Culture of Criticism

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

The opening of Museum of Contemporary Art Australia annexe by architect Sam Marshall on the 29 March 2012 has met with intense debate and discussion. These debates were tabled in a public forum, Open Conversation, held on 3 May 2012 by Make-Space for Architecture (MS4A) – an independent agency that ‘seeks to challenge and recalibrate normative ideologies found in architecture, design and the built environment of Sydney’. Held at the UTS School of Architecture, and moderated by John de Manincor (UTS and DRAW), Open Conversation included the following panellists: Sam Marshall, Architect, Architect Marshall; Andrew Donaldson, Architect Marshall; Paul Berkemeier, Architect; Philip Cox (AO), Cox Architecture; Elizabeth Farrelly, Opinion Writer for Sydney Morning Herald (SMH); Imogene Tudor, Director, MS4A.

The conversations are prompted by Farelley’s note on the lack of spatial delight as well as clarity of circulation in the building; Andrew Anderson’s observation that the building lacks nuanced and shifting visual qualities; and Philip Cox’s declaration that the building appears to be championing the ‘bland architecture of old with bland architecture of new’. However, they probe additional issues of the architectural brief, the ‘white box’ interior, and the troublingly elusive big idea. However, MCA demands a slower meander to allow a deeper understanding. It delivers the following: a strong and seamless connection from the foreshore to the street; a tortured but fascinating sightline from the entrance through to the foyer to the gallery space on Level 2; beautifully crafted staircases that provide a view of the sandstone walls of the original building; the transparent lift shafts that allow episodic but dramatic views out to the harbour; the plasterboard interior lining which transforms artificial light into a luminous glow that encounters the daylight filtering into the building. The restrained language of the Mordant Wing can be interpreted through the metaphysical lenses of absence and light – approaches that underpin minimalist approaches and that address the issue of spatial delight in a subtle way.

Image 1: Mordant Wing, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee Image 2: Mordant Wing, MCA, Foyer Level 1, Looking out towards Circular Quay, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

What is interesting about the Open Conversation, however, is not the substance of the conversation, but the manner of its appearance. It was ‘bookended’ by published conversations that closely followed each other. These include two articles in SMH in March 2012: Heath Aston, ‘MCA’s chequered reception’, 04 March and Elizabeth Farrelly, ‘Spatial delight gets lost at MCA’, 27 March; followed closely by three articles in Australian Design Review in May 2012: David Neustein, ‘MCA: Open Conversation or Guarded Debate?’, 04 May; Gerard Reinmuth, ‘Critical Thinking’, 07 May; and Gillian Serisier, ‘Lines of Division: The New MCA in Sydney’, 09 May; tailed by Farrelly, ‘Bold, Frank Criticism Can Only Nourish Architecture’, 10 May, SMH. Neustein’s essay vividly narrates the event, portraying the multiple tones and voices that speak differently and discordantly about the same object – MCA. Reinmuth’s essay questions the manner of critique undertaken by and through this event and the missed opportunities. Seisier’s essay restores the MCA to its rightful glory by providing a fuller understanding of the exhibition spaces. Farelley’s ‘Bold, frank criticism’ recounts the Open Conversation, continuing to defend the critic’s privilege to opinions that must be fearlessly expressed.

Notwithstanding these contributions, the Open Conversation is firstly (and mostly) theatrical. Its boundaries held tightly together (hosted, moderated, and published), and complemented by conversations between the various ‘participants’ (at the table, and off the table through blogs and social media), the Open Conversation calls upon the act of witnessing the occurrence of debate. Secondly, the urgency to settle the meaning of the building counteracts the expectation that proper critique ought to be a sustained activity. It should be capable of maintaining interest as well as energy, without simply providing material for instant consumption. Thirdly, the Open Conversation was shaped by very precise inter- and intra-professional associations and institutional settings. It is but one of the many critical networks existing in Sydney. And finally, even though the debates were undertaken in a public forum, they should not be mistaken as representative of public perspective on the building, as they did not include artists, art critics or writers, curators, visitors, staff, and guides, despite the insistence that the speaking voice of the public is the foundation of good criticism. All in all, the Open Conversation was much needed, as wittingly or unwittingly, it opens up questions about the future and form of architectural criticism in Australia.

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