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Renovating a well-loved building can be tricky, but, after outgrowing its current site, the MCA was in desperate need of a few modern tweaks to aid the visitor experience.
We all know the mantra that change can be a very good thing; in general, but also in just making things work better. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) took heed, as over the past decade it had gradually been outgrowing its Sydney home in the former Maritime Services Board Building. “It was always a very difficult building to circulate,” says MCA director Liz Ann Macgregor. “It has lots of galleries within columns, not much height and was originally refurbished on a shoestring [when it opened in 1991], so it was really time to look at what the Museum needed for the future.”
Coupled with the increased number of art lovers passing through and an ever-growing collection of artworks, the building was in dire need of a few key changes and modern tweaks. Macgregor and her colleagues set about to achieve the impossible: rustle up $53 million for an overhaul. “It was a very interesting public-private partnership – money from private individuals, companies and all three levels of government – which might be an Australian first,” she reveals.
With Sydney-based architect Sam Marshall on board, the renovations took around 21 months to complete and, in late March, MCA was ready to show off its facelift. All four levels underwent a refresh, but the prime addition is the Mordant wing, which doubles the gallery’s floor space and creates a much needed foyer, national education centre, library, rooftop café and sculpture terrace. Interestingly, it was built onto the northern end of the site, onto what was the old MCA car park.
In any building project, an appreciation for the original building is often more valuable than a complete overhaul or demolition. In this respect, the MCA’s renovation plan was guided by two principles. “We know from previous attempts to change it radically that people are very fond of it and there would be a public outcry, so we were very committed to maintaining and, in a sense, allowing it to really dominate still… the front façade onto Circular Quay is left pretty much as is. And the second principle was that anything that we added to the building should be recognisably modern and different,” explains Macgregor.
For the interior of the building, Marshall replicated the block-like nature of the old building with modern materials, which are arranged to create a series of openings and windows, which open up the space and offer glimpses of Circular Quay. “You’re always aware of where you are – so it has a very open and accessible feeling to it,” says Macgregor.
If you look closely, you may notice another subtle tweak – a name change that now includes Australia in the title. As the Museum exhibits art from beyond Sydney, it was a timely move to stake its position within the country, but also internationally.
And the public’s reaction to the revamp? “It’s packed!” says Macgregor. “I think that people are just loving using the building. The great thing is that the galleries are packed and that’s what it’s all about.”
Thumbnail image: Circular Quay copyright MCA. Photography Brett Boardman.
From desktop magazine.