The building housing the Museum of Contemporary Art stands on land traditionally owned by the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. This site also marks the landing place of the First Fleet in 1788.
A number of public buildings occupied the site from the early days of colonial settlement, including commissariat stores and Australia’s original naval dock. In the 1930s, the commissariat stores and taxation building on the site were demolished to make way for a new Maritime Services Board building, after the previous MSB offices were sacrificed to make way for the Cahill Express Way and Circular Quay railway development.
Government architect W H Withers began work on the building plans in 1939 but the project came to a halt in 1940 due to wartime shortages of labour and materials. Work finally resumed in 1944 under government architect W D H Baxter. Builders were appointed in 1946 but difficulties in securing labour and material once again delayed construction. The foundation stone was laid in 1949 and in 1952 the MSB building opened. Clad with sandstone quarried at Maroubra, the imposing six-storey building housed the offices of the Maritime Services Board (MSB).
With the relocation of the MSB to larger premises in 1989, the NSW State Government granted a long term lease on four floors of the building to the University of Sydney for the purposes of housing the Museum of Contemporary Art. The building’s refurbishment and extension was funded by the University of Sydney and the Power Bequest, under the direction of Andrew Andersons of Peddle Thorpe/John Holland Interiors, and in November 1991 the Museum of Contemporary Art officially opened. In 1998, the remaining two floors were included in the lease leading to the creation of new galleries and a venue for commercial events.
In 2005, the MCA collection was relocated to offsite storage, creating more exhibiting space. As the MCA’s audience grew and its programs expanded, the shortcomings of the building were exacerbated: poor circulation and access, with some galleries only accessible to the public via a goods lift, a lack of dedicated facilities for education groups, cramped foyers and nothing outside that signalled a contemporary art museum.
A major $53 million redevelopment of the MCA by Sydney architect Sam Marshall in association with the New South Wales Government Architect’s Office commenced in August 2010. The refurbished building, which opened on 29 March 2012, increased the MCA’s total size by almost 50 per cent with the addition of 4,500 square metres, including a new five-storey wing. The cutting-edge architecture of the new wing complements the existing building, while the use of new technologies sets a new standard for collaboration with audiences through a robust wi-fi service and unique digital infrastructure.
Spacious new galleries include a 5.8m-high gallery in the new wing, new venue spaces, cafe, sculpture terrace and education facilities. Improved entry with a foyer linking George Street and Circular Quay, which are on different levels, was another key consideration of the redevelopment.
Making the most of the MCA’s stunning location, the foyer offers uninterrupted views to the harbour, while venue spaces added to the roof of the original building unfold spectacular views over Sydney Harbour to the Opera House.
The MCA redevelopment was made possible by public and private sector support. The Federal Government and the NSW State Government each contributed $13 million. The MCA’s Chairman, Simon Mordant and his wife Catriona, contributed $15 million, in recognition of which the extension has been named the Mordant Wing. The City of Sydney added $1 million, with the remainder contributed by individual donors and one company.