The MCA's new Mordant Wing

Exterior of the new MCA on Circular Quay West. Image courtesy and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Photograph: Brett Boardman.

Exterior of the new MCA on Circular Quay West. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Photograph: Brett Boardman.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has been at the centre of one of the art world’s most heated debates: the verdict on the new Mordant Wing of course. It is to be expected that when such an historically rich art museum undergoes a controversial stylistic redevelopment that it be met with flamboyant responses.

In celebration of the MCA’s new wing, we thought it only fitting to join the discussion by imparting our thoughts – both praises and criticisms – on the space itself and the exciting new work housed within it. Let us first however, place the debate within its rightful historical and cultural context.

The MCA opened its doors to the public in 1991 through a bequest by Australian expatriate artist John Power. Nestled on the edge of Sydney Harbour, the sandstone art deco building (formerly the Maritime Services Board headquarters) became the newest host of Australia’s most forward thinking collection of contemporary art.

Emerging at a time when Sydney Harbour was transitioning from a place of commerce and transportation to culture and leisure, the museum encouraged a new way for art to engage with the new multiplicity of meanings in Australian ethnicity.

Perched on a site that constituted the first contact between Indigenous and European peoples as well as the country’s colonial history, the MCA was drenched in historical currency, which with the introduction of the new wing, some believe has come under threat.

Sydney based architect Sam Marshall (in partnership with NSW Government Architect’s Office) has offered up the sparkly new addition that has seen the museum venture into new territory. The new Mordant Wing is clad in glass reinforced concrete panels and recalls the modular design aesthetic so prominent in the 60s.

Known for his award-winning design involving a warehouse conversion in Darlinghurst, it comes as no surprise that Marshall’s architectural language is informed by a dialogue between old and new.

If we agree with former Chief Curator, Bernice Murphy’s proclamation that the old building represents a, “stodgy public mentality of provincial civil architecture,” we should then also be inclined to believe the Mordant Wing to have enhanced the museum’s advocacy of avant-garde architecture.

The facts tell us that the new wing cost $53 million, that it increases the MCA’s total size by almost 50 percent with three new galleries, that there is a Sculpture Terrace and two function rooms on the upper levels of the building, and that it demonstrates the museum’s fondness of furthering artistic education through a National Centre for Creative Learning and networked video conferencing facilities and digital infrastructure.

Housekeeping aside, the new wing has polarised people. Much alike a shoulder-pad for the MCA’s rather banal counterpart, the new wing epitomises the ‘contemporary’, but many beg the question of for just how long? A matter of visual identity, the Mordant Wing’s exterior aesthetic is just one of the architectural markers we should consider when evaluating the museum’s new addition.

When looking at spatial implications of the design, we need to ask whether the new wing enhances the art without overshadowing it. Yes, there is more space, but unfortunately the new galleries don’t feel much bigger, which in turn makes us aware of our circulation throughout the museum. Depending on personal preference, one’s awareness of their own act of ‘gazing’ could detract from the overall experience of what’s on offer by setting back the level of immersion.

Contrary to this, the MCA’s new entrance on George Street is a clear spatial triumph. Entering through the space, which seamlessly connects George Street and the museum’s boisterous Quay side stairs, visitors feel welcomed. The space buzzes with commotion and the MCA’s audience acknowledge their presence in the newly opened wing. Or should the entrance remain central to the overall museum rather than relegated to one side of the old building?

Despite the new wing having divided people, the Mordant Wing in our opinion, successfully fuses the old with the new by forging innovative ways through which audiences can interact with and understand the work on offer. In a turbulent artistic climate, Marshall’s design cleverly distills the MCA’s paradox wherein contemporary art is homed by a building steeped in colonial heritage.

The Mordant Wing signals the MCA’s transformation into a world class institution – an institution with a renewed soul that will no longer be overlooked by large shows who have previously dismissed the space due to its inability to house touring blockbusters adequately.

Share with us your verdict on the new Mordant Wing by leaving a comment.


