Architecture

The ACMI redevelopment brings Victoria’s major institution for screen culture into triumphant focus.

By Naomi Stead.

ACMI redevelopment

The new central staircase at the redeveloped ACMI.
Credit: Shannon McGrath

A few years back, I had one of the most profound and exhilarating art experiences of my life at ACMI. Of course I’d been there many times before – like many Melbourne parents of school-aged children, I knew the lure of the retro video games in ACMI’s permanent exhibition. But this time I was there to see Soda Jerk’s Terror Nullius – less a film than a political tour de force of mashed-up pop-critical metatext mayhem, a baroque barbecue where the nation’s holy cows were not only skewered, but roasted on the spit and served back to us on pita bread. At the end, as I emerged stunned and euphoric, it felt like it always does when you encounter great art: as though things can never be the same again.

It occurs to me that some of the things I loved about Terror Nullius are also what I admire about ACMI as an institution. Both traverse the full spectrum from the erudite to the joyfully trashy, trampling high/low cultural distinctions and intercutting popular culture with audiovisual art. It’s all done with knowing wit and technical virtuosity, making an experience that is equally enlightening and provocative, affecting and plain old fun.

So it is pleasing indeed to see ACMI reopen after a redevelopment requiring three years’ design, five years’ conceptualisation and planning and 18 months’ closure for construction – and also, ahem, a pandemic. It features a new centrepiece permanent exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image, designed by United States-based experience designers Second Story. ACMI is now an extraordinary technological “multiplatform museum” with major new commissioned screen-based artworks, all anchored by a deft architectural redesign by Melbourne’s BKK Architects. ACMI is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image – even if, like the NGV and KFC, it no longer needs to spell out its acronym – but it’s also our national museum for screen culture, and reportedly “the most visited moving image museum in the world”. ACMI’s director and CEO, Katrina Sedgwick, says that in its latest full year of opening, it had 1.5 million visitors. This doesn’t sound like an institution that was broken. So what needed to be fixed? As it turns out, quite a lot.

ACMI is located at Federation Square which is, of course, a strong architectural taste: it may be the Gorgonzola of the Melbourne scene, and is certainly not the model of architecture as tasteful and recessive white cube. Designed by Lab Architecture Studio and Bates Smart and opened in 2002, Fed Square’s buildings are, famously, listed on the Victorian state heritage register, so there could be no touching the footprint or the envelope – all the architectural work was strictly internal.

Given that ACMI had plans to double its visitor numbers and educational programs, while also providing more places for visitors to hang out, that meant every bit of space had to work much harder and more efficiently than before. The architecture of the new ACMI also had to be bold enough to be recognised and hold its own identity – there are stories of past visitors saying, “I went to see the David Bowie exhibition at Federation Square”, not realising that ACMI was its own distinct institution.

ACMI shares the Alfred Deakin building with SBS, but the building was always somewhat ill-fitted to life as a museum, having been originally conceived as a retail tenancy. Vertically stacked across four storeys, with entries on both of the middle floors, it struggled with its double-faced address, a convoluted circulation path and a general sense of disconnection between levels. The upstairs/downstairs division was also figurative: the folk coming to see auteur films upstairs were not the same as those coming to see temporary blockbuster exhibitions downstairs. Different people came for different purposes, which happened in different parts of the building, and then they tended to leave straight away. It didn’t help that parts of the old ACMI felt like no-go zones; a series of cellular black boxes.

Fittingly, the biggest and most spectacular architectural move is the new staircase – a cascade of timber tumbling through the atrium, allowing direct visual and physical access between the Flinders Street and Fed Square levels, and also offering the citizens of Melbourne an additional public and social place to abide in the city – a sheltered, top-lit, fully serviced version of the old town hall steps idea. The architects are modest about the stair, saying the move was something of a no-brainer, foreshadowed in earlier master-plan documents. But what was less obvious – and arguably more transformative – was their careful spatial rearrangement of almost all the building’s other functions.

Some spaces didn’t need to move, or were not moveable. The two main cinemas on level 2, the permanent exhibition space on the ground floor (now slightly expanded) and the subterranean Screen Gallery, which is constrained by the shape and orientation of the adjoining train tracks, have all stayed put. Likewise the cafe remains in situ, although its new incarnation, Hero, has headed steeply upmarket with its food, decor and ambience.

Other spaces have been judiciously reshuffled, and new functions added. The whole first floor was largely gutted, which meant the relocation of ACMI’s major seminar event space, the education Digital Future Lab, and the addition of a new Audience Lab and Media Preservation Lab, where you can watch through a window as technicians retrieve and preserve vision from Stone Age obsolete technologies such as, say, VHS. In a classic case of architectural planning as spatial puzzle, these spaces were moved around the floor plate into more fortuitous positions and arrangements, creating stronger relationships with the street and the atrium and better public access. Some elements have migrated even further, with great effect – shifting the museum shop down the stairs and into the much larger corner tenancy on Flinders Street boosts ACMI’s address to the passing city, as well as ensuring that exhibition-goers now exit, as they say, through the gift shop.

The overall aim was to introduce transparency and porousness in all of ACMI’s programs and to produce more spaces in which visitors can “dwell”. If you build it, the people will come – and they will stay, so the thinking goes, especially if the public areas have comfortable seats, fast free wi-fi and power points. The people certainly like the new “urban lounge” tucked off the main stair. This, along with every other element in the design, does double duty: stairs are also briefing rooms and auditoriums, foyers are event spaces and every cranny is stuffed with storage and technological infrastructure.

If we look back, none of the spatial difficulties that ACMI faced were catastrophic, but they were all obstacles to a fully cohesive and coherent museum. The redevelopment, then, was about much more than simply fixing functional infelicities: the point was to refocus the institution itself as a new spatial, programmatic and technological whole.

On that day three years ago when I came to see Terror Nullius, I reeled out of the cinema and proceeded straight out the door. Back then it didn’t feel as though ACMI had the centre of gravity to hold you for long – you came in, did the thing you’d come for and then left. The redevelopment brings a new sense of place – not just in the shiny new spaces and facilities, and the spectacularly engaging new permanent exhibition, but also the institution’s sense of renewed and clarified purpose, its sense of having grown into its skin, its building and its potential.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "A people’s palace".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and professor of architecture at Monash University.