) the MCA either folds or relocates, the old question re-runs: what can be done with a back-of-house building on a front-of-house site?
Public uses of such buildings in Sydney do not have a history of success. The Customs House ground floor, for instance, long pursued by restaurateurs but shackled by the Commonwealth’s requirement for a dominant “public or cultural use”, is emptier every day. The QVB, on the other hand, hums like Pooh. West Circular Quay may be a prime public spot, but the uses that fit the building are private ones boutique hotel, corporate HQ, global ad agency, and maybe, at a pinch, conventions.
The third patch of new light is on the MCA itself. Contemporary art is fundamentally different, being inherently un-collectable. As soon as you acquire it, it isn’t contemporary any more quite unlike modern art, which is no longer modern at all but denotes a specific period in history, like Phoenecian or Renaissance art. More than that, contemporary art is itself ephemeral, challenging, difficult, controversial and above all, energetic. This is how it should be, before the posterity-cull.
It means, though, that a $100million building, new or old, is almost certainly the wrong thing; as wrong as a dress-circle location.
Contemporary art needs a tough, baggy, un-precious building which can be kick-boxed and pulled about to accommodate roofspace performances or window-excrescencies without sustaining permanent injury. A warehouse, woolstore or finger wharf in Redfern, Ultimo or Walsh Bay. That kind of thing.
The obvious solution, then, is to farm the MSB building out to lucrative private use and deploy $2 million of the annual proceeds to give the MCA a better life elsewhere. The private sector’ll buy it: will the public?