Circular Quay is Sydney’s great public space, but it is no Piazza San Marco. The presence of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at opposite ends of the magnet is powerful enough to allow the eye to glide around the curve past the decent, mediocre and bad architecture in between. In such an enchanted context even the Cahill Expressway, an elevated freeway which runs along the southern foreshore, is somehow not as egregious as Boston’s Central Artery was before it was chopped down. Instead of ancient stones, there is water, the one inlet out of the harbor’s dozens chosen for European settlement, now teeming with ferries and tourist boats promising varying doses of adrenaline. However unrepresentative of the unruly metropolis which spreads from here in all directions, Circular Quay hints at the dream of its city, the city’s best version of itself, the city Sydney could one day be.
Two public institutions front the Quay, the Sydney Opera House and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). That the MCA’s site is not as spectacular as Bennelong Point does not prevent a comparison between the two buildings which is simultaneously irresistible, revealing, misleading and a little unfair. The Opera House was an undertaking not likely to be repeated. Photos of its construction reveal a building site more reminiscent of the ancient pyramids than your local “development” — it was both the last of the great monumental projects and the first of the modern icons to bear the weight of a city’s expectations. There was real risk involved. In spite of its compromised execution, the Sydney Opera House represents the best aspects of Australia’s comparative isolation from the rest of the world. It is proof that what the historian Geoffrey Blainey called the “tyranny of distance” can inspire independence of vision as well as self-doubt. It is revealing that the Opera House and Lincoln Center are contemporaries; it took a certain naiveté to attempt Jørn Utzon’s dreaming shells rather than the bland late-modernist boxes proposed by the runners-up in the competition. The Opera House has left Sydney with both a thirst for more buildings as wondrous and a fear of what such ambition might entail. The MCA extension falls square into the middle of this long-running dilemma and, as we shall see, the more recent anxieties of a city which seems no longer to be its cheerful sunny self.
Like the convoluted history of the Opera House, the MCA saga begins with a bungled competition, two of them in fact. Upon its founding the MCA was granted a long-term lease in the former Maritime Services Board Building (designed in 1939, constructed 1946-52), a rigorously symmetrical, sandstone-clad government building of the most straight-laced art deco. The location could not be better but the museum’s internal circulation was so abominable (the upper floor was accessible only by elevator) that the MCA seemed more a tenant than a fixture in the city.
The first competition, in 1997, was won by Kazuyo Sejima, who proposed an ethereal glass box which would have rationalized the museum’s circulation and expanded its program to include a cinematheque. It was not built, likely due to a lack of funds, and remains one of the city’s great lost opportunities both for its architecture and the way it would have expanded the museum’s mission to include the seventh art. A second competition in 2000, responding to a brief which in the Sydney tradition crammed in more revenue-generating space, was won by the German architects Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton, though the jury, honoring another Sydney tradition of undercutting competition winners at the moment of victory, decided not to endorse either of their designs, the second of which would have demolished the Maritime Services Building entirely. Again, nothing was built. In the years which followed the MCA managed to stabilize its its finances enough to engage the Sydney architect Sam Marshall to design a more modest extension. After the preceding kerfuffle, it seemed to go up overnight.
By deftly solving the MCA’s crippling circulation problem, the new wing settles in the starchy old pile’s favor the still simmering argument over whether the Maritime Services Board building should have been demolished. Where previously the George Street entrance was so nondescript as to make visitors feel like trespassers, now there is a clear public path between the street entrance and Circular Quay. A wide but steepish stair traverses the difference in level and leads to the lobby, from which all levels are now easily accessed by a new stairway and a glass enclosed elevator. This may sound like the least any building could do, but solving this problem transforms the MCA from a kind of half-accommodated squatter into a proper museum. By relieving the old building of the burden of circulation, the new wing makes the whole feel much bigger. Bigness is important in displaying contemporary art both because of the size of some work and because a museum founded on a belief in the art of a present day which only intermittently rewards such hope is always a crapshoot. More space means more of a chance of finding something you like. In crude value for money terms, the MCA got an awful lot of architecture for the quoted figure of $53 million (I have also heard the figure of $40 million), the price of a waterfront mega mansion or two.
