Opinion 07: The problematic future of the MPavilion
By Lucas Osborn
The MPavilion, an iconic annual commission in Melbourne, opened their 6th design in December 2022 completed by Bangkok based architecture and design studio All(zone). The design employs a fabric tensile membrane which lifts at its corners to invite the public in. The program runs until early April every year, but what happens to these wildly different projects once they are uprooted from the Queen Victoria Gardens? Even though the current edition may be seductive now, past iterations are sad where they sit, years on. Significantly modified by their end users the pavilions are decaying with the maintenance of them being a major sticking point. How can we ensure that these projects and their innovations live long into the future?
Since 2014 the MPavilion has commissioned local and international architects to develop designs for the pavilion itself. These revolutionary architectural forms emerge from the minds of architects such as Glenn Murcutt, Rem Koolhaas, and the 2022 AIA gold medallist Sean Godsell. The collection of MPavilion projects investigate highly complex and innovative concepts. This is not an aesthetic design critique. Rather it is an identification of an opportunity for improvement of the brief of the commission.
The pavilion is procured through a commission, with a string of events over about five months to accompany it. This statement contains two key ideas. Firstly, that the offering is a commission. There's no readily available information regarding the procurement process of selecting an architect nor is the design brief of the annual MPavilion online. It is understood that a selected architect is invited through “visiting their studios, meeting their teams and experiencing first-hand their broader bodies of work” (Sutherland, 2022) while also presenting at various events such as The Living Cities Forum. This has one clear issue with it not being open to all, to create a design that responds to the site rather it is gate kept to architects and designers with prominence. However, this allows firms that are small to medium size to accelerate their exposure. The second aspect is that the program only occurs over five months. The short time frame must consider the future use of these designs.
The impacts of the MPavilion are seen best with the employment of materials. Apart from Bijoy Jain’s 2016 MPavilion, the structures rely heavily on materials that cannot be maintained. “Due to the small scale of these projects, the environmental impacts of these materials are almost irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things, but these projects have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and best practice in responsible material use through widespread engagement with the industry.” (Professor Robert Crawford). Many pavilions rely on the heavy use of steel due to the short-term nature of the commission. I wonder why these structures cannot be made sustainably or have the promise to be moved and used effectively. Being environmentally conscious is one of the MPavilion Values (MPavilion, 2022) however there could be steps to ensure this is better met. They should be designed with a purpose to ensure they are not just a folly. It is not simple enough to say to only use timber for structures and pavilions to reduce upfront emissions as we currently do not farm timber sustainably as seen in examples (Poore, 2009). “Many timber farming and harvesting practices are currently not sustainable, along with other materials, their use is leading to the depletion of resources,” (Professor Robert Crawford). For many materials, we do not currently have viable alternatives. We could use biodegradable materials or new materials which are highly durable but not as damaging to the environment. These very real consequences of the construction industry may not be seen in a project like the MPavilion, but the commission could be a shining light on bringing new sustainable materials and technology to the forefront.
Amanda Levete’s CBE MPavilion in 2015 sits dormant in Docklands Community Hub Reserve. Dirt and leaves cover the once translucent petals and the LED lights which brought the pavilion to life are dimmer and less lively. I think this is one of the most successful designs due to its simplicity and smart employment of material, however, the ongoing maintenance falls short from what authority takes ownership of the structure but more importantly falls short in the design of the brief to account for this. OMA / Rem Koolhaas & David Gianotten’s 2017 MPavilions large, panelised facade is damaged on the Monash University Clayton campus. The commissioned landscaping by Tract landscape architects did not carry over. The pavilion sits quiet within the bustling campus. The wooden amphitheatre, unused by the students, has become a dumping ground for construction materials and it seems to still be in the process of being erected again, six years on. The roof plane has been removed off of Studio Mumbai’s 2016 pavilion to possibly suit the new location at the Melbourne Zoo, showing signs of material decay and wear. However, if the pavilions were designed for their end life location these issues would not arise. Despite the Naomi Milgrom Foundation’s clear repurposing agenda, I still question how the foundation can ensure the longevity of these projects to make sure they do not become short term follies that fall into disrepair and memory.
The importance of the MPavilion cannot be understated within an Australian context and an intentional one but sometimes the context of the site itself is overlooked. Architects have the ability to explore ideas which can catalyse a new trajectory of discourse in architecture. The same argument can be made for projects such as the World Expos, a display of countries architectural ability over a six-month period. This display of pavilion design has a similar issue of short-term projects being taken down and not reused. While being designed for the Queen Victoria Gardens and then adapted to a place that best suits is a flawed agenda as they are void of placemaking. Firstly, many of the architects have taken inspiration from the park itself. The 2018 pavilion by Carme Pinós is inspired by “a beautiful park with a dramatic urban skyline” (Sutherland, 2022). Amanda Levete in her pavilion drew from “a tree canopy is a place that you naturally go to for shelter and shade” (Sutherland, 2022). So, when relocated, do these pavilions need to be a placed in similar tree canopy contexts or is there an assumption of a generalisation of microclimates. Secondly, any First Nation design considerations are instantly nullified when moved due to the change in traditional ownership of the land and there is a lack of context-based design. As the pavilion sits on land of the Bunurong people and many of the relocations have been moved to the land of the Wurundjeri people. In an interview with Dame Julia Peyton-Jones DBE, Sean Godsell when asked about reinstalling pavilions after the exhibition he seemed to be more concerned with the monetary cost more than to do with the context of the architecture or sustainability of relocation saying, “then to make it (MPavilion) possible to take it away and do it all again somewhere else has hidden extra cost” (Sutherland, 2022). He does however illustrate the importance for designing for disassembly and reassembly saying “so the problem of making then unmaking and then remaking is more complex.” (Sutherland, 2022). There is a great opportunity for discussion around a shift in culture to occur in these exhibitions to create new sustainability and cultural targets.
Is there a solution to this problem, whilst there seems to be a broader shift in thinking about sustainability, what about ensuring the projects themselves are not lost. Past pavilions which reflect the zeitgeist in which they were created deserve to be kept and maintained. One answer is to carefully consider the pavilions after the contracted time to other sites, and how the brief can support their repurposing in their design. “This could involve materials being reintroduced into the supply chain, including their reuse by designing them for ease of disassembly. Using more durable materials, thus reducing the need for ongoing maintenance which contributes considerable environmental impacts, could also be a focus,” (Professor Robert Crawford). Pavilions should sit in spaces which suit their design and their intent, taken on by occupants who will use them. What about schools, or disadvantaged communities which cannot afford such architecture. They could be designed for the end location with the exhibition of it in Queen Victoria Gardens as a secondary design outcome. Therefore, increasing accountability of the end site and user. Adding these clauses to the brief could see a larger focus to these points and flow on effects around sustainability and better design outcomes. The MPavilion continues to be an innovative and important design competition to the fabric of Melbourne. The discourse that is emerging from the commission is important as well as the events that envelop it.
Mpavilion. (2022). ‘about’, https://mpavilion.org/about/
Sutherland, I. (2022). ‘Like being under a big tree’: All Zone’s MPavilion design released
Professor Robert Crawford is a Professor of Construction at The University of Melbourne.
Poore, D. No Timber Without Trees : Sustainability in the Tropical Forest, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=1542731.