The 2016 NGV Architecture Commission, M@STUDIO Architects Haven’t you always wanted...?
© M@ STUDIO Architects

The exhibition of architecture presents a conundrum for art galleries. How do we successfully display something as large and complicated as a building or urban precinct if we cannot exhibit the real thing? Is it sufficient to exhibit photographs, sketches, models, drawings, video and fragments of buildings to communicate the architectural experience, and do records, ephemera and associated materials allow the audience to truly experience the spatial and temporal properties of architecture? Running alongside this pragmatic challenge is a parallel conceptual consideration; because contemporary architecture is the result of a mediated process – involving a client, brief, planning and budget – exhibiting it in final form does not capture the broader social, cultural, spatial and technical terrains which many architects operate within.

Gallery curators need to seek solutions that present architecture as an area of research and speculation, and this quest has stimulated the exhibition of fully formed buildings that are temporary in nature and appropriate in scale for the gallery context. The pavilion, or architectural installation, holds significant potential to explore social, cultural, material and technical concerns that buildings in ‘the real world’ cannot. Internationally there are many strong examples of museums freeing architecture from the city grid, including the annual Serpentine Pavilion (and now Summer Houses) program in London, and MoMA’s PS1 Young Architects Program in New York. These experimental initiatives facilitate a more nuanced and intimate view of architecture’s intellectual and cultural nature, intersecting with and informing the creation of city buildings in a positive feedback loop between research, gallery, practice and built outcomes.

It is within this context that in 2015 the National Gallery of Victoria established an ongoing program of NGV Architecture Commissions, offering emerging and established architects the opportunity to design innovative temporary projects. The 2016 NGV Architecture Commission: M@ STUDIO Architects is a hyperreal car wash that reframes and celebrates the ways commercial buildings define the lived experience and visual culture of suburbia. Haven’t you always wanted …? takes its dimensions directly from an existing car wash in Blackburn, Melbourne, transplanting the everyday structure into the unfamiliar surroundings of the Gallery.

What is most noticeable about M@ STUDIO Architects’ concept, once you get past the pink, neon, super-graphics and cricket netting, is the fact that the architects have chosen a fundamentally simple (and pre-existing) building as their stepping-off point. The concept of the pavilion is the result of the union of two longstanding research interests of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Design: the first, referred to as ‘Suburban realism’, examines new civic models of expression in Melbourne’s future outer suburbs; and the second is an exploration of architectural illusions, or what RMIT researchers term ‘uncertain conditions’ and ‘dematerialisation’. Haven’t you always wanted …? uproots a familiar building and, by remodelling and recreating it, helps us see the structure’s economic design imperative in a new way.

On the suburban fringe, civic amenities are regularly delivered through a retail model; supermarkets now act as the basis of town centres at the heart of suburban society. The car wash, alongside the petrol station and fast food outlets, is one of the most iconic architectural typologies of the suburbs. The simplicity of its gridded structure is unashamedly utilitarian. Garish lighting and signage, vertical white tiles and concrete floors speak of the economic necessities of suburban life. M@ STUDIO Architects ask us to rethink not only the role of this commercial architectural form as an engine of social culture and personal identity but also the architectural potential of branded suburban landscapes.

Haven’t you always wanted…? draws upon Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s text Learning from Las Vegas (1972) which shocked the architectural establishment by dismissing the functionalism of international modernism in favour of the exuberant designs of American car culture and neon lights and signage of the Las Vegas Strip. M@ STUDIO Architects’ hyperreal, hypercoloured slice of suburbia reminds us that anything can be considered beautiful, depending on who is looking. Australian artists Howard Arkley and Jeffrey Smart both discovered unique ways to elevate the patterns, colour and forms of mundane Australian suburbia to levels of unquestionable beauty in their work. Similarly, in Haven’t you always wanted …?, everything is normal and yet things do not quite add up.

M@ STUDIO Architects argue that the semi-porous, semi-public shelters at the nexus of petrol, food and cars have emerged as a uniquely dominant architectural form in Australian suburbia. The scale of the pavilion is defined by the size of a car and allows us to consider urban sprawl, car culture and the economically rational, banal and utilitarian buildings of suburbia. By testing postmodernism’s use of appropriation and colliding of high and low culture, Haven’t you always wanted…? questions why suburbia is not better appreciated and whether we are comfortable with the idea that a car wash or fast food chain is now the suburban destination of choice. The project challenges the practice of architecture to look beyond the city centre where modern and postmodern architectural preoccupations have often failed to act in service of a larger idea, or at a suitable scale. Haven’t you always wanted …? challenges architects and the general populace to shift their attention towards suburbia and the fringe of our ever-expanding city.

Statement by M@ STUDIO Architects

Haven’t you always wanted to run through all that foam at the car wash?

In Haven’t you always wanted …? the typology of the DYI car wash is adopted at full scale and undergoes a transformation – dematerialising and becoming ghostly in the visual field. Is this the folly in the garden or what the suburbs would look like if for some reason the roads were covered with grass? Instead of providing an object in the garden that can be clearly understood from one position, we aimed for an uncertain object that can be understood in different ways depending on where it is seen from. The pavilion contains multiple layers of immersive effects and allows high levels of engagement. The project invites visitors to participate and engage with it. You want to move around it because it constantly changes depending on where you are located. Banal, familiar and readily available materials are used and redeployed as saturated ornament.

In the pavilion, a saturation of disparate conditions can coexist, offering a curious state that does not quite make sense. It asks ‘what if?’. What if the scale of the suburbs landed in the NGV Garden? What if architecture could dematerialise? What might an uncertain condition look and feel like? What joy can we take in an abundance of overlaid grids, cricket nets, mist, porosity and ghostly visual effects? What if the road came to life with vivid pink astroturf? What if you were immersed in a grotto-like field of translucent red? What if architecture shivered ever so slightly in the wind?