It is the nature of that architecture which is more contentious. Is it interesting enough? Should this have been an icon? Is this yet another missed opportunity or a symbol of other, much graver missed opportunities? Unlike the eastern side of Circular Quay, which consists of only a handful of large buildings, most notably the stodgy, highly controversial “Toaster” apartments and the Opera House, the MCA is part of a foreshore which has always been heterogenous. The colony’s first water supply, the Tank Stream, divided the Quay near where the MCA now stands. To the east was the governor’s mansion and other early civic buildings, to the west the hospital, convict barracks and the city’s first hanging. Every city has a meaningful cardinal geometry and Sydney’s persistent east/west/north/south divisions surely originate here.
If the idea was to diminish its already modest scale, the new wing succeeds only too well. From across the water, Marshall’s hovering concrete blocks blend into the surroundings in the way that buildings under construction sometimes have uncertain edges before their scaffolding is taken down (it is a difficult building to photograph — it almost disappears in distant views while the heroic low-angle closeup is easily obtained but not at all characteristic). The Maritime Services Board building now seems simultaneously tamed, its symmetry happily subverted, and more important than ever before because those concrete boxes, across the whole site, would not be rich enough to sustain delight. The boxes are almost a shorthand that ‘there is architecture here,’ even if that architecture is too mute to either articulate its own geometric logic or inspire the imagination to dream its own logic into the forms. The forms are pleasing without being rigorous or enigmatic and it doesn’t help that a building which is both very rigorous and very enigmatic looms just across the water. There seems to be a layer of fascination missing at the MCA, a layer of emotion, intellect, dream, color or bad taste which would have complicated the whole enough to make it memorable. Some might argue that the art should provide that layer, but that is both a pretty big gamble on the quality of the art and a pretty grim future for architects asked to give up three thousand years of history in order to design boxes for whatever.
This is an unfair criticism to the extent that the new wing does not have to sustain itself across the whole site. Aside from preventing the waste of destroying a perfectly inoffensive building, the new wing spares the city from a new museum which, if Sauerbruch and Hutton’s not quite competition winning design is any indication, could as likely have been a standard-issue work of international contemporary architecture as the second coming of the Sydney Opera House. In architecture new plus old is nearly always interesting even if neither new nor old would not have much to say on their own. Marshall’s architecture is neither sympathetic, contextual or overbearing in relation to the original building — it is less a building than a knuckle which makes an injured finger useful.
A more concrete problem emerges, and emerges gradually, on the inside, where the new addition weighs in on another oversimplified but evergreen dichotomy in architecture, that of whether art should be displayed in an expressive or a neutral container, the celebrated and notorious white box. The problem is not that the galleries are almost all white boxes but that so many of the white boxes are also dark white boxes. The MCA, heavily reliant on temporary exhibitions, evidently wanted as much flexibility as possible. This sounds reasonable until one considers that the only type of space in which one can display any work that might be dreamed up is an artificially lit room. The MCA galleries are more varied than this, but not by much. Even though the new wing contains hardly any gallery space, the varied dimensions and pleasantly convoluted circulation between the reconfigured galleries in the original building is enough to forestall monotony for a while. New spaces grafted onto the George Street side provide a few rooms with higher ceilings and one small space preserves the nautically-inflected art deco of the original building.
The monotony sets in as one rises through the building. The MCA is now an institution with a building large enough that one can easily pass half a day there (or much more while Christian Marclay’s mesmerizing film The Clock was playing). The problem is that the vocabulary of white plasterboard and polished concrete floors soon becomes relentless, especially in the absence of exquisite or imaginative detailing. No promenade architecturale develops across the spaces. The illusory goal of total flexibility, pursued beyond reason, ends up with each level too similar to every other. It need not have been so; the debate between the white box and an expressive museum architecture need not oppose four rectangles of track-lit plasterboard against the sloping floors of the Guggenheim or the sloping walls of the Denver Art Museum. There are gentler, subtler ways for architecture to provoke art, ways to provide just a bit of friction without compromising function or flexibility (and the downtown lofts which were the ancestors of the white box always had a rickety elevator or some old trusses to add a bit of texture). The Art Gallery of New South Wales across town does this well. While no individual space stands out as a masterpiece, among its several wings there is enough variety of finish and architectural expression to sustain interest in what are essentially white boxes.
