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‘Studio Mumbai’s MPavilion is a radical departure from its predecessors’

Mpavilion 2016 interior view image credit john gollings

This year’s MPavilion suggests that the process of making is as important as any architectural object

Pavilions are potent distillations of architectural expression. They present a confluence of ideas, design and material application, accompanied by an inkling of wonder for counterfactual architectures. Between necessity and pleasure, from follies and pop-ups to provisional cities, pavilions are both typological shapeshifters and programmatically anomalous objects.

The proliferation of biennials, triennials and so on for art and architecture globally, and a growing list of prestigious programmes like the Serpentine Galleries’ Pavilion (London) and MoMA’s PS1 Young Architects Program (New York), have shifted the gaze of curators and creative directors to the exhibition of architecture in various formats. Among them, pavilions have become vital attractions for cultural institutions, each commission refracted through a varying set of ambitions, strategies and contexts, but bound by a temporality of use.

In 2014, the Naomi Milgrom Foundation initiated the MPavilion in Melbourne. Studio Mumbai’s 2016 pavilion is the third instalment of this commission, following Amanda Levete (AL_A) in 2015 and Sean Godsell (SGA) in 2014. Since its inception, these summer pavilions have had a polarising reception, due in part to the commissioning process that is awarded independently and privately – bearing the stamp of conventional models of patronage in the arts rather than the essence of a competitive architectural process. Besides, Melbourne has been beating the drum for local emerging practices, and experimental ideas rather than established architects of international renown. Despite the critical view from within the discipline, the response to the MPavilion thus far is positively one of renewed public and civic engagement with architecture.

Studio Mumbai is an atypical practice, an outlier whose work is perhaps as mystical as the auratic persona of its principal Bijoy Jain. The practice strays from traditional constructs of an architectural office. The open process between design and building is non-linear – Jain’s capacity is evidently one of both facilitator and architect.

Mpavilion 2016 image credit john gollings

Mpavilion 2016 image credit john gollings

Source: John Gollings

For Studio Mumbai the act of ‘making’ is profound and paramount, overriding characteristic studio hierarchies and methodologies. Its constitution by nature is a multi-disciplinary pursuit – architects, craftsmen, carpenters, masons and so on share a collaborative creative process and collectively prototype, design and realise the projects. The unique organisational structure emulates, even bolsters, its architectural poiesis. The practice likens itself to a human infrastructure.

This project marks Studio Mumbai’s first foray into Australia. The MPavilion is south-east of Melbourne’s CBD in the Queen Victoria Gardens – part of a patchwork of parklands on the edge of Southbank’s Arts Precinct, that once completed a frontier of rolling landscapes circumscribing the early settlement of Melbourne. The MPavilion is adjacent to the tensile and sculptural forms of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Yuncken Freeman, 1959) in Kings Domain. Across the elm-lined boulevard of St Kilda Road is the National Gallery of Victoria (Roy Grounds, 1968) that hosts the NGV Architecture Commission – a pavilion installed in its rear garden.

Erected with bamboo and timber, Studio Mumbai’s MPavilion is a radical departure from Levete’s carbon-fibre composite forest and Godsell’s pneumatic galvanised steel and aluminium shed. The high-tech machined aesthetic is superseded by handmade architecture that attempts to channel the history and techniques of generations of artisans and builders.

The MPavilion is predicated on the spirit of ‘lore’, outlined as a body of traditions and knowledge passed from person to person by word of mouth. Studio Mumbai’s interest resides in the transmission and rediscovery of customs and tacit knowledge from a technological and tectonic position, and ways in which it produces appropriate responses to time and place.

The 16.8m square pavilion comprises a dense roof structure raised on slender bamboo posts reflected on an organic rough-cut stone apron. The bamboo comes from India, a material with wide application across the region. Bamboo’s robustness and capacity for swift deployment, assembly and reuse, make it the preferred element for mandaps (transitory structures for festivals, ceremonies) and favoured over steel in temporary scaffolding.

Much of Studio Mumbai’s work embraces an endemic material palette, here the MPavilion deflects from the state of normalcy. However, it is the phenomenality of bamboo that was critical, more so than indigeneity. The bamboo transcends material attributes, and as Bijoy Jain asserts ‘it allows us to be, you know you are looking at bamboo but you experience everything but the bamboo’.

Furthermore, the notion of the scaffold is recast as a programmatic framework for occupation – an agile and emotive space with the ability to adjust and anticipate occupation and absorb movement through time. Between October 2016 and February 2017 the MPavilion will accommodate a series of public events, and typify a space where creative industry and community exchange ideas.

