The Potency of History: The site of the Museum of Contemporary Art

The following is an extract from the essay The potency of history: The site of the Museum of Contemporary Art – a brief account by Ian Hoskins, as published in Site, a new MCA publication. Site investigates the significant history of the MCA’s site on the west side of Circular Quay, where the First Fleet landed in 1788. It also looks at the MCA buildings themselves – the history of the Art Deco sandstone building, the archaeological remains below the new extension, and the artworks that have been commissioned for the buildings since the mid-twentieth century.

THE LANDING OF THE FIRST FLEET

Sometimes the history of one place can encapsulate the story of a wider landscape. The degree to which changes that have affected the parcel of land around the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) reflect the transformation of Sydney Harbour is remarkable. For thousands of years it was an Indigenous foreshore – part of a waterway unified by the saltwater culture of the clans that drew spiritual and physical sustenance from it. On the 26 January 1788 the site became the threshold for the colonisation of a continent when Arthur Phillip and 1,000 men, women and children from the First Fleet began scrambling ashore. They had entered, in the words of one officer, ‘a state unknown’. Two centuries later, the place was accommodating an art museum on a harbour transformed into one of the most recognisable and desirable locations in the world.

Topography is often central to the identity of place. It played a decisive role in January 1788 when Governor Phillip selected Sydney Cove for his first camp. He had already decided to abandon his official destination, the shallow and exposed Botany Bay, and bring the convicts and soldiers of his First Fleet to the deepwater haven of Port Jackson – named but not explored by James Cook 18 years earlier. The cove offered fresh water, deep anchorage, and an accessible shoreline in an unknown harbour.

Phillip had been met by Indigenous people, and occasionally been warned off by them, during his reconnaissance of the waterway. He was surely unsettled by the presence of a resident population on a coast described by the proponents of colonisation as largely empty and therefore available for the taking. There would be killings in other parts of the harbour in the months to come yet curiously there was no confrontation or defence of the cove he decided upon, a place the Indigenous people called Warrane. Colonial accounts suggest that Warrane was in the country of the Gadigal people but maybe it was a transitional or shared place sitting as it did next to Wangal territory. Were boundaries marked by particular rocks, trees or carvings or did people move gradually from one group’s country to another?

In any case it was here that Phillip pitched his tents and read the letters patent establishing the colony of New South Wales. The first landing was on the west side but the first wharf was built to the south east to access the governor’s residence. The second one followed a short while later near that initial landing and led to a makeshift hospital. It became known as the Hospital Wharf but functioned generally as the ‘public wharf’. The structure got a gantry to help with the unloading of supplies – an unintended and ominous gateway for those arriving to begin their period of exile.

The jetty on the other side was the Government Wharf. Within a decade the demarcation between east and west hardened as the more functional aspects of port life were concentrated below The Rocks. The government dockyard, originally located near the eastern wharf, was removed to a site not far from the hospital. Activity in the docks presaged the growth of private boatbuilding, first in Sydney Cove and then the wider harbour. This developed despite edicts that forbade the construction of ocean-going vessels for fear they would be used by convicts to flee the place.

THE COMMISSARIAT STORES

By the early 1800s, Sydney had necessarily developed a double identity – it was both a convict town and a commercial entrepôt. The desire to trade and the need for local exports like seal skin and oil to offset the cost of sustaining the colony overwhelmed restrictions on boatbuilding and commerce. Private warehouses, some owned by former convicts, lined the western shore filled with the pelts harvested from the islands of Bass Strait and further south by crews in locally built boats. The marketplace had been established behind – serviced by the public wharf. By 1803 Robert Campbell’s wharf joined that jetty as the main point of commercial embarkation.

The Commissariat Store had originally sat over near Government Wharf. It was from there that the administration supplied convicts and soldiers with the food and goods they needed to survive. To be ‘on the Store’ was to be dependent upon the Government. As farms run by free settlers, ex-soldiers, and ex-convicts were established in the south and west and up on the rich Hawkesbury River flood plains, the Commissariat Store bought the produce and disseminated it to others – a group which included everyone from convicts to civil officials.

The fixed price offered was not always acceptable to producers. Some decided instead to distil their grain illegally and turn it into more profitable and highly tradeable rum. For until 1829 colonists negotiated a bewildering system of multiple currencies and forms of exchange.

They relied on rum, barter, or the assortment of Spanish dollars, foreign coins and British ‘sterling’ that circulated in port. For its part the Commissariat functioned as the main source of sterling in the colony issuing British Treasury bills for goods received. In the absence of anything else it acted as a local treasury and bank.

The Commissariat remained a pivotal financial and provisioning institution well after Campbell and other merchants had laid the foundation of a market economy based upon export commodities. While the number of civilians ‘on the Store’ was curtailed in the 1820s, the need to supply dependent convicts increased as more prisoners were sent to the colony. Between 1815 and 1821, the population of New South Wales grew from 13,000 to nearly 30,000 due in large part to transportation.