At the Art Gallery of New South Wales there are also views, the denial of which is one of the strangest shortcomings of the new MCA. In a city known for resting on the laurels of its famous harbor, where the typical high-end apartment is usually little more than a very expensive view trap, there is an understandable desire on the part of serious architects to promote an alternative Sydney which does not depend on staring gape-jawed at azure waters for which only nature deserves credit. But like a talented sprinter who decides to bust his knees running marathons, a city which fails to capitalize on its strengths risks a fruitless self-denial. This is all the more acute in Australia, where Melbourne, a city without its rival’s natural advantages but with trams and groovy alleyways, is perpetually cast as Sydney the slacker’s overachieving younger sister.
This is a roundabout way of asking why we find ourselves in the MCA looking at white walls when we could be looking at the passing ferries, which with their mixture of loyalty to their timetables and free-floating movement are themselves a kind of performance art. While some of the new galleries on the western side capture interesting views of George Street, on each level of the original building all but a handful of the east-facing windows have been walled over. In the new wing it is comparatively private spaces containing a library, café and classrooms which are allowed to face the harbor toward the north-east. What the galleries lack is not just a pretty view but any coherent relationship between the architecture and natural light, a pretty big thing to miss out on in a museum. The display of art which is meant to be privileged above all else by the white box is, ironically, undercut by it.
The opening of the MCA has caused no small polemic among Sydney architects. Like many such arguments, the dispute is only partly about the building at hand. Cities are more or less happy at different moments in their history and MCA joins a city which may not have needed another icon, but certainly could have used some cheering up. Like the rest of the world, Sydney knows how to cure itself but is unwilling to open the medicine cabinet. As developers build almost everything but decent architecture, as slow trains groan across the city and rage seeps from ever-lengthening traffic jams echoing with reactionary talk radio, the chatter among architects becomes ever more anxious, ever more curled in on itself. Criticism of the MCA has expanded into a more general discussion over the role of criticism in architecture which could yet prove to be interesting. Would a more critical culture improve Sydney’s architecture? What does it mean to be critical? Must criticism end in tears? Who guards the city? How and to whom does one effectively criticize the vast majority of Sydney buildings, the McMansions and flimsy apartment blocks which, unlike the MCA, have no architectural ambition and cause real damage to the city’s urbanism and ecology? The climax so far seemed to be a recent forum on the MCA hosted by a new organization, Make-Space for Architecture, which aims to be for Sydney what the Storefront for Architecture is for New York. I missed the evening, which from the recording seemed to swerve from soothing generalities about the difference between architectural criticism and practice toward a glancing confrontation with the MCA building, the kind not quite softened by the audience’s nervous giggles. Those wanting a serious discussion or a bloodletting would have been disappointed but by the time one persistent questioner blurted at Sam Marshall, who bravely fronted up to the (rectangular) round table, “I want the big idea!” constructive criticism was surely edging towards the nearest exit.
The MCA is missing something, but I’m not sure that what it needs is a “big idea.” It is a pleasure to get excited about ideas in architecture, but there are many good buildings whose ideas defy words, buildings which stake their claim to greatness on the force of spatial poetry alone, buildings which are enigmatic or strange or flawed or which demonstrate what Robert Venturi called the inarticulateness of the new. In architecture, ideas are necessary but they are usually a means to an end. In order to design, some architects need to hire mathematicians, some to misread Derrida and others need to spill their cornflakes on the floor and contemplate the result with a 3D scanner. Solving functional problems is no small inspiration either. As the MCA’s fifteen year saga demonstrates, the game is hard enough without having to satisfy the intellect of every second year student in the back row. What the new MCA embodies is an institution in the midst of its evolution from a tenuous entity unable to afford Sejima into something respectable but maybe not yet confident enough to be provocative. If its shell is more mutable than that of the Opera House, the permanence which was once questionable now seems assured. The trick to being contemporary is to keep the future interesting.
CORRECTION (27/08/2012): The original version of this article dated the Maritime Services Board Building to 1937. It was in fact designed in 1939 and not opened until 1952, making it very rather than mildly retardataire. A reference to “painted concrete boxes” has also been clarified as I have been reliably informed that the glass reinforced concrete boxes on the facade are integrally coloured, other than the brown and the black, to which a stain was applied.