The third iteration of the Naomi Milgrom Foundation’s MPavilion, designed by Studio Mumbai, aimed to “capture the spirit of the place,” providing spaces for repose and contemplation on the edge of the Queen Victoria Gardens in Melbourne.
Worldwide, a wave of temporary pavilions commissioned by art organizations and cultural philanthropists is presenting delightful intersections between art, architecture and urban design. Recent pavilions in Australia, such as those commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney and by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, as well as the Naomi Milgrom Foundation’s MPavilion, have followed in the footsteps of a range of international projects. These pavilions provide settings for varied cultural activities, as well as offering spaces for repose and contemplation. While site specific, each also explores ideas that relate to broader social, cultural, technical and ideological contexts.
The third iteration of Melbourne’s MPavilion, designed by Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai, was built as a collaboration between Kane Constructions, teams of craftspeople in India and the local community in Melbourne. Located on the edge of Queen Victoria Gardens from October 2016 to February 2017 and visible from the forecourt of the NGV, the MPavilion extends Melbourne’s cultural precinct across St Kilda Road, dissolving the barrier between high culture and everyday life. The pavilion is a tantalizing mix of enclosure and exposure, evoking multiple associations that span time and memory, and offering experiences and connections that are universal and enduring.
Formally, the pavilion sits beautifully on its site, which has been subtly adjusted over the past three years by the addition of new landscaping around the periphery. On approach from the NGV, across St Kilda Road, the pavilion is alternately masked and revealed by each passing transit van. A black-framed tazia , or tower, is located to the right of centre, signalling an entry point to the otherwise symmetrical structure. The tazia makes reference to traditional Indian ceremonial structures, symbolizing the enduring connection between earth and sky that unites us all. Originally intended for the centre of the pavilion, the tazia was relocated to outside the main structure, providing a strong counterpoint between the verticality of the tower reaching to the sky and the horizontality of the roof hovering over the ground.
The edges of the roof spread beyond the matrix of supporting bamboo columns, just as an expansive tree canopy spans well beyond its trunk. The eaves of the hipped roof reach low to the ground, while the curved ridges rise to create a twelve-metre-tall interior that is sheltered under a lattice-like bamboo structure. The roof frames a void that offers a view of the sky, below which a “golden well” that symbolically (but not actually) goes down to the watertable evokes a connection to the earth’s core, hinting at a timeless link with the original inhabitants of the land. Every morning throughout the life of the pavilion, layers of gold leaf were applied to the central poles that surround the golden well, as part of a ritual reflecting Buddhist offerings.
Bijoy Jain aimed to “capture the spirit of the place” through the choice of materials. He cites an interest in craftsmanship and connection to landscape but clarifies that he is not interested in the nostalgia of traditional craftsmanship. For Jain, “tradition is something that you carry forward,” and he is intrigued by the way processes of craft and making evolve through projects. The MPavilion offered a testing ground for Jain’s preoccupation with how architecture can absorb imprecision as part of the process, embracing the serendipity that comes from collaboration, particularly the shifts that can occur through miscommunication. Jain suggests that finding the right people to work with is central to this process, as this defines the quality of the output. Describing this as “making conditions based on a generalized sense of empathy,” Jain talks of the importance of communicating the fragility of this process of “making the pavilion together” in the finished building.
Bamboo construction offers endless opportunities for serendipity and imprecision. In principle, assembly is simple and low tech: lashing together poles to form an instant frame. However, unlike timber, each piece of bamboo is unique in length, breadth and ductility, and the idiosyncrasies of the material become central to the construction process. The fixing of multiple joints is very laborious, and working within Western building codes adds an extra level of complexity. Prior to beginning on site, builders from Kane Constructions travelled to India for a workshop with Studio Mumbai and local craftspeople to learn construction techniques that could then be adapted on site in Melbourne. This allowed for a “collective dialogue of face-to-face sharing of knowledge,” which Jain suggests facilitates the sustaining and extending of cultural traditions. 1
The karvi roof panels, which were constructed by craftspeople in India, were intended to be rendered with a mixture of cow dung and earth, in a process similar to wattle and daub, and then waterproofed with white lime. However, this would have taken too long to dry in Melbourne’s spring climate, so the central part of the roof was waterproofed with a custom-made cotton tarpaulin. The outer edges were left unclad, allowing rain to penetrate the periphery of the space. This offered up the kind of delightful serendipity that Jain loves. Freed from the solidity of the render, the roof was more translucent, dynamic and fragile, and the pavilion more tent-like, fulfilling Jain’s desire that the building might appear to sag and be pulled to the earth.
The pavilion featured lighting design by Ben Cobham of Bluebottle and a soundscape by Geoff Nees and J. David Franzke, which provided additional sensory dimensions. Timber stools and benches in small clusters created places to gather, but without walls the interior was directly exposed to the wind and weather. Visitors huddled together wrapped in matching blankets, nested in intimate cocoons of shared experience.
The NGV Architecture Commission pavilion across the road opened at a similar time to the MPavilion – and comparisons are inevitably drawn between the two. Both this MPavilion structure and the one before it, designed by AL_A, provided a sharp contrast to their respective brighter, showier neighbours at the NGV, achieved through a subtle engagement with their physical and conceptual contexts. Like its MPavilion predecessors, Studio Mumbai’s pavilion provided an open but sheltering space in which the form and detail of both structure and material created a slippery sense of enclosure, remaking a place of repose and contemplation on the edge of the park. It’s a pity that it couldn’t stay on for another year or two, until the natural life of the bamboo expires and the building gracefully sinks back into the earth.
Studio Mumbai’s MPavilion will be in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens until 18 February 2017. It will then be gifted to the city and be moved to a permanent location.
1. Michael Hensel, “Studio Mumbai: The Practice of Making,” Architectural Design , Mar 2015, vol 85 issue 2, 94–101.