MPavilion: Encounters with Design and Architecture


MPavilion: Encounters with Design and Architecture documents the six temporary architectural structures (MPavilions) commissioned by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation between 2014 and 2019. In 2020, instead of offering the city of Melbourne a new structure, MPavilion presents an extended program – wholly online in November, and then utilising its six original pavilions in their new permanent locations until 5 April 2021. In the extract below, from the introduction to MPavilion: Encounters with Design and Architecture, Stephen Todd outlines the history of the initiative.

by Stephen Todd

“Even with the most modest architecture projects, you are changing the world.” – Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten

Architecture’s quest for permanence, even immortality, traditionally set it at odds with the ephemeral. The temporary was considered flighty, light-weight, lacking gravitas. And yet, with increasing frequency over the past two decades, architects both renowned and relatively unknown have been testing the parameters of the temporary in pavilions dedicated to culture or commerce.

While the temporary architectural pavilion is now a transcontinental phenomenon, the purpose (or not) to which they are put, the messages they are intended to convey and the way in which they reflect and affect local populations are as diverse as the minds that conceive them.

To fully understand the MPavilions, which have variously squatted, swayed, blossomed and gleamed in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens these past six years, it is necessary to understand the woman who commissioned them, and the urban context in which they’ve flourished.

Naomi Milgrom, entrepreneur and philanthropist, had two key objectives for the MPavilion project she established in 2014 and operates under the aegis of the foundation that bears her name.

Firstly, to erect transient structures by significant contemporary architects in order to stimulate conversations around architecture, design and the future of urban centres. The built form was not to be considered an end in itself, but as a facilitator of cultural debate.

Secondly, the pavilions would provide innovative civic space for a broad range of cultural activities for the people of Melbourne throughout Spring/Summer.

For its major government supporters, the City of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria, MPavilion has been a leading voice in the promotion of the city and the state’s standing as a global cultural capital and centre for design innovation. For the local design industry, MPavilion has provided a highly visible and generative forum. And for the broader community the pavilions offer thoughtful, engaging structures in an accessible parkland setting that provide a four-month long roster of free activities.

It’s a safe bet that nowhere else in the world could you witness a canine costume competition under the awning of a Bijoy Jain bamboo shelter, dance in the dark beneath a canopy of translucent petals designed by Amanda Levete of A_LA, or engage in a debate about urban planning with Rem Koolhaas in a purpose-built modular ampitheatre by his studio, OMA.

Aligned with no institution, MPavilion collaborates with many. All Melbourne’s universities have a place on the program, as have at various times more than one hundred different organisations including the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Multicultural Arts Victoria, Australian Institute of Architects, Melbourne Music Week, British Council, Office of the Victorian Government Architect and The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

An evolving program of talks, debates, workshops and presentations has covered everything from open source architecture to how smart data is shaping our identities, to the future of gender equality and the art of sport.

Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of the Arts Council of England, sees MPavilion as “part of the general phenomenon around the world where people enjoy congregating in informal situations and contexts and debating, discussing contemporary ideas. It is part of the phenomenon of encouraging people to be participants rather than simply an audience.”

Serota presented a talk on ‘the art museum in flux’ within Carme Pinós’ slatted timber 2018 MPavilion, which according to the architect was conceived as “a catalyst for encounters and relationships”. (1)

Each of Milgrom’s commissions has stemmed not just from an intellectual conviction of the significance of the architect and their body of work, but from an intuitive understanding of their importance to an ongoing dialogue about the urban condition.

“They all have a unique architectural language, they are great architects without a doubt,” she says. “But it is about their humanity, their humility and the way they see architecture and design’s place in the world that is so important.”

A prominent fashion retailer with a background in teaching, publishing, marketing and philanthropy, over the past three decades Milgrom has sat on numerous boards in the arts, health, education and business sectors. Notably, her appointment to the inaugural board of the Melbourne Fashion Festival (launched in the late-1990s to stimulate the market but also raise awareness of fashion as a dynamic vector of cultural production) laid the ground for today’s MPavilion program.

As chair of the festival and with its creative director, Robert Buckingham, Milgrom oversaw the growth of a public program of seminars, fashion events and exhibitions, mobilising her business and government contacts to create what was in effect an impactful arts, education and retail program.

The curated events calendar included fashion shows and presentations from national and international creatives, including Belgian iconoclast Walter Van Beirendonck who impressed Milgrom with the multi-disciplinarity of his design approach – and his insistence on engaging directly with fans and students.

A decade after Van Beirendonck’s appearance at the festival, Milgrom and Buckingham proposed to RMIT University that an exhibition of his work might be an appropriate way to inaugurate its new RMIT Design Hub, designed by Sean Godsell, in 2013.

The enthusiasm around the ‘Dream the World Awake’ show – which Milgrom considers “possibly the most extraordinarily designed exhibition Melbourne has ever seen” – was thrilling. But even more exciting was being able to plug Van Beirendonck into the university’s teaching program, to have him work with fashion and design students and influence the direction of RMIT’s fashion design curriculum.

“That’s the way I like to do things,” says Milgrom. “I like to enable links, to build on ideas to give them greater capacity in the community.”

As Van Beirendonck’s exhibition drew to a close, Milgrom began thinking of ways to keep that energy alive, to extend the lessons learnt during the extremely successful activation of the RMIT Design Hub.

Conversations with her long-standing friend and ally, Julia Peyton-Jones, director of London’s Serpentine Gallery from 1991 to 2016, convinced Milgrom that an annual architectural pavilion for Melbourne would provide an ideal forum for ongoing discussions about the vital role of the creative industries in a city often heralded as one of the world’s most liveable.

The Naomi Milgrom Foundation was established in 2014 as a framework within which Milgrom could consolidate her design related philanthropic activities, particularly through the creation of the MPavilion program.

From the beginning, she had a set of non-negotiables. Entry to MPavilion and all its activities were to be free and the project would be a joint public/private venture with the support of the City and the State Government. It would reject parochialism and seek the involvement of leading architectural and design thinkers from Australia and around the world. Once each summer’s program was over, Milgrom would gift the pavilion to the city for permanent installation at a location to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Most doggedly, she insisted that there was only one possible location for the MPavilions to be installed each summer: in the Queen Victoria Gardens opposite the capital’s major cultural precinct along the arterial St Kilda Road just before it crosses the Yarra River and feeds into the grid of downtown Melbourne.

MPavilion: Encounters with Design and Architecture is published by Thames and Hudson.

(1) Sir Nicholas Serota CH, in conversation with Stephen Todd