PHOTOGRAPHY DEREK SWALWELL
BETWEEN THE CAMPUS of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), the CUB Malthouse premises of Playbox Theatre and the infrastructure of freeway interchange is a new building by Wood Marsh, in association with Pels Innes Neilson Kosloff. A collision of abstract volumes and canted walls of rusted steel, it brings to mind tankers, mine shafts, bunkers, war machinery. It is being hailed as iconic architecture. “Iconic architecture” has gained currency as both an appellation and a goal in a context in which museums and cultural institutions are increasingly under pressure to secure photogenic accommodation, or, in the language of advertising, to achieve brand recognition. Yet an icon does not simply refer to a distinctive image – an icon is a sign resembling the thing it represents, in this case contemporary visual and performing arts. The building is home to the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA), the studios of dance company Chunky Move, and the set workshops and store for Playbox Theatre. So, what is it about contemporary visual and performance arts that finds iconic form in abstracted industrial ruins?
The sculptures of Richard Serra are one clue. Serra’s compositions from the sixties and seventies of propped, leaning and folded planes of lead and steel have been influential lessons for the architects in terms of handling scale and materiality. Serra derived form from the innate behavioural properties of the industrial materials he used and revealed the process of construction. His sculptures pursue the reality of their own formal presence. (Robertson-Swann’s Vault, commonly known by Melburnians as “The Yellow Peril” and now relocated to the north-east of the ACCA site, has similar concerns.) Serra’s approach comes from long debates within the history of art and these are worth remembering since they impact upon the way both the ACCA program and its accommodation have been conceived. These debates go back to the mid 1800s, to a break with the academic painting that found its iconic architectural form in the classical temple. A group of painters that included Courbet and Millet intended the visual and social democratisation of art. Their work offended conservative audiences because the subject matter was poverty, greed and human degradation, and the compositions were clumsy and the figures graceless. Courbet described his The Stonebreakers (1849) as the “most complete expression of misery”. From this tradition comes the modern idea of the artist as a person unflinching in their revelation of the grimmest and most extreme aspects of contemporary existence. Theirs is a quest for truth; the artist persuades us to face what ordinarily we cannot bear. The artwork, physically and morally, is to be located outside the familiar circulation of objects and ideas in a state of emergency. Offending commercial values because of its libertine, abject or political content, this work requires publicly funded venues such as ACCA to reach an audience.
There are artists who would protest about the above view of the arts – artists whose work concerns fantasy and fiction, or who eschew representation and deny the existence of a reality outside an invented one, or who embrace commerce and consumption and place their work outside galleries. This plurality of approaches among contemporary artists mitigates against any singular characterisation. ACCA curator Juliana Engberg is known for her support of divergent directions so it seems something of a coincidence that works in the opening show pursue the realist tradition and suit the building well. Titled A History of Happiness, the show’s emphasis, paradoxically, is on the absence and impossibility of sustained joy. The new gallery spaces are not tested by this show of largely pictorial art, although they will be by future exhibitions. The exhibition does, however, usefully demonstrate the paradox that has always troubled political realism in the arts – the recuperation of the grimmest subject to aesthetic experience. In Susan Norrie’s contribution, Undertow, for example, the destruction of the earth, while a morally repugnant event, is sublime to witness in black-and-white slow-motion video. Rather than provoking the audience to action, the flickering visual and auditory sensation is one of pleasure.
If Wood Marsh’s architecture rehearses an ongoing artistic commitment to realism then it too suffers, or perhaps enjoys, the fate of aestheticisation. Decayed sheds, the inhuman scale of industry and infrastructure, or, more broadly, destruction may be its more distant generative sources, but the consequences of abstracting these into a coherent sculptural whole are undeniably seductive. However, the achievement of an iconic architecture through a sculptural approach does come at some cost – the most obvious being that the abstraction wrought by an unbroken skin prohibits permeability between interior and exterior. The interior spaces register nothing of what is going on outside and impart nothing of their activities or spatial configuration to the exterior.