Lore also acknowledges the manner by which traditions manifest themselves in the built landscape across India. The animated and dynamic processes of making present a unique set of intuitive responses to people, places and events. While they imbue the ethos of building, they are products and artefacts of extrinsic forces, rather than a conceptual emphasis. They do not have legitimate architectural taxonomies. Studio Mumbai’s work hones in on these particularities that scarcely register on the architectural radar. ‘Placemaking’, likewise, is an influential precept for Australian indigenous architecture, a past that is inadequately represented or discussed in contemporary design discourse. The MPavilion partakes in both these histories and seeks to enhance the relationship between people, land and spirit of a place. Through illuminating long-established values, without trivialising them, these extensions of traditions perhaps allow the genesis of new ritual.

The entryway to the pavilion is enunciated by a tazia anchored by four rocks, that mark the land. The tazia references an elaborate object for religious ceremonies, that is elevated in procession through the streets. At the MPavilion it is reconstituted as a static, ephemeral structure, that orients the pavilion and creates an ethereal link between the earth and sky. The 12m black-stained bamboo tower was made in Bharuch (Gujarat, India) by a family of craftspeople.

The mansard-esque awning establishes a datum in the undulating landscape, the flat central portion is lined with canvas, while the pitched section allows rain to drizzle through. The slatted roof panels are woven from twigs and sticks of the Karvi shrub, from the west coast of India. The plaiting of panels was completed by craftspeople in India and communicates the action of foraging and self-sufficiency – observing, collecting, building and occupying the flora and fauna. The roof leans forward at the four corners, almost connecting to the ground, or barely leaving it. The bamboo and timber pavilion is fastened by rope and secured by timber pegs.

The stone for the plateau-like bluestone plinth is sourced from quarries in south-west Victoria, and the only significant local material in the project. It is a crucial intermediary between the pavilion and the city. Bluestone pavements are a unifying urban manoeuvre in Melbourne – a constant in a city dominated by a plurality of architectural styles.

An off-centre oculus punctures the canopy, creating a light well. A gold-leaf covered bore well that taps into the water table, peers through the plinth, directly beneath the oculus. It redirects the hierarchies within the pavilion, and, in anchoring it, traces the stages and states of its site and context. The land surveys of the early 1800s chronicle the location of the pavilion as an amorphous wetland that preceded the city and the region of Southbank where immigrants in their thousands pitched tents during Victoria’s 1850s gold rush.

While acknowledging the significance of water within cultures, the presence and reveal of this element is a recursive trope in the work of Studio Mumbai, reminiscent of the Tara House (Kashid, Maharashtra, India, 2005). Here a subterranean aquifer is tapped through the construction of a baoli (stepwell) that augments the relationship with land and water, even recording the tide level and referencing lunar and diurnal cycles. At the MPavilion, this rapport is subtle, registering the passage of time through the interplay of light and shadow penetrating and diffusing through the roof, while the variable weather and wind shear through.

Didacticism through prototyping building components is a virtue of Studio Mumbai’s work, that conveys both instruction and spatial qualities, and design decisions are primarily negotiated on the construction site. With the MPavilion, Jain and his team worked remotely, and ideas were modelled and tested at scale in the practice’s workshop in Mumbai, and in some instances reproduced in Melbourne before reassembling the MPavilion in the Queen Victoria Gardens.

Mpavilion 2016 aerial view image credit john gollings

Mpavilion 2016 aerial view image credit john gollings

Source: John Gollings

Studio Mumbai offers a critical practice in which the process of making is as important as the architecture object or typology and the MPavilion embodies profound ideas of empathy, manner and gesture that patinate the work. Through an instinctive and instructive response, the aspiration of the MPavilion is to shirk descriptions that identify the architecture as inherently Indian or Australian, in lieu of an awareness that is universal. While the ambition is noteworthy, it does raise an intriguing contradiction in the work. Much of an architectural praxis is borne out by causality and experience. Can architecture realistically operate inertly, without the burden of culture?

While pavilions may be temporary, they seldom prompt a reflection of venturous architectural practice and a deep examining of our cities. In condensing the pavilion to a vaguely tangible form of shelter – a floor and a roof – Studio Mumbai provokes an examining of foundational patterns of occupation and even optimal or essential architectures, devoid of assumptions. The pavilion here is eventually catalytic, a carrier for ideas that live on and run deeper than pithy architectural one-liners. Whether infill strategies or vast urban areas, pavilions are an insight into how we practise, how we could intervene in over-regulated conditions and conceivably how we might imagine more resilient cities.

MPavilion 2016

Client: Naomi Milgrom Foundation

Architects: Studio Mumbai

Principal architect: Bijoy Jain

Project architect: Mitul Desai

Team: Abdur Rahman, Moeen Shirazi, Neelanjana Chitrabanu, Francesco Rosati

Engineer: Arup

Landscape architect: Tract Consultants

Photography: John Gollings