Hobart: Tasmania. Having been born and raised there, it always seemed to be a place where very little happened, and its breathtaking beauty is merely taken for granted.
This was most certainly not the case in a recent visit to Tasmania where the magical and inspiring place that is MONA – Museum of Old and New Art has recently emerged in, or more correctly within an already spectacular part of a somewhat uninspiring suburb of Hobart. On the picturesque river-bound site of the well established Moorilla Winery and Moo Brew Brewery, this new addition to the Hobartian hillside (quite literally) is something of the scale and majesty that Hobart has never seen before.
Arriving by boat, already infatuated with the natural and industrious dichotomy that is the Derwent River and glowing from a glass of Tasmanian Merlot, MONA looms out of the hillside at once familiar and completely alien in its context. Familiarity abounds within the jagged edges and vertical emphasis in the building’s detail, entirely of the peripheral landscape; in particular the grand Organ Pipes of Mt Wellington that stand diligently over Hobart.
