Project: Museum of Contemporary Arts | Architects: Sam Marshall | Location: Sydney, Australia | Compleated: 2012
Sydney architect Sam Marshall, in partnership with the NSW Government Architect’s Office, recently completed the new Mordant wing and the refurbishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, at Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour. The new wing takes the form of a series of boxes overlooking Sydney harbour.
Like many Sydney projects, the building has been embroiled in controversy right from the beginning. Marshall’s design is the third for the museum. In 1997, Japanese studio SANAA won an international architectural competition for the project, but their plan was abandoned when site investigations revealed historic dockyards below the car park.
It is a shame SANAA’s design was not used, as its glowing white minimal structure would have been a terrific counterpoint to the Sydney Opera House and a great addition to the harbour. But best not to dwell on what might have been. In 2001 Marshall began work on a masterplan for an extension and redevelopment, with construction starting in 2007.
At the core of the design for the new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art is the idea of a white box. Marshall sees the existing building as a series of forms (boxes) arranged symmetrically, while the new wing is a series of boxes arranged asymmetrically. The box concept is ideal for showing art inside the building. With regard to the exterior, clad in thin, strong glass and reinforced concrete, the box concept means that the structure is not divided into facade, roof and so on, but can be viewed from any angle, including from above. The concept also allows the design to take advantage of the beautiful harbour vistas, providing framed views between boxes, or from cut-outs of the boxes. The result is a structure that is defiantly contemporary – it does not match the heritage building, nor should it.
In terms of the human experience of visiting the museum, the building creates a punch through from George Street – the entry on this side was previously nondescript – to Circular Quay and its incredible harbour views. The entry from the water side is accessed via an expanse of blank concrete that is at the moment a dead zone burdened by the horrible glare that the material generates on sunny days.
The Museum of Contemporary Art – now rebranded with the additional word “Australia” – is undoubtedly the best contemporary museum in this part of the world. And, no matter how great it would have been to experience the quiet beauty of a SANAA building here, it is wonderful that this site, which takes pride of place in Sydney’s harbour, is now occupied by the work of a Sydney-based architect.