Jan 04 2012

Construction progresses at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art

by Michael Young

Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor standing in front of the construction site. Courtesy Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

When architect Rem Koolhaas called for modesty in museum design, speaking at the recent International Council of Museums’ conference for Museums and Collections of Modern Art co-hosted by Croatia and Slovenia, he tapped the mood of attending museum directors, who according to Elizabeth Ann Macgregor—director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)—are becoming increasingly concerned about “starchitecture”: museum buildings that are an end in themselves over and above the art they display.

Macgregor has no concerns that such allegations will be made against the refurbished MCA building. Architect Sam Marshall has refurbished the original Art Deco-style 1952 building, perched on Sydney’s Circular Quay, and integrated it with a new wing, to create a series of spacious connected white cube galleries. Letting the art speak for itself, Marshall, who has limited museum or gallery design experience, has created sweeping galleries that cut through the building, while cleverly allowing visitors glimpses of the million-dollar harbor views outside. 

Currently due to reopen on March 28, the development gives the museum an additional 4,500 square meters of space overall, increasing the MCA’s total size by almost 50 percent. Much of this new space will be devoted to educational, multimedia, digital production studios and lecture-theatre facilities, yet also includes a new rooftop café and Sculpture Terrace constructed over the existing MCA building giving stunning views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. The rooftop venue will rival the roof terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, claims Macgregor during our tour of the site. The actual gallery space will increase by 26 percent, including a floor devoted to the museum’s permanent collection.

While Marshall’s refurbishments at last overcome the original MCA’s cramped spaces, the new extension is somewhat conventional, what Macgregor describes as, “a blocky building.” It has grid-like ceilings echoing the exterior of the building, where panels of glass-reinforced concrete in six colors are used as cladding, which caused early critics of the design to label it a giant Rubik’s Cube. The main entrance shifts away from the harbor to the opposite side of the old building, on the main thoroughfare cutting through the historical Rocks area. Inside, a central pathway descends from the entrance, suddenly and dramatically dropping down a grand staircase into a space offering high ceilings and pristine views of the nearby Sydney Opera House.

Rising five stories above this, the new “Mordant Wing” is named after the philanthropist Simon Mordant, Chairman of the MCA, who along with wife Catriona, made a USD 15 million donation to kick-start fund raising, which had stalled after originally coinciding with the global financial crisis. Clearly ecstatic about the project, Mordant said to AAP: “It has been a ten-year dream and we are overjoyed to be part of this remarkable journey; it is stunning and brings tears to my eyes.”

Discreet multi-purpose galleries, panoramic lifts, cool polished concrete floors throughout and a digital classroom that can link to any school in New South Wales are all causing Macgregor to be very excited about the resource she leads. “The building works,” she said. “It is a building that has evolved, that comes from the needs of the gallery and the art.” 

In a bold move the museum, which has been closed for several months while building work progressed, has already opened two of its refurbished gallery spaces to the public, showing the interactive art of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Yet, with only one elevator servicing the upper floor where the exhibition is being held, this may have been a premature move.

Whether the project will be finished in three months, however, is another question. When AAP visited recently for a hard-hat tour, the smell of fresh paint hung in the air of what remains more or less a building site, far from completion. Yet Macgregor remained defiantly positive, saying: “I have no reason to believe we won’t open on time unless it pours with rain everyday between now and the end of March. It is the façade that is most vulnerable to the weather.” Ironically, one of the wettest and coolest Sydney summers in many decades may yet be cause for concern.

Construction of the new wing of the MCA, designed by Sam Marshall. Photo courtesy Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.