  1. Belinda
    Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Huge huge disappointment…..

  2. Posted May 9, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has a new appendage. This is a good thing. Anything to stimulate interest, activity, and awareness of contemporary art practice anywhere is a good thing. The new addition, much like a shining infant fresh from the womb in comparison to its older sister to which it clings, looks, well if I can use a particular word, neat.
    I mean neat in the way Americans say it when they see something that is interesting and fun at the same time; and neat in the tidy sense of the word. The lines are clean, the material used for its construction is slick and appealing, and there is nothing out of place. The wing was designed by Sydney architect Sam Marshall at a cost of $53 million.
    I went to the museum having read little about it except a piece in The Monthly by Drusilla Modjeska. This left me with few expectations. Except one: I went believing when I got there I would find large new rooms for exhibitions. Usually when museums undertake major overhauls this is what eventuates. It is logical.
    Instead what I found was an efficient entry and exit pathway between Circular Quay side and George Street, a new gift shop, the educational centre on the second floor, and the café (sculpture garden it is not), with a killer view of the opera house and harbour. This building is really, lets be honest, a sexy stairwell and an opportunity for the museum to give itself options. Options with the space it already has.
    The old lift is gone, as is the old stairwell, so the galleries can be extended, and manipulated differently. They no doubt do have more space just not in the new wing.
    I guess in this day and age that’s the best you can do with that amount of money. Credit to Liz Ann Macgregor for pulling it off regardless of its flaws because in the end, at least it’s neat!

  3. Edward Ryan
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Popped down to the MCA on a brilliant day yesterday and essentially agree with Gordon Waters’ ‘neat’ comments – my personal take on the building being that form has surrendered to the banalities of function, with the constraints of space and technical challenges of the newer arts failing to be overcome architecturally in the fashion that Shakespeare, say, mastered the constraints of the sonnet form…

    It’s all a bit ho hum and a bit of a fizzer…concur with the above comment that it comprises not much more than a utility wing and stairwell delivering views, light penetration and space to both buildings. It’s a grand entrance leading into comparatively tight spaces with its overall architecture failing to match the artistic aspirations of its content. The old building is still part of Sydney’s architectural history and deserves to be enhanced and referenced – while the roof addition is good it’s nothing to write home about. I think the overall building design misses an opportunity to celebrate the sandstone of the retained old building with a more harmonious selection of materials for the new facade. It’s derivative bauhousy look gets a bare pass – which I fear will date alongside the inevitable scuffing and staining of the white panels as they age in the forlorn manner of much the regrettable architecture of the 60’s. Why reference the 60’s over the original building unless you plan to distill its stylistic best and substitute materials with beauty and integrity? All things being equal, perhaps the white panels could have been dropped in favour of sandstone.

    My companion and I also found the exhibitions sloppily curated as though hung in a hurry (which no doubt they were, to meet deadlines; apart from Christian Marclay’s clever clock the whole place felt a little unkempt and passe, like Tracy Emin’s bedroom!): old stock looked tired and dated in poorly lit and confusingly linked sterile spaces, while museum staff looked slightly nonplussed in their pizza palace outfits. The whole place had the air of a freshly-minted shopping mall, but without the visual interest. Cafe food met prices charged, but the service was poor and a missing maitre d’it was noticeable in the absence of (despite the views) a single picture on very bare walls or a piece of sculpture in the ‘sculpture garden’ to provide uplifting distractions – this poorly designed area will be co-opted for the cafe which has extended irrevocably into the space already. (If that’s to be the case, then a few luxe sofas and smart reading corners might soften a generally cold and clinical atmosphere…).

    I’d give it a couple more years to mellow: aside from one or two truly wonderful pieces of art on the inside and those “killer views”, there’s not much more bang for your buck here than a fab new entrance and greater accessibility…

  4. Reggy
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    An appendage, like a broken arm with a bandage. Another eyesore for Sydney. Nothing new, not a glorious Guggenheim, more like an afterthought. Almost as if the architect was more interested in ego rather than accommodating for a beautiful city that tries so hard to hold onto some history. Now we are just ignoring it and think we are something that we are not. It doesn’t even compliment the harbour that is iconic and beautiful, merely a tick of chalk on someones CV.

    Smacks of the arrogance of Siedler! I could forgive it if I thought it was an architectural note of progressiveness and innovation…but boxes, upon boxes, near an environment like this. Go back and have a look at the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright and consider what surrounds you.

    Only thing I can appreciate is inside the gallery because at least that is progressive enough to see what is important.

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