Queen Victoria Gardens, Melbourne
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It’s too early to judge the success of MPavilion. This is not because its pilot program of events, taking place in and around the first of the architect-designed temporary pavilions that will be replaced each year, is ongoing. Nor is it because we have yet to see whether the frequency and diversity of concerts, talks and other activities can be sustained. The project boasts a generous patron, government funding, and a formidable list of collaborating institutions, artists and intelligentsia. As we near the midpoint of MPavilion’s first season, we should be able to laud this new addition to Melbourne’s cultural calendar.
It’s too early for judgement because the maiden MPavilion is unexpectedly dull. The dour grey box sits flat on the lawn in Queen Victoria Gardens, barely visible from the National Gallery of Victoria across the road. It was intended to draw visitors to the gardens, but instead huge signs are required to announce its presence. At opening or closing time the pavilion briefly comes alive, its wall and roof panels lifting up and coming down on pneumatic arms in a slow mechanical dance. But it’s an otherwise monotonous space. Identical on all sides, its interior does not frame or heighten the surrounding landscape, and the only furnishings are a white cafe counter and scattered chairs.
When MPavilion opened in October, some critics complained that the concept was derivative of London’s Serpentine Pavilion. Others derided the choice of designer, noting that whereas the Serpentine selects architects who haven’t built in the United Kingdom, Sean Godsell is a Melbourne architect renowned for making pavilions. But neither the emulation of the Serpentine model nor the choice of architect explains the lacklustre nature of this pavilion. “The Serpentine Pavilion exists as a satellite to the gallery,” says Godsell. “Here the building had to stand on its own, be secure at night and then open to the public by day.” As the pavilion is to be repurposed elsewhere in the city at the close of this year’s program, security and durability were key concerns.
While the University of Melbourne’s Professor Donald Bates has claimed that “most architects know what Sean will come up with before he does it”, Godsell’s initial designs for MPavilion were unlike anything he had done before: a 60-metre-tall truncated cone and a doughnut-shaped courtyard building. The shed-like appearance of the final product represents a triumph of utility over imagination. The architect of the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion, Smiljan Radić, says a pavilion “should be something that surprises the public and draws their attention, providing a spatial experience that you don’t get every day”. If MPavilion’s architecture is to take centre stage, its next architect must be encouraged to transcend pragmatism.