Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
From foyer to forest: a sensual experience
With a set of wings, innovative architects have sent the Melbourne Museum soaring, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Heroic without pomposity, exuberant without gaucherie, allusive without literalism, the new Melbourne Museum is everything the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra tries so hard, and fails so achingly, to be. Melbourne’s Amadeus to Canberra’s Salieri, to hazard a Schafferism. In this effortless, unintellectualised success, Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne Museum restates some fundamental principles of architectural design.
Architecture is not an intellectual business. Sensual, social, humanistic, visual and political, but not at root intellectual. Many, including myself, might wish it otherwise. But the profession is full of those for whom what passes for theory a building’s underlying narrative is more significant than the building itself.
This phenomenon is especially obvious in Melbourne, Australia’s intell-centre. And it is no coincidence that the NMA’s firm of architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, is Melbourne-based. The unforewarned visitor to that museum could expect to glean perhaps 5 per cent of its ostensible “meaning” symbols, metaphors and allusions of various kinds and that’s with the benefit of an architectural background.
Denton Corker Marshall also comprises Melbourne chaps (notwithstanding a significant Sydney presence, and a portfolio that includes such masterworks as Governor Phillip Tower). More than that, and despite an industry tendency to marginalise inventiveness, they are at once the most exciting architects in the country and among its most highly decorated. The recent life story of the institution formerly known as the Museum of Victoria began on another site and under another architect’s pencil. Daryl Jackson’s museum was part-built when the newly elected Kennett Government decided the South Bank was all wrong, moved locations to the Carlton Gardens just behind the old Royal Exhibition Building and started again with an international archi-comp. DCM not only won the competition for the resited museum but collected the Exhibition Centre as well, replacing Jackson’s South Bank building and incorporating its remains. Salt, vinegar and lemon.
The brief, at that stage, set two essentials: a non-monumental, campus-style building and exposure of the back-of-house aspects of museum life. It also presumed a ground-level link with the 1879 Exhibition Building, which DCM (“old buildings are not really our thing”) was determined to avoid. Luckily, DCM’s proposal included a last-minute option to link the buildings underground. Without this, the architects later learned, their scheme would have been disqualified.
In fact, the link is the only element that hasn’t eventuated. The rest has come through the hoops remarkably intact, with Barrie Marshall’s early winged sketch, like some giant proto-dragonfly, wholly recognisable in the built work.
It’s not an easy site, stretched sideways between a park and the arse-end of the Exhibition Building. Hard to get a street frontage out of that. Hence the wings. Measuring a good 250 metres, tip to tip, they salute the street two streets before diving into the centre. From the first eye-swivelling glance, there’s no doubt where to go in. No doubt, either, as to who designed the building. Since the 1996 South Bank Exhibition Centre, the raking, death-defying plane has become a DCM trademark.
In strictly sculptural terms, these diaphanous mesh super-wings make a stunning gesture.
Inverting the traditional arch-and-dome language of the Exhibition Building (where entry is at and into the summit), the wing form sits precisely on the established axis, sustaining both the symmetry and the expectations that go with it, but places the front opening just at the moment of maximum spatial compression. This intensifies the drama of entry as well as the breathtaking realisation that follows it of which more later. But the wings serve other purposes as well.
Advertising, for one. Raking continuously from compressed centre to wide-open sky, the super-wings allow the one-off elements of the brief (children’s museum, Imax theatre, Aboriginal cultural centre, special exhibitions) to effervesce in brilliant technicolour at either end while the serious institutional stuff sticks to the grid. In this way Emery Vincent’s gorgeous signage is all but unnecessary since the building becomes its own billboard. The really remarkable thing is the way it’s all done without the slightest loss of dignity or coherence. Which brings us to the second essential design principle, the Both-And Rule.
Both-And is an idea articulated by Robert Venturi in the 1960s and adopted as a tenet of postmodern pluralism. Here, it applies specifically to geometry. Much of DCM’s early work was serious, rectilinear, intense. Some was lighthearted, lightweight, almost stuck-on. Over the past decade, the two aspects have come together: the intuitive and the analytical, the playful and the serious. This dualism both discipline and rebellion gives the work an invigorating tension. It’s the difference between breaking an established rule and just doing away with rules altogether. The difference between the easy charm of the Melbourne Museum and the NMA’s amorphous try-hard plethora of quote and laboured counter-quote.
The MM super-wings, then, sit largely within a skeletal three-dimensional grid that defines both the building’s structural patterns and its personal space. As Barrie Marshall says, “The clarity of the grid allows you to break out of it. Without the grid I the collective I would’ve found it hard to do all those things poking out. The grid gives me comfort, demonstrates that there is in fact some sort of order.” And architecture is about creating order from chaos, not vice versa.
Within the building, too, the both-and thing persists. The foyer itself is cool and linear, all glass and stone, all shimmer and steel and silver zincalume. Very horizontal, too, in both plan and section. Suddenly, though, it dawns that the soaring in-your-face verticals, the sound of falling water, the billowing white mist just past the entry crowds, are in fact the real thing a rainforest.
Other museums rely on stuffed elephants, whale skeletons, tyrannosaurs. Melbourne has moved such trinkets aside for an honest-to-God, live-to-air rain-forest. This juxtaposition of hot nature with cool artifice bestows a sensual lyricism to stop the heart of even the most jaded critic.
The Forest Gallery sits beneath a third great wing that takes off perpendicularly to the other two. Enclosed in a fine, gleaming mesh like some celestial aviary, it is in fact outside space entry to it, on either of two levels, involves passing through the building’s external skin. The forest, designed by others, is mildly disappointing, affording glimpses into platypus grottos but not wanderings in treetops nor creeping under waterfalls. Nevertheless, the idea is so audacious that the detail is just that, detail.
Running between forest and foyer is the tall, linear space that acts as circulation, structure and reference for the institution. Crossed by bridges and crissed by escalators, its role is as clarity-giver, organising one’s experience of the building into an intelligible whole. At one end sits Phar Lap (the NMA might have his heart in a bottle but here is the redoubtable body); at the other, a memorable display of corporeal selves, human and sauropod both.
Within the street itself, though, sits Janet Laurence’s unforgettable Stilled Lives, comprising glass-cased rows of small and very small corpses snowy owls, spotted thrushes, finches, robins, platypuses, as well as eggs, corals, and other hardware laid out and tagged as if for auction, storage, or lunch. Laurence has worked with DCM buildings before, in her Edge of the Trees at the Museum of Sydney. There she used vocal filaments to trace the story-web of Sydney’s history.
Any building owes something to its brief. Here, the anti-monument thing has encouraged a loose, teased-apart quality in the whole, its forest-side dissolving into the gardens so successfully that there are complaints of building in the park (in fact, the site had been a car park). And the requirement for back-of-house exposure has set behind the glassy front wall a voyeur’s grid of working offices, exposed by clean sectional cut, while the rear wall offers views into the working bowels of the place. But the joy of the building, the sheer shameless spatial panache of it, that’s extra. That’s architecture.
ILLUS: Effortless …
the Melbourne Museum as seen from the air, sitting behind the Exhibition Building.