Architecture

Melbourne’s MPavilion series focuses on the vexed question of whether architecture can be art. By Naomi Stead.

MPavilion – The Lightcatcher

The seventh MPavilion commission, designed by the Venice-based architects MAP Studio and named The Lightcatcher, has just closed after an extended summer season that stretched well into autumn. In its final days, I watched as a small but intent crowd of participants sat within, weaving Australian animals out of dried grass and wool, arrayed loosely around the Gunditjmara artist and master weaver Bronwyn Razem. There was a sense of industry and absorption. Nobody seemed to be thinking much about the structure within which they were sitting. But was there even a within to sit within?

The Lightcatcher is the seventh in the MPavilion series, which was initiated and continues to be supported by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation in collaboration with the City of Melbourne and the state government of Victoria. Originally planned to have a three-year run, the series was extended to five years, then six, and now to at least eight; next year’s architect has not yet been announced. It is presented in Queen Victoria Gardens in Melbourne’s Southbank arts precinct.

Sitting conspicuously in its garden setting, The Lightcatcher is alien to its context. It consists of a tall modular steel frame, cubic and white-painted, that sits atop four concrete pillars. Within the frame are angled and folded panels of mirror-finished aluminium that reflect the sun, the bright yellow of the floor and the movement of people. Below this open frame structure is a series of curious elements: a little round kiosk to one side, enclosed with a curtain in the same yellow shade; and the rubber floor itself, which oozes out from beneath the superstructure in organic curves and rises at one point to make a tiny yellow hill (my favourite bit). The structure has no walls and little sense of front or back, or horizontal or vertical enclosure.

When the design was unveiled, there was snarky sniggering in design circles: it provided virtually no shelter at all, neither from sun nor rain, let alone wind. Just another imported European architect failing to understand Melbourne’s climate and weather, the sentiment went: let’s see how that goes in the middle of our summer. And sure enough, at times it proved uninhabitable.

A white sheltering tarpaulin was retrospectively installed, and there it hung, albeit very nicely detailed, as an index of conspicuous design failure.

The Lightcatcher is, to my eye, the least formally and functionally accomplished of the MPavilion commissions so far. Over the years there have been only two consistent key provisions in the brief: a flexible event space for an increasingly large and diverse cultural program, and shelter from the elements. All the earlier iterations have managed both of these requirements with varying degrees of elegance and success, indeed have elevated them to an architectural reason for being: the graceful material fulfilment of a simple brief. This was not inevitable: a temporary architecture commission can equally pursue experimentalism or a critical social or political or conceptual agenda. But the MPavilions as buildings have largely pitched form over content, utility over discourse, and this has always been the identity and strength of the series.

It’s included Sean Godsell’s 2014 unfolding kinetic pavilion, Amanda Levete’s 2015 surprisingly light and delightful forest of thin columns, my own favourite, Bijoy Jain’s pleasing filigree bamboo 2016 pavilion, all the way through to the Glenn Murcutt’s characteristically spare and beautifully detailed hovering “wing” in 2019. These MPavilion buildings literally made space for what I think is the more substantial contribution and gift to the cultural life of Melbourne: its cultural program. Packed, inclusive, exhaustive and exhausting, the value of this kaleidoscopic program of participatory events is only underscored by the fact that it’s all, resolutely, free of charge.

It’s true that some of the earlier MPavilion architects have found the provision of comfortable environmental conditions a challenge. I recall the 2017 pavilion, by David Gianotten and Rem Koolhaas of OMA, being swelteringly hot – its translucent ceiling panels produced a uniquely headache-inducing combination of heat and glare that, on top of the noise of the industrial fans brought in to cool the sweaty masses, was certainly an experience. But even as some designers have been tested in their ability to manage the elements, none has rejected the premise that people participating in MPavilion events should be sheltered from the sun and rain. Or not until now.

To be fair, MAP Studio was working under difficult circumstances. The pandemic meant they were unable to visit the site and had to supervise the project from the other side of the world. But even given that, the abnegation here was so conspicuous, or seemingly so wilful, that I began to wonder if something else was going on. Was it perhaps not a failure to fulfil a simple functional brief so much as a rejection of the idea of utility as the key driver of the pavilion commission?

Categorical definitions of architecture have always spun around utility – the idea that its responsibility to be useful sets it apart from the arts, even as architecture distinguishes itself from building precisely by citing art as a necessary supplement to its utility. Some of the more glib distinctions between art and architecture centre on plumbing – the difference between a sculpture and a building, so the saying goes, is that only one has a toilet.

Utility – and its refusal – takes on an even more pointed status today, given the flourishing of the “architecture-as-art” temporary commission. The past two decades have seen the rapid proliferation of architectural pavilions all over the world. London’s Serpentine Pavilion is widely regarded as the origin of this “pavilionisation” phenomenon. It is also the direct model for the MPavilion series. Pavilions are widely seen to lend themselves to a more “arty” building than other commissions because the practical and functional constraints are so slight. They have what architectural theorist John Macarthur describes as “the token functionality of architecture presented as art”, supposedly allowing designers more rein to experiment with larger questions and ideas.

This movement of architects towards the art-like practice of temporary commissions has, since at least the 1960s, been mirrored by a movement of artists towards architecture. Artists have increasingly used architectural tools and techniques – sometimes creating work that takes the form of, or appears to be indistinguishable from, architecture. Think for example of the work of Andrea Zittel or Allan Wexler, or Melbourne’s own Callum Morton. At the same time, architects have drawn formal inspiration from innumerable artists, including Sol LeWitt, whose work is explicitly referenced by the architects of the Lightcatcher pavilion, alongside that of Cedric Price.

Disciplinary conventions are transgressed from both sides of the architecture and art division. This ambiguous, overlapping sphere of practice reaches its apotheosis in contemporary pavilion-style architecture commissions, where questions of functionality are both central and contested. Macarthur finds that the Serpentine pavilions tend to “perform [their] functions very poorly. They drip rain water and heat the champagne while providing uncomfortable seating”. This, of course, is part of the point: neglecting comfort is an established strategy for directing attention to a larger conceptual agenda.

In this light, could it be that The Lightcatcher’s failure to offer basic shelter was an attempt to move closer to an understanding of architecture as able to transcend function in the name of aesthetics? Was this in fact a form of institutional critique, an instance of architecture’s grasping after the status of art by refusing to engage in the prosaic banality of usefulness? Even if it was, I don’t think it worked. There’s not enough conceptual substance to justify that approach. The Lightcatcher doesn’t succeed as either architecture or art.

Still, people made the most of it, as I saw back on that day in late April, when I sat watching the weavers at work. There was an autumnal melancholy in the air. Passers-by crunched and scuffed their way through fallen leaves, and a man accompanied by a gaggle of small children paused to look up at the structure. “Jethro!” he called. “Come and look at this – tell me what you think of the architecture.” The boy squinted up at the pavilion, paused for a moment and shouted “shiiiiiiny!” before pirouetting to run off.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Transcending utility".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

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