It has been called a treasure box, a flower and a butterfly. Yet at first glance, MPavilion in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens looks like a small sheep-shearing shed.
The structure, which will host art exhibitions and events until February, follows the lead of the Serpentine Gallery, which has commissioned pavilions in London’s Hyde Park every summer since 2000 by architects including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer, and Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron.
Naomi Milgrom, one of Australia’s wealthiest individuals, is behind the MPavilion project. She says she wants it to cement Melbourne’s position as Australia’s city of architecture and design. The current pavilion, by Australian architect Sean Godsell, is the first of at least four planned in the city over the next four summers.
Mr. Godsell, a former professional Australian Rules footballer, has created an unprepossessing 12-by-12-meter steel box inspired by the shacks peppering the Australian outback. The pavilion’s beauty lies in its movement. Every morning, pneumatic arms lift the walls and roof, opening the space underneath. The unfurling is meant to represent the way a plant responds to the sun. Every evening, the wall and roof panels fold down, transforming the pavilion back into a secure box-shape.
Ms. Milgrom says Mr. Godsell was chosen as the architect because his unfussy, minimalist designs are quintessentially Australian. He had considered building a 60-meter cone inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, with an opening at the top for light. He then toyed with the idea of designing a pavilion shaped like a doughnut. Both were deemed impractical for a structure that had to be capable of accommodating up to 150 people at a time.
“There were far more pragmatic things [to consider] like how do we secure this building? How do we shut it down at night?” Mr. Godsell said, adding that the answer was to make the building animated, with the roof and walls acting like petals.
At MPavilion’s opening ceremony in October, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, Julia Peyton-Jones, said Mr. Godsell’s pavilion was like a twin of the Hyde Park ones, perched on the other side of the world. But some critics say Mr. Godsell was too safe a choice and that his structure lacks experimental zeal.
The website ArchitectureAU.com said his design was refined, but added that it wanted a different approach for the next structures in the MPavilion project. “Let’s hope future pavilions…introduce Melbourne to fresher faces and more challenging, unfamiliar ideas,” it said.
Jan van Schaik, director of Melbourne-based MvS Architects, went further with his criticism, telling Guardian Australia that copying the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilions idea was an example of cultural cringe.
Funding for MPavilion has come from Ms. Milgrom’s foundation, the city of Melbourne and the Victoria state government. Ms. Milgrom didn’t disclose the financial details of the project but said the state government provided 300,000 Australian dollars (US$260,000) in seed funding.
The first pavilion will host more than 100 free art and cultural events before it closes in February. It will then be gifted to Melbourne and moved to a permanent location in the city.
Ms. Milgrom says she hopes the concept of MPavilion, including the free events and fresh funding of design projects, will give Melbourne a cultural boost. When the first pavilion opened in October, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle used the opportunity to praise architects, landscapers and urban designers who had helped transform the city center over the past 35 years.
“Melbourne needs great architecture and we need to raise the bar by doing projects like this,” Mr. Godsell said.
Photograph: Earl Carter