Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art building on the shores of Circular Quay has long been a shining monument to the Art Deco style in locally quarried Maroubra sandstone fashioned during a time of our great nation building. Its location alone is supremely accessible and iconic, drawing visitors from far and wide. When arriving by ship or ferry, it comes into view straddling the docks where vessels tie up; by train it can be seen from the top of the observation deck of Circular Quay station commanding a fine view; even by car, as seen from the Cahill freeway, it stakes its claim as the prominent landmark on the western side of Sydney Harbour, golden when bathed in afternoon sunlight. The building itself is worthy of such a position, being designed by Government architect W H Withers in 1939 but not taking shape for many years due to the intervening war shortages, finally opening in 1952 as the Maritime Services Board building, later becoming the MCA as we know it today.

Now the Musuem has added its 53 million dollar prize extension by architect Sam Marshall, ‘the Mordant Wing’, and unveiled it to ‘mixed’ reviews. Andrew Andersons, the architect who converted the former Maritime Services Board building as it was into the MCA, descibed it as ”insensitive… As you get closer and closer to a building there should be finer details that hold the eye and delight. With this building as you move closer there is nothing more to see. That’s why it is likened to scaffolding.” He also noted the lack of windows on the North eastern corner, essentially wasting any use of the potential harbour view that may have evolved from a smarter building. Another critic, prominent Sydney architect Philip Cox said “Circular Quay is sacred. There was a one in 500 year opportunity to do a great building at Circular Quay.”

The previously unmolested MCA.
Image sydney

I myself am not here to pass judgement on the merits of this new age building which would no doubt have some modern art aficionados head over heals lusting over its sharp lines, the dialogue between the old and new(?), crisp cubic forms within the black and white contrasts or clever use of time and space. To me it looks like a bunch of boxes stuck together at random and painted in the cheapest colours that happened to be on special at Bunnings that calender month.

What I do have to question is how this extension fits with the original building. Does it do the heritage of the building justice, or the site? How is it inspiring, how does it invigorate and how is it sympathetic to the form of the current building? Is the scale of the extension appropriate, seeing as it seems to dominate the existing facade from every angle. How do the flat black and white textures compliment the timeless glowing Sydney sandstone, the commanding art deco lines; how does the shape fit as a whole with the original template that was there, and how does it sit in relation to the gentle curves of the lapping foreshore so near? Is this building worthy of being part of, in fact commanding this iconic location? Does it pay homage to the history of the immediate area, to the First Fleet’s landing, to the cultural meeting of European and Aboriginal Australia, to the early days of colony, to the rich maritime heritage of Sydney Harbour? The answer, I believe, is that it fails significantly and detrimentally.

Not only has the architect boldly patched on a totally self-indulgent non-descriptive non-relating wall of monochromatic lego blocks that looks like some puzzling game of 3-D scrabble on an oversized scale, but he has also had the indignity to place glass fronted upper levels over the top of the classic MCA facade, something akin to fitting the Opera House with roller shutters. And this is, essentially, after the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the third most prominent building on our most important harbour, in our most important heritage precinct, metres from where Phillip walked ashore and modern Australia was born. Clearly, this is a sign of the state of heritage building thought in modern Australia 2012, where a beautiful 20th century building such as this just can’t be left alone to shine forever more.

When the extension takes over the house…
Images by Inheritance

If a new wing had to be built here on this site, then couldn’t it at least have it’s origins and influence in either early maritime Australia like so many of the surrounding (indeed adjoining) buildings, or alternatively pay respect to the previous inhabitants of Sydney Cove, the Cadigal Aborigines… An extension based on the forms, colours and tones of local Aboriginal design, holding inside a modern Australian art gallery – that would have fit perfectly and done the site justice and our city justice, finally showcasing to the visiting tourists of the world as well as locals, that there was a rich and thriving Aboriginal history here before European settlement and it deserves to be looked at, and it can in fact blend with what we think of as modern day Australia.

Art deco ‘cubed’. This is the least offensive angle. Note new glass level on top.
Images by Inheritance.

Now all you modern art marvellists, before you shake your head and shrug off my theories as heritage ego rambling, let me say this. This is a heritage blog. The building, this 53 million dollar edifice, wouldn’t even rate a mention here, if it wasn’t tacked on to the side of the important, sublime art deco MCA building like some digitalised tumor, in this important, sublime location on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

In fact I believe it should have been built, but not here… In Parramatta, or Liverpool, or North Sydney, it would have made a significant contribution to the culture and arts scene of these areas, and be welcomed as a means to share and decentralise our state’s culture base from the old, historical, rustic heart of Sydney that is the Rocks and Circular Quay. It may have even encouraged tourists and Sydney-siders alike to venture further afield bringing their arts-seeking funds with them. Imagine a ferry ride from historic Circular Quay along the Parramatta River, charting the flow of an evolving Australia, to a modern gallery in a hub of the city worthy of international praise.
Instead we have this, a heritage building compromised, heritage values lost, open park space by the harbourside lost, irreplaceable views lost, and an opportunity gone begging.
Black-and-white boxes is what we have gained. 53 million dollars worth of black-and-white boxes.

Interestingly, architect Sam Marshall was quoted at a mediation meeting as saying “I would have demolished the building if I could,” referring to the original MCA. So we have a project architect working on a heritage building that he has absolutely zero sympathy for to begin with – is it any surprise the extension doesn’t work?

The view across the harbour. Does it fit in? You decide.
Images by Inheritance.

The good thing is, if there are enough boats, and you squint long enough, you can almost pretend it never happened. Images by Inheritance.


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  1. Dorothy Warwick says :

    I thought my opinion of modern Architects in general, couldn’t sink much lower – but this monstrosity only confirms and lowers my opinion even further.

    Why is it that architects of today can only design boring boxes with no character?

    And the sad thing is – the design was obviously passed by council and or state government authorities – which doesn’t give me much confidence for future developments.

    Reminds me of that old song about “little boxes, full of ticky tacky” – or is that showing my age too much?

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