Exhibit One

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

A view of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre’s
main entrance and north colonnade.

Painted steel signage by Emery Vincent on the entry canopy.

Concourse (on the building’s north side) with hall entrances at left.

Clarendon Street foyer, with stairs to a theatrette and meeting rooms.

The hall, looking west.

More photos can be found
in the version!

Photography John Gollings Review Norman Day

Two more frissions in the soaring trajectory of Denton Corker Marshall: the RAIA’s Gold Medal goes to all three directors and their latest urban landmark–the Melbourne Exhibition Centre–opens beside the Yarra.

There are rules for Modern architecture.

Forms should be primary and simple so their mass is reflected in light. Surface gives the building its individuality and the plan holds the essence of the sensation of the structure.

When Le Corbusier wrote these prescriptions in 1923 concerning his “engineer’s aesthetic” for architecture, he stated as a first principle that engineers achieve universal law and harmony—while architects create through spirit and order. His “new epoch” and the freshness of Modernism demanded that style is a lie because industrial culture held the key to architecture.

From that world comes Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne Exhibition Centre, which is a revisionist version of Le Corbusier’s spirit, enhanced by another set of references, some textural, others romantic, with quotes from history and created with élan by an architectural practice which knows its way.

Le Corbusier wrote in the 1920s of great liners, automobiles and aircraft. In the 1990s, of course, ships are a dated way to travel; they cruise the tepid waters of the Mediterranean and the Pacific as loveboats for an aging population. His aircraft were chiefly biplanes characterised by their enormous bulk and square shapes, propeller-driven and made of timber and fabric. Now we have the stealth bomber, all black, thin, with irregular surfaces to avoid detection, and made of carbon fibre and state-of-the-art aluminium compounds.

Le Corbusier’s example of a 1921 Delarge sought to make the point of mass production as an exemplar for construction, yet that car had big outrigger wheels, pop-eyed lights, a front ‘elevation’ which was all radiator and leather loungeroom seats. Now there are little Japanese cars moulded like raindrops and fast sports cars shaped like arrow heads.

Along the way, we have developed another human sense through microchip technology, which enables us to walk around Myer doing business on the phone, guide our cars along the highways using satellite navigation, and communicate across the world via a web of cyberspace.

DCM have employed Le Corbusier’s theoretical basis along with more current, postmodern devices.

Metaphors within the building are easily understood; the mass is a large extruded shed requiring column-free interiors; hence the simple design adapting an aerofoil roof which tempers wind uplift by producing eddies over the leading edges. Beside the aerofoil wing, and part of it, is a long concourse broken by large-scale coloured blocks, like a child’s Lego set, numbered to guide people around the place.

The architects explain that they have created a verandah to the north leading out to a park and the Yarra River, but I see the clutter of angled steel columns as reeds beside a riverbank; they create a shimmering shadow pattern over the building and appear to stir as you move through the spaces, like trees in an orchard which line up at one angle, only to scatter into chaos as you move past the copse.

The building is planned as one long shed enclosing 30,000 square metres (360 metres long by 84 metres wide) divided by huge operable walls (each valued at $250,000), all open space, with a parallel concourse that is 450 metres long. Along the way, there are small conference rooms, restaurants, lecture theatres and bars.

This was to have been Daryl Jackson’s Museum of Victoria. (A new museum had been constructed in part, up to the concrete sub frame, under the previous Labor government, but was halted by Jeff Kennett’s incoming Liberals. It will now be built north of the old Exhibition Building, in Carlton Gardens, and will be designed also by DCM.)

Little is left of the pale concrete and circular geometric skeleton of Jackson’s building: DCM have engulfed it in metal and glass cladding and an altogether new geometry.

Their design includes a colossal metal fin reaching some ten storeys into the air, starting at the building entry and rising at a startling angle into the sky, facing the city. In what would appear to be a tribute to the Russian Constructivists, the structure is cantilevered from yellow steel props and the building’s sign is stamped out in large metal letters arranged over the top of the fin. Melnikov would blush.

Other references to 1920s Russia include the great column-free space which is like the Vesnin brothers’ Kiev railway station scheme (1926), where the building section holds the key to its idea; a section which is extruded as long as needed to satisfy the requirements for building size.

DCM have created a tool, a very sophisticated architecture of detail and function, not so much a machine for living in as an implement for exhibiting in, where the method of construction has been detailed to minute levels of precision, where screw holes are specified in a way similar to those used in aircraft construction.

Glazing is held using metal patch plates and ribs of glass; there is a celebration of technology, it is a building where the means of production is the aesthetic; where the architectural expression shows the function of the material used.

By way of explanation, consider the basic tools we use. They are implements fashioned out of materials to suit their function—shaped with grips, hitting parts, cutting edges and levers—all refined through experience and use to suit the ergonomics of human handling and ease of manufacture.

DCM’s exhibition centre is such a tool.

The roof is designed for dual loads—dead and live—so what could appear to be an extravagant reprise of a Glenn Murcutt rolled roof in fact is an aeronautical engineer’s design. Cladding materials are predominantly aluminium faced plywoods, sandwich panel composites and glass, fixed to steel and concrete frames using exposed screws which appear at a distance to be rivets and which honour the making of things, like a giant Meccano kit.

Colour is used sparingly but significantly as a system of signposting the functions of the building. Just as toolmakers adopt bright colours for tool handles to clarify which part is to be touched and which sharp edges to avoid, DCM use alternative colours and changes of material (carpet to steel to panels to glass) to signal changes in direction and use of the spaces.

The technology of the last part of this millennium is light years away from that of the 1920s, and much contemporary work of significance is to do with an holistic vision of life, where matters of physics and measurable things are seen as part of a universe of spirit and chaotic order. In part, this investigation has been furthered by DCM, proving that new science holds much promise for new art.

DCM have searched for Le Corbusier’s dream of a purposeful functionalism made using industrial techniques. He argued that such an architecture would be beautiful and he would be more than pleased with Melbourne’s Exhibition Centre.

Norman Day is a Melbourne architect and critic and an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at RMIT.

Architects and Landscape Architects Denton Corker Marshall. Structural, Civil and Traffic Engineers Ove Arup & Partners. Mechanical, Electrical, Hydraulic, Fire, Lift and Communication Services Engineers Connell Wagner. Quantity Surveyors WT Partnership. Design and Construct Contractor Hornibrook. Client Victorian Department of Business and Employment. Construction Authority Office of Major Projects.



Published online: 1 May 1996


Architecture Australia, May 1996

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