Melbourne Recital Centre - there's a Metaphor in there, can you guess what it is?

According to my young hipster architecture advisers, Myrtle and Beryl, there’s a great big Architectural Metaphor underlying the appearance of the Melbourne Recital Centre. Before reading on, look at the exhibit for a couple of moments to see if you Get It (there are two buildings there – it’s the white one on the right).

Personally, I quite like a decent serving of Metaphor with my Architecture. One of the more familiar examples of metaphor in concrete is the Sydney Opera House with its soaring shells modelled on the sailboats of Sydney Harbour.

That might seem an awfully trite metaphor for such a high-culture activity or for arguably the world’s greatest modern building. But it does capture something about the extraordinary setting on Sydney’s magnificent harbour.

If he were alive today, Utzon would probably say sails were an “inspiration” rather than a direct model. Nowadays however, Myrtle and Beryl tell me there’s a fashion in progressive architectural circles for direct and uncompromising Metaphors as a key driver of built form.

I haven’t confirmed this with the architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougal (ARM), but Myrtle and Beryl have thoroughly researched the Melbourne Recital Centre and are insistent it’s appearance is Metaphor-driven. Moreover, they know what the Metaphor is and assure me the architects fully and consciously intended it.

That’s fine. After all, the recital centre is a high-culture artistic institution with a wealth of musical ideas for metaphor-makers to draw on. The location within Melbourne’s arts precinct would also offer plenty of potential cues for the creative.

So taking Beryl and Myrtle at their word, here’s what it is. They say ARM began with the idea that the cultural activities the Recital Centre accommodates are extremely precious. To convey the concept of extraordinarily high value, the designers hit on the idea of protective packaging.

The white form on the façade at the front represents polystyrene packaging enclosing something precious – something to be treasured and cherished. It’s been slid part way out of a cardboard or timber box, represented by the brown facade on the side street. If you take a look in Google Street View, you can see one of the flaps on the box is open.

Having had it explained to me, I can see it loud and clear. I confess I wouldn’t have got it otherwise, but now it’s as obvious as Les Patterson. So assuming my progressive architectural friends have got ARM’s intention right, the packaging Metaphor raises some interesting and even challenging questions.

An obvious one is whether or not the Metaphor increased the cost of the building or seriously compromised its functionality. I can’t say if it did or didn’t, but in any event those questions can only be addressed in the context of what the Metaphor is worth.

To have value, people other than the architects need to Get It. I wonder how many of those who regularly attend performances at the Centre actually Get It? How many of them even know there’s something there To Get?

And how many of the 95% of Melburnians who’ll never or only occasionally visit the Recital Centre – those who might drive past, see photos of it, or attend on a school excursion – Get It?

Then there’s the idea of preciousness. I can see it’s relevant and works in this context, but is it the best possible fit? Of all the ideas suggested by a recital centre – it’s mostly classical music (see current program here) – is precious the most apposite? Something directly music-related seems a more obvious starting point to me.

But the big question for me personally concerns the Metaphor chosen to convey preciousness – the idea that the external appearance of the building is set up as packaging for a valuable object. This is a personal view, but it strikes me as extraordinarily banal. In my opinion it’s a small, cheesy, even trivial idea.

Yes, valuable objects do come in polystyrene. I’ve unpacked microwave ovens, smart phones, mini stereos and countless other small consumer goods that came firmly enclosed in plastic. Most of them aren’t especially valuable though (they’re packed in polystyrene because they’re vulnerable).

Maybe the Metaphor would be an interesting idea for a small part of the façade or the interior, but as the driving force for a whole building? For a major public building? For a building devoted to high culture? Maybe if it were playful or ironic I’d be more receptive, but I think the idea is trite.

There’re lots of things architects do well. They can create structures of extraordinary beauty and fashion environments that evoke strong emotions. But making intellectual statements with design isn’t something architecture lends itself well to, especially compared to other mediums.

It’s possible to theorise about architecture as a discipline, but there’re very few buildings that present as strong intellectual statements in and of themselves. Most times any attempt to be “intellectual” is liable to come across as corny and lowbrow.

My young architect friends disagree. Myrtle and Beryl think the Recital Centre’s packaging Metaphor – assuming they got ARM’s intention right – is very deep, even profound. They also happen to think the aesthetics of the building are unimportant –as long as the idea is right, it’s the process of getting there that matters, not what it ultimately looks like.

That’s a very interesting proposition I’ll return to another time. In the meantime I’ll risk their disapproval by saying that ARM has created a stunningly beautiful auditorium in the Recital Centre. I don’t think a direct metaphor is intended here, but it certainly evokes the feel of an old Stradivarius. And by the accounts I hear, it’s acoustic performance is exemplary.