Sensuous yet serious, the Marion Cultural Centre by ARM + Phillips/Pilkington is both an essay in communication and a successful articulation of community commitment to the public domain. Review by Sean Pickersgill.
The new cultural centre at Marion, by Ashton Raggatt McDougall and Phillips/Pilkington, continues the exploration of the limits of architectural language in the Australian context. For a building which so explicitly celebrates architecture’s sensuousness, it is simultaneously a serious and significant exercise on the idea of communication. That the building is also able to demonstrate a level of intimate detailing makes the project even more special. It resonates with references to the interrelationship between language and meaning, language and text, language and architecture, and the language of Australian architecture. Further, these broad parameters are refined to reflect, and inflect, its contextual specificity, its “Marion-ness” if you like.
Projects as theoretically complete as the Marion Cultural Centre put paid to the idea that the architecture of the suburbs is a semantic wasteland. While still without the capital and intellectual investment afforded to CBD projects, landmark buildings, or suburban vanity projects, the culture of the suburbs remains our single largest cultural mass. Whether it is a tableau of dreams realised, compromised or frustrated, the suburb is the best anthropological portrait of the strength of the everyday. Distinctly different from over-determined product designed to photograph well in magazines, the taste of the architectural ordinary is overwhelmingly intense and constantly present. But unlike everyday tract housing or conventional strip developments, the Marion Cultural Centre remains a critically reflexive exploration of itself and its context. That there is so much intellectual capital present in projects such as this, so much that seriously investigates the idea that architecture can engage with the “tasteless” ordinary in a more than salutary fashion, indicates the relentlessness with which the architects have pursued a critical reading of the program and the site.
The building is located on the Marion Domain, fairly typical suburban commercial tract land adjacent to a large Westfield shopping centre. This shopping centre, the second largest in Australia, had taken on the de facto role of signifying the community as a whole, providing, as they do, a completely internalised experience of cinemas, restaurants, department stores, franchises, etc. The architects’ success was in wresting Marion’s eponymic centre away from the gravitational mass of the shopping centre.
Marion, the community, has been resited away from the privately owned “shopping town” and into the public domain of a community facility.
This was no small task. The sheer building mass of the shopping town, in comparison with the council buildings, was an uneven contest. The Westfield buildings loom like some “Death Star” over the public aspirations of the Marion community, a massive juggernaut whose physical and semantic Bigness would have rendered any “tasteful” urban insertion trivial. The differences in programmatic activities alone make this obvious: the shopping centre’s spectacle of consumption versus the cultural centre’s more restrained pursuits of theatre, library and gallery.
To confront this relationship, the initial exploratory images of the building concerned the naming of the site. The most significant gesture of which was to redefine the location at its semantic core. The word MARION is dragged across the landscape, the letters MAR becoming formally ensnared into the fabric of the building. The balance of the letters, ION, become camouflaged in the landscape as respectively a column, a landform and a hanging garden. Reading this image, and the resultant work, it is apparent that the issue of scale has become paramount – the building needs to incorporate the massive signage responsibilities of a freeway billboard, but it also has to camouflage its limits. It is a small building built on a massive scale. Set in the context of a road system that encourages rapid transit past and away from the site, an architectural language appropriate to 60 km/h emerges. A vast extruded “R” is smeared, segmented, and inverted over the northern edge, forming an uncannily different kind of verandah space.
So the tradition of reading a building from the vantage point of a stationary observer (in the res publica) is replaced by the observer in motion (res Magna perhaps). Looking over the dashboard, what is made possible for the passing motorist is the epiphany of recognition. The fragments of text that constitute the semantic skin of the project are almost legible, almost able to be reconstructed to make the proper noun. But, because the building is not in reality a billboard, interpreting the missing fragments of the letters becomes the act of reading the building itself.
Being able to name the place as MARION, is also important at a political level. The principal audience for Marion are the people who make up the local constituency and, by many accounts, the clients are extremely happy with the end result which now locates their community in a fashion. Along with its urban identity, the idiosyncratic, highly tactile spaces within the interior overcome any residual feelings that the facilities might be overly institutional. Because it is a building that addresses the realpolitik of its location, they have a building whose idiosyncrasies provide proof of the remarkableness of architecture and the justness of their faith in the designers.
But further, the audience for this building is also the professional architectural culture that arbitrates the nature of newness, innovation, and relevance in architectural design.
For those interested in the idea that being modern is about a minimalist reference to geometry and materials this is not a tasteful building, nor does it promote some idea that architecture is about being respectful at all costs. As with ARM’s National Museum, the aggressiveness with which the array of formal architectonic references are reconstructed is impressive. Mick Markham has perceptively identified a number of these including Roy Grounds’ Academy of Science, Grounds’ ceiling from the National Gallery of Victoria which is also similar to the top floor ceiling of the original David Jones building in Adelaide by Hassell, Enrico Taglietti’s War Memorial Depository, among others. Two that also occur to me are that the rear elevation of the building has a definite resemblance to the work of expatriate Adelaide painter Jeffrey Smart, and that the extruded “R” is very like West Australian sculptor Howard Taylor’s 1965 work, Cyclops. Intentional or not, they show the building again is a textually dense project combining the text of language with the text of iconic fragments from the culture of art and architecture. Importantly these references all occur within the context of Australian culture, further locating the building in a discourse particular to our community and respectful of the uniqueness of the Australian experience.
So there is no single, definite answer to what the Marion Cultural Centre might “mean” once one gets past the Pop semantic of its proper name, and indeed the way in which this function is blurred makes this apparent. Its great virtue, apart from providing a responsibly located, thoughtfully planned and excellently constructed facility, is this indeterminacy. Many sub-texts are communicated through the building that connects it, and the owners of the building, to life outside the suburbs.
In summary, it seems obvious to say that the Marion Cultural Centre addresses the question of language in a number of ways. How appropriate is it to signify an idea with text? Does a proper name offer sufficient identity for an idea? Is it appropriate to blur the boundaries between signage and building? What is it to build text? These have been part of the theoretical development of the design process for the architects. It is worth noting that these are also serious and consistent questions in philosophical circles. They express the instability of communication and meaning in the modern context, and also the robust ability of language to adapt to new experience. This project shows that questions to do with architectural meaning need not be a confusing excursus on relativism. In debating how architecture defines a place, a world-view, a mode of living, it is, in architecture as it is in the philosophy of language, the transparency of communication that is paramount.
Sean Pickersgill is a lecturer in architecture at the University of South Australia