The new Commissariat Store was built between the Hospital Wharf and the Government dockyard and was completed in 1809. Its size and impressiveness was in keeping the importance of the role it played and it fitted well with the functional character of the west side. Designed by Lieutenant Colonel Foveaux, the building was completed during the administration of the great builder and civic improver Lachlan Macquarie and was counted alongside a lighthouse, hospital, convict barracks and waterfront fort, perched opposite on Bennelong Point, among the great public works of that administration.

Another similar structure was erected behind, along George Street and together they became known as the Commissariat Stores. Built of Sydney sandstone the first, most prominent, building foreshadowed the character of the Cove as the place developed over the next 50 years into a bustling and impressive working waterfront with a new customs house and ever more warehouses. The mud, rock and wood of earlier years gradually disappeared. ‘Stone is the most prevalent material’ remarked one visitor in 1854. By then sandstone wharfage had been extended from the east side of the Cove to just past the Commissariat Store and the place was called Circular Quay.

SYDNEY BECOMES A COMMERCIAL AND STRATEGIC PORT

The old dockyards and slips were filled in as a result of these improvements, so the west side of the Cove gave up its boat building role to other bays in the western harbour. Wool broker Thomas Mort diversified his business and built a large graving dock at Balmain in the name of private enterprise, while Government and Royal Navy vessels were built and repaired on Cockatoo Island. With the departure of the shipwrights, the Quay was unequivocally a gateway – a place of arrivals and departures for both goods and people. The export of wool was fuelling the commerce of a prosperous free colony. Gold, recently discovered in New South Wales, was added to the fleeces. Convict transportation to New South Wales had ended in 1840 to the satisfaction of most. So as the carefully cut stones were laid around the new Quay, its waterfront precincts filled with free immigrants in search of jobs, land or the promise a quick fortune.

While it was regarded mainly as a convict town, Sydney did not warrant a permanent naval presence – at least in opinion of the Colonial Office. Now it was a commercial and strategic port of significance and, accordingly, the Royal Navy established its Australia Station in the Harbour in 1859. With no convicts left to provide for the Commissariat Store was redundant. Instead the building was filled with naval supplies and ordnance for the new Station. It kept its defence supplies until 1894 when everything was transferred to the naval station on Garden Island. In the process the building lost its functional relationship with waterway.

FEDERATION

The new century was a new beginning. The six colonies finally federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. There were momentous shifts more locally. For, shortly after, an authority called the Sydney Harbour Trust took control of the waterway with the aim of improving its wharfage and ridding the place of the rats that had brought Bubonic Plague to the precincts behind the Commissariat Store the previous year. In the process the Trust acquired much of The Rocks in the biggest resumption of property the colonies had known.

Improvement and planning were the catch cries of the new century. Some hoped to tear down the blighted Rocks and rebuild for the Quay. The plans that accompanied a Royal Commission in 1909 reflected the international preference for wholesale remodelling in the Beaux Arts style of the Chicago White City Exposition. Boulevards and open spaces, with monolithic touches of classicism, where previously there was a tangle of people and trams, horses and boats. There would be order instead of chaos.

New wharves were built but little of the grandiose imagining was implemented. In 1936 the Sydney Harbour Trust was amalgamated with the Department of Navigation to form the Maritime Services Board (MSB), a body which came to control all the navigable waters of New South Wales.

Plans were begun almost immediately to find an appropriately placed and proportioned headquarters for the important new authority. In the process, a scheme was drawn up to redevelop the Quay – again. The preference for monoliths set in open space was as strong as it had been at the turn of the century. It was envisioned that both sides of the Cove would be resumed and lined with well-spaced government offices amidst park land on the west and flats set in greenery to the east. For the Butters Committee, who authored the proposal, the result would be ‘an attractive and appropriate framing for the whole Quay’ which itself was the gateway to a city that locals considered ‘the third city of the Empire’. Stretching across the head of the Cove was an elevated train station finally completing the city loop and linking rail to ferry services.

THE MARITIME SERVICES BOARD BUILDING

The Commissariat Store had no place in this plan and it was decided in 1937 that it should be demolished to make way for the MSB’s new headquarters. For many it was a redundant eyesore that evoked a convict heritage best forgotten. Yet news of the impending demise of the city’s oldest building bothered some. One letter writer argued its cause on the basis of heritage and aesthetics. Such buildings were associated with the foundation of the country while adding ‘distinction’ to the modern city. Sentiments such as these represented a turning point in the development of heritage consciousness in Australia.

There had been no such arguments when Fort Macquarie was demolished at the turn of the century to make way for a tram depot. The fate of the Commissariat Store added weight to calls for the foundation of a preservationist society or trust. Such a body, the National Trust of New South Wales, was established in 1947.

The appeals to save it were ultimately rejected because the Commissariat Store would appear ‘incongruous’ in the new plans. It was simply old and in, terms of design, would have no relationship with the long clean horizontal lines of the train station.

The building that was designed in 1939 and 1940, by the MSB’s architect William Henry Withers, did. His design was not radical in its modernity. In fact its symmetry and lines harked back to classicism. But while Withers was inspired by history to create a monumental structure, he rejected history’s clutter. The building’s stylised austerity and its relative isolation from the accretions of a century and a half of development were very modern.

