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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Dec-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 841

Quayside concrete boxes are hollow shells for art


‘I’m sending a Christmas card to Obama,” confided the old duck in the toddlers’ pool. She was pre-aquarobics and perhaps that prospect made her add, with a glee befitting the ancient Ottoman torture, “I reckon Howard and Bush should be tied together in a sack and chucked in the harbour.” I’m not a strappado type but I confess the thought did give a moment of shared pleasure.

Otherwise, the season has been quite a disappointment. Not only has Rudd turned into a goose on climate change, pissing on – and off – the platform that got him elected. The same deflatory spirit is, like Wenceslas’s snow, all about. And I don’t mean the economy, stupid.

I am bombarded, nay, victimised, by the depredations of commercial nihilism. Thing-shops flogging “Christmas is not in things, it is in us” T-shirts. Jesus-free nativity dioramas with virgin and child played by koalas. Unsolicited texts (of the unilluminated variety) offering a reindeer special on Christmas carol ringtones. Just what you need. And the seasonal flood of corporate cards, picked by the receptionist and signed by anyone in the office who half-thinks you might be usefully kept sweet.

Then there’s St Andrews’ Cathedral Taliban, flicking off its pure-voiced choir. Sydney’s tired red, green and yellow street decorations, ur-symbol of political correctness (that’s green-yellow for Oz, red-green for Chrissie and red-yellow for the Chinatown lobby) with the odd marsupial hung in for good measure. And the anodised Christmas phallus in Taylor Square, sprouting baubles like some pustular psoriasis of the foreskin.

Echoing all this hollowness, there’s the all-wrap-no-pressie dropped by the Museum of Contemporary Art under our collective tree last week. To be honest, the wrap could use some help.

It’s been years a-coming. The MCA’s first international competition, with cinematheque, was won in 1997 by distinguished Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, who designed a glowing white light box of the kind that has become her signature. Then someone discovered Sydney’s oldest wharves dotted under the site. And, surprise, no money.

The second competition, also mit cinematheque, went in 2001 to distinguished Berlin architects Sauerbruch Hutton. Their two schemes – conforming and non-conforming – were also of the glowing light-box variety, only more out-there and less serene than Sejima’s. More German, I guess, less Japanese. Then Bob Carr pulled the money rug out from under and that, she wrote, was that.

Round three is different. Now there’s money, slightly over half, in the bank. This has let the whole thing develop sub-radar until wrapped. No competition, no distinguished foreigners, no political strings, no consultation octopus. Just an announcement, just how the curator likes it. But do we? Should we?

That depends. What is the ideal shell for viewing art that includes pickled sharks, movies of marine coition, blow-up detailing of self-harm and hanging horse corpses? What duty, beyond bare job-description, does such a building owe either to visual expression without or to spatial drama within? What, in other words, are its obligations as architecture? From this flows first the brief, then the architect.

But in the MCA’s case, it’s happened arse about. The job, says Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, grew almost by accident from a spare-change exercise in “solving access and circulation problems” into the $50 million unspectacular we now see. This is how a young-ish Sydney architect, selected by interview and known mainly for a warehouse-apartment and two shop fitouts, finds himself cradling the biggest koala in town.

Sejima, by contrast, with partner Ryue Nishizawa, has done museums in Nagano (1999), Valencia (2002), Kanazawa (2004) and New York (2007), where the fishnet-clad New Museum on Bowery is described as “inspired idiosyncrasy . . . sexy and defiant”. Shouldn’t Sejima simply be invited back to finish the job?

No, says Macgregor, citing Glasgow’s hugely loved Burrell Museum, whose architects – Barry Gasson, with John Meunier and Brisbane’s grand dame Brit Andresen – were then untried. But the Burrell was a competition, and is shaped by a single noble idea, the glazed interface between the galleries and their woodland setting. This, the shaping idea, is architecture’s defining quality.

The MCA proposal has no shaping idea. As a hugger-mugger collection of talk-rooms, with a single gallery space, internal foyer, dog-leg fire stair and near-total disjunct from the Quay, it is little more than a 3D diagram tricked up with multicoloured concrete.

Diagram of what? Well, of its director’s wishes and, more broadly, of the state of contemporary art, where didacticism is all and the talk out-signifies the walk. If classrooms and commercial space we must have, use the existing building and save the vacant lot for something wild, glorious, undreamt-of.

Macgregor doesn’t want wild. As a missionary, she dreams bums on seats. But it’s public land, a public building and, some of it, public money. It’s our pressie.

We don’t need a Gehry. It’s not the second coming. But it’s not higher maths, either. Art shouldn’t require induction. So I say dump the koala. Do something wild. Get the Jesus ringtone.


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