Melbourne: Under the shadow of steel sky scrapers, a corner of Queen Victoria Gardens in Australia’s second largest city underwent an early spring annual ritual – not of trees shedding their winter plumage, but one that has become a seasonal routine only in the last two years.
For the third year, as spring made its appearance, a small area was fenced in and a digger appeared for ground breaking. Thousands of bamboo poles and karvi panels from India were bound together and a low slung roof emerged, the silhouette of which was framed by the brilliant hues of the urban oasis.
The finished MPavilion, which was unveiled earlier this week, brought an Indian flavour to Melbourne’s creative scene.
Four years ago, Australian retail tycoon and philanthropist Naomi Milgrom began an arts project inspired by London’s Serpentine Galleries in collaboration with the city and the state governments.
Each year for the project, Milgrom commissions a temporary pavilion from renowned architects to be built in Queen Victoria Gardens. Throughout summer, the open structure becomes the nucleus of cultural events. As the season turns, the pavilion is ‘gifted’ to the city, which then dismantles and rebuilds it at a new, permanent site.
The last two commissioned pieces were a combination of high tech materials and technology. Australian architect Sean Godsell built a rectangular frame with aluminium panels that opened and closed depending on sunlight. The structure now sits in the garden of the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne.
In 2015, UK’s Amanda Levete also strode the hi-tech path to designed a canopy of petals made from composite materials with stems made from carbon fibre. It now resides at the corner of a busy street in Melbourne’s central business district.
For 2016, Milgrom chose Studio Mumbai’s Bijoy Jain, who has became the first Indian to design a structure for a public space in Australia.
During the design process, Jain visited Melbourne twice to view the site. “For me, what’s important is that it is a kind of structure that is agile, adaptive to its surroundings and that this idea of temporality is expressed more in the sense of freedom [and] that it defaults to having a sense of mobility to it, so that you can transfer it from place to place in relationship to sense of time. So for me, that is really what is of interest – in that it is fragile, temporary and has a sense of gravitas,” Jain said.
He had termed his designing process as something that explores “the connection to one’s self.”
“So the process of model making, or a drawing that you would have seen, are not that different to a term called riyaz where every morning you train your vocal cords,” he explained.
According to MPavilion’s creative director Robert Buckingham, the search for an architect began with a purpose of looking at Asian creativity. “We were looking for an architect with significant international reputation [who also has] a way of designing which is different. Bijoy’s approach is very intuitive [and] collaborative, so his method of working is very different from other architects, especially Australian architects,” he said.
Milgrom describes Jain as “one of the world’s most fascinating architects.”
“As an architect, Bijoy thinks like an artist. His buildings are realised around a central idea, and are then fleshed out through an extensive process of collaboration, and always, careful consideration of the surrounding environment.”
Jain began with a small model, then made it into a full-size model, and in that fluid development, the design evolved. “In Mumbai, he made a full-scale model and then worked with the builders to further refine and change it,” Buckingham explained.
During the time the model was being built and modified in India, Australian engineers and builders travelled to Mumbai to also work on the design in order to learn the techniques required to construct it in Melbourne.
One of the engineers was Robert Irwin, a specialist in setting up temporary structures for galleries or special events. “I had a structural background, but no bamboo background,” he told The Wire before the inauguration.
He made two trips to Mumbai. The second time was when he and his colleagues went “hands on,” which included a number of engineering tests.
In an earlier update for MPavilion, Jain recounted that at Studio Mumbai, seven different types of natural fibre ropes were tested before Abaca fibres were chosen, for they were thin, but strong.
According to Irwin, the distinct part of working with bamboo, ropes and wooden pins is that it is “considerably more time consuming”.
“The beauty of this structure is hard to tell how much work went into it. If you sat there, you will see joints and connections, points where everything is coming together,” he said.
According to their calculations, over 26 kilometres of rope was used to lash together bamboo, which if set in line, would be as long as 7 kilometres. The bamboo was sourced from the northeastern states of Bihar and Karnataka. Slatted panels made of karvi stick were also tested and manufactured in Mumbai before being shipped to Australia.
After going through a few weeks over high seas, the panels safely arrived in Australia in late August. It took a few more nail biting days before customs cleared all the construction material for the work to begin in earnest at the site.
At the end, everything tied up well. The entrance to the pavilion was through a towering, detached bamboo gateway – which the architect likens to a tazia – standing astride on a couple of rocks. The floor is made of bluestone that was sourced from local quarries. The pavilion roof has an opening in the middle, under which a gold-leafed bore well acts as the line between the earth, water and sky.
The pavilion was thrown open at a ceremony attended by the Indian High Commissioner to Australia Navdeep Suri and the main protagonists of the project, Milgrom and Jain, on October 4.
For the next four months the enclosed space under the handmade canopy will become the location for music concerts, talks and workshops. Then, just like its two predecessors, it will be moved to a permanent location to become a part of the urban art landmarks of the city.
A whole calendar of events has already been drawn to use the MPavilion space, with many of them having an Indian spice, aligning itself seamlessly with the ongoing Australia-wide Confluence Festival of India, the Melbourne Festival, as well as the new Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts.
This month, performances by Indian Tabla maestro Aneesh Pradhan, local Indian dance troupes, puppet theatres and even an Indian street magic show, will find a platform under its roof. A discussion about jugaad in early November would explore whether it was a ‘form of agency’ or a ‘symptom of marginalisation.’
Milgrom, who first envisioned the entire project, believes that the “handcrafted” MPavilion will be a “calming and thoughtful space” which will “inspire” the people of Melbourne. “As a utopian space for the creative industry and community, MPavilion continues to challenge the way we see and engage with the world by encouraging design debate and cultural exchange.”