The MSB building reflected one of the dominant streams of civic design in the United States and Britain of the late 1920s through the 1930s. Nonetheless it related well to its setting. The use of sandstone cladding was the most obvious link. The golden rock had symbolised Sydney for over a century. The stepping of the main axis referenced the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which loomed beyond as the most profound expression of modernity in the Harbour.

The MSB building was not completed until 1952. World War Two had intervened, sapping materials, labour and supplies. The conflict also delayed plans to further redevelop the east and west sides of the Cove and the railway, which did not open until 1956. In that year the first of the modern steel and glass office blocks to line the eastern cove, Unilever House, was completed. By 1961 three well-spaced blocks sat along that side suggesting the aim of the pre-war Butters Committee. But instead of a buffer of green squares, each office block abutted remnants of the old 19th century warehouses that once lined the Cove. In time these disappeared and that side became one solid wall of steel and glass.

REDEVELOPMENT OF THE ROCKS

The government still had plans, however. In 1956 it announced a competition for an opera house to occupy the end of Bennelong Point – where Fort Macquarie had once stood and an ugly tram depot remained. The winner was an extraordinary design of shells that took more than a decade to realise as the Sydney Opera House.

Both Jørn Utzon’s revolutionary modernism and the International Style of the corporate offices that were erupting all over the city contrasted starkly with the MSB building. Though hardly old by the 1960s it was already looking anachronistic. Indeed it seemed positively historical when the imaginations of the country’s leading architects were let loose upon the west side of the Cove after the Government announced another competition for the redevelopment of The Rocks in 1960.

Austrian-born, Sydney-based Harry Seidler was one of those. A devotee of Le Corbusier, a student of Marcel Breuer and a colleague of Oscar Niemeyer he had established himself as one of Australia’s foremost prophets of Modernism in the short time since his arrival in 1948. Seidler despised most of the architectural creations of the 19th century and all those of the 20th that looked to the past for inspiration.

His eyes quickly set upon the MSB as it sat starkly on the western Cove. It was ‘utterly decadent’. Not surprisingly he expunged it from his plan for The Rocks. The building survived with a handful of other ‘historic’ structures in the winning entry but was surrounded by towering offices and residences – set, as with the earlier visions of orderly modernity, in well-ordered spaces.

The erasure of The Rocks was forestalled initially by an economic downturn. However when the finances were finally right for implementation in the early 1970s, the public mood had turned. The rather forlorn protest at the demolition of the Commissariat Store became a campaign to save a whole precinct, one that involved residents, building workers and middle class professionals. The area around the MSB building was saved from destruction but there was a cost. The working class community who had defended the place ultimately made way for cultural and tourist enterprises in the ‘Birthplace of a Nation’. The city’s convict heritage that many were only too happy to expunge when the Commissariat Store came down was now proudly embraced.

The waterway all around was changing. In Darling Harbour, one cove to the west, the redundant working waterfront was completely cleared to create a spectacular tourist and culture precinct based upon the re-modelling of American harboursides.

THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Industry and maritime commerce was starting to leave the Harbour just as the MSB, rather symbolically, abandoned its waterfront headquarters for an office tower in 1989. The same Government that built the new Darling Harbour waterfront offered the MSB building to the University of Sydney to house its Power Collection of Contemporary Art. The Museum of Contemporary Art, as it became known, sat across from the greatest of cultural landmarks – the Sydney Opera House. It was most appropriate, for the decision to build an Opera House on Bennelong Point was the most emphatic starting point in the transition of the Harbour from a place of commerce and transportation to one of culture and leisure.

The aesthetic response to the old MSB building in its phase of transition was mixed. It was praised by one writer as ‘one of the country’s finest Modern structures’, while Bernice Murphy, the MCA’s Chief Curator at the time, described it as an expression of ‘a rather stodgy public mentality of provincial civic architecture’.

However, there could be no denying the significance of the site – at once the first place of invasion and the birthplace of a nation. It is what Murphy called ‘the historical potency’ of the place. From this the MCA drew inspiration and set itself the goal of using art to engage with the new multiplicity of meanings in Australian culture.

It was a fascinating and, in many ways, ideal outcome – the creation of a threshold for ideas on a site that had long served as a threshold for people and goods; a place saturated with historical currency after two centuries of change, renewal and debate.

Images (from top): William Bradley First Interview with the Native Women at Port Jackson New South Wales plate 11 from Drawings from William Bradley’s journal A Voyage to New South Wales 1802+ Safe 1 / 14 opp p70 Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales
Old Stores in Governor Foveaux’s time 991 / N Set opp p 40 Courtesy State Library of New South Wales
Passenger terminal area West Circular Quay date unknown Government Printing Office 1 – 19548 Courtesy State Library of New South Wales
Wharfage Hall in the former MSB Building, showing Robert Emerson Curtis’ commissioned mural in the background
Site Plan (Sydney Opera House) from The Red Book, a 1958 report presented by architect Jorn Utzon to the Premier of New South Wales and the Opera House Committee