The gallery spaces are technically superb, with provision for hanging from the ceiling and walls, and easy, concealed, set-up for electronic equipment. It is difficult, though, to imagine work that requires physical continuity between inside and outside or that occupies the ground to be viewed from above, or is performed live, or makes a mess. The galleries establish an autonomous setting for the presentation of objects and images whose primary relations are with like objects. The foyer, with its canted walls of rippled glass, does not provide an alternative space for exhibition.
Overall, the windowless box required for showing video work has been generalised to spaces where openings would have been a relief. Chunky Move makes do with skylights to both its office and workshop spaces and these cast bright patches on the workspaces. Chunky Move’s spaces have an ad hoc feeling, as if carved out of an existing building as dance company spaces so often are – this may have been a result of the company’s enlarged needs over the six years since the project’s inception.
Plywood panel stained orange wraps the sprung floor, walls and ceiling in the two dance studios, echoing the way metal is used externally. The stair, entry and circulation leading to the workshop spaces are not designed for the large audience that attended the public showing of a work-in-progress. This forced a physical proximity and negotiation which suits the dance company’s work.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the building is that, although it gives a strong visual identity to the organisations within, the potential for exchange with nearby cultural institutions has been missed. The isolation of art from the everyday and the urban realm is metaphorically and pragmatically reasserted. There is access from the VCA campus to the courtyard through a path sized for trucks (it doubles as ACCA’s delivery point) but, apart from this, the building offers itself as a sealed object against the city. And, despite the suggestion of a single entity and fluid program given in the uniformly wrapped exterior, there is little spatial connection between ACCA, Chunky Move and the theatre set workshops. The spatial configuration presumes that the visual arts and theatre/dance, while sharing audience and the precinct, are and will remain distinct. The responsibility for the division lies partly with the clients – separate organisations with individual budgets competing for space and the arts dollar. There is a history of some collaboration, but it seems that no-one envisioned how the building might further these opportunities. The courtyard shared by the three organisations has been entrusted to provide for exchange and to some extent it is already doing that. It is civic in scale and is landscaped to encourage visitors to linger, yet greater permeability with the interior spaces of the new building would have made this a livelier space. The dramatic foyer at ACCA faces busy Sturt Street, rather than the courtyard – making it more difficult for convivial gatherings to spill into the courtyard on summer evenings.
The project successfully raises the profile of the organisations it houses, yet it also raises questions about the balance between external image and interior spatial quality.
The perceived need to emphasise image has its origins in the incongruity of image that ACCA experienced in the previous location (a cottage in the Domain, near the Botanic Gardens) and the process of architectural competitions by which the commission was awarded. Perhaps there has also been a sense that local audience support cannot be sufficiently generated from excellent programming and curatorial daring alone. It is interesting then to compare this building with Lacaton and Vassal’s recently completed Site de Création Contemporaine in the former Palais de Tokyo in Paris, nominated for this year’s Mies van der Rohe award. There, the architectural contribution is deliberately subdued and the provision of generous, diverse spaces for exhibition has been the primary aim. Lacaton and Vassal offer expansive luminous space; at ACCA space is dense and contained. In not providing the Paris museum with a ready image, Lacaton and Vassal have quietly affirmed their confidence in the Parisian contemporary art scene and dismissed the provincial Bilbaos of the world. Melbourne may not be Paris but in following Gehry’s lead at the Guggenheim, spatial quality has been sacrificed to sculptural effect. One hopes this will be offset by the so-called Bilbao effect wherein the building acts as a magnet for visitors who are subsequently drawn to the programs housed within.
Dr Sandra Kaji-O’Grady is a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne.
Architect Wood Marsh Architecture in association with Pels Innes Neilson Kosloff. Builder LU Simon. Project Manager Office of Major Projects. Client Arts Victoria.
Structural Engineer John Mullen & Partners. Facade Engineer Dimon Consultants. Services Engineer Lincolne Scott. Building Surveyor Peter Luzinat & Partners. Quantity Surveyor Slattery Australia.
Acoustic Consultant Bassett Acoustics.