Architecture and Design

Inside Melbourne’s new MPavilion, designed by Rem Koolhaas firm OMA, and why the architect is all for movable structures

The latest in an annual series of event spaces erected in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens, OMA’s cross-cultural MPavilion is based on the openness of an amphitheatre – but is unlike any amphitheatre ever seen before

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 7:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 1:05pm

Architect Rem Koolhaas is bursting with big ideas. He is the brains behind Beijing’s landmark CCTV Headquarters, Moscow’s 50,000 sq ft Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the dramatic Seattle Central Library and several other eye-catching projects around the world.

But despite the scale of Koolhaas’ ideas, he does not limit himself to designing oversized buildings. He regularly works with his Rotterdam studio, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in the Netherlands, on pint-sized projects including boutiques, galleries and even the sets for Prada’s fashion shows.

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At only 3,885 sq ft, OMA’s latest project, an “MPavilion”, is firmly on the smaller end of the scale. It is the fourth MPavilion – event and performance spaces which are erected for four months of every year in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens – to have been created, and is the studio’s first building in Australia.

MPavilion is an initiative from the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, a charity founded by Australian cultural philanthropist Milgrom that is dedicated to supporting design, architecture and cultural projects around the world.

“We call the MPavilion a cultural laboratory,” Milgrom explains. “From the beginning, I wanted it to be a utopian space where people can talk, perform, hear music or do anything else they want that was not connected to a larger enterprise or institution.”

At the opening event, Koolhaas was keen to emphasise that MPavilion is open to all. “We consider this pavilion a tool,” he said, “a tool for citizens to use and to be together in different configurations.”

With this spirit of openness at the heart of the project, OMA decided to base its design around an amphitheatre. But OMA’s MPavilion is unlike any other amphitheatre.

Deceptively simple from the outside, the wall-less structure comprises a flat roof that protrudes from a small mound of native plants and hangs over the seating inside. Under the strong Australian sun, the pavilion appears as just a shimmering sheet of metal hovering above the grass.

Inside, things are more complex. The square space houses a circular wooden amphitheatre that is cleaved in two by paths cutting through the grandstands. One of the blocks of seating is stationary, while the other is movable. It can be turned inward to complete the traditional amphitheatre set-up or swivelled around to face the park, transforming the pavilion into a stage and turning the park into a huge, open-air seating area.

Because MPavilion is a space for public debates, discussions and performances, the format of an amphitheatre was a natural choice. “Theatres typically create situations where one part of the organisation consumes and the other produces,” Koolhaas explains. “The audience consumes what is performed and the performers produce. I think the amphitheatre is a situation where that separation and opposition is less strong and where the audience participates in generating the mood.”

But while referring to the past, OMA remained focused on creating a contemporary building. “Architecture is a profession that’s very, very old – maybe 4,000 years old – that has to find a new relevance constantly,” Koolhaas says. “One of the things architecture can do to regain or gain relevance is to experiment and to take risks. In this pavilion, we did one experiment by taking perhaps the oldest, most traditional form of community – an amphitheatre – and trying to modernise it.”

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To cater to the wide variety of events that will take place inside the pavilion, OMA installed a hi-tech audiovisual system in the gridded roof. At the touch of a button, washes of colour shoot through the fluorescent strip lights in a show that could rival any nightclub. A musical work composed by Melbournian Philip Brophy specifically for the pavilion is played at sunset every day.

MPavilion is not the only project where Koolhaas is experimenting with the architecture of theatres. Dismayed by the limits that traditional auditoriums impose on directors, Koolhaas designed the Taipei Performing Arts Centre so that the three theatres it houses could be merged into one “super theatre” if a director desires.

“As a single auditorium, it can fit 4,000 people,” Koolhaas says. “It’s very noticeable that artists prefer to work in industrial complexes because they don’t like the limits that architecture and architects impose. Here, there is an effort to extend possibilities for theatre makers.” The centre is due to open next year.

The MPavilion – open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – will host more than 300 events during its run from October 3 to February 4, 2018. All of the events are free to the public and range from performances by the Australian String Quartet and meditation classes to lectures by architects.

When there are no events on, the pavilion is a free, open space for people to enjoy. Office workers can use it to shelter from the sun during their lunch breaks, dog walkers can meet there first thing in the morning and teenagers can hang out together inside after school.

The first MPavilion, erected in 2014, was designed by Australian architect Sean Godsell, who created a spotless aluminium cube inspired by the spartan barns of Australia’s Outback. The following year Amanda Levete, a British architect, erected a fragile cluster of delicate white petals that mimicked a tree canopy. Last year, Indian architect Bijoy Jain created a traditional Indian awning woven from several kilometres of bamboo.

Milgrom has long been a fan of Koolhaas and was particularly interested in the extensive research that OMA conducts before each project. “The OMA practice is based on deep research, a connection to people and the way we live,” Milgrom says.

Koolhaas worked with David Gianotten, one of OMA’s managing partners, on both the Taipei Performing Arts Centre and MPavilion. While designing MPavilion, Gianotten studiously researched Australia’s fraught history, which came to influence the design.

“In Melbourne and around Australia, there is a long debate about the history of this country and the divide between the indigenous past and colonial past,” Gianotten says. “That dialogue still has a lot of tension, but what you see with the archetype of the amphitheatre is that is crosses over these cultures; both of them have it.”

In a certain way, we’re really old-fashioned architects because whenever we can, we embrace the possibility of articulating the public realm
Rem Koolhaas

After their stints in Queen Victoria Gardens, all of the MPavilions have been moved to permanent homes elsewhere in Melbourne. Jain’s is at Melbourne Zoo, Godsell’s sits in the courtyard of the Hellenic Museum and Levete’s is installed in Docklands Park. OMA will not find out where its pavilion will be relocated for at least several weeks.

Designing a building with a particular site in mind, but knowing it will subsequently be moved, is an unusual situation, but it does not bother Koolhaas.

“I think the idea that architecture should be permanent is really completely wrong,” he says. “Even some of the buildings that were intended to be permanent in our case are already gone. At least three or four have simply been erased from the face of the Earth.

“I think architecture currently serves as an alibi for a number of values that have been lost and that people hope are still around, like permanence or stability. But we know from the inside that that is not the case at all.”

Koolhaas regularly rails against the market economy and has previously praised architecture that is designed with the public good in mind. “We are taken aback by the easiness with which the public world has surrendered to private initiatives,” Koolhaas says. “In a certain way, we’re really old-fashioned architects because whenever we can, we embrace the possibility of articulating the public realm.”

Gianotten believes the MPavilion provided one of those opportunities. “The gap between the public interest and the market interest is growing big time,” he says. “As an architect you really need to take the responsibility of the public cause at heart and not only think about money and return. You need to think about what the city is for and what the city is moving towards. The MPavilion is a private initiative, but it’s public space.”

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MPavilion may be OMA’s first building in Australia, but it will not be its last. In 2016, the studio won an international competition to design the A$428 million (US$336 million) New Museum for Western Australia in Perth, which is slated to open to the public in 2020. Back in Melbourne, Gianotten is also leading another project for Milgrom. “I can’t say much at the moment, but our work for Naomi is partly an urban project and also a building,” Gianotten says.

Koolhaas often talks in long, intellectual sentences, leaping elegantly from one topic to another. But at the thought of OMA’s next project for Milgrom, his usual eloquence fails him. “I am really excited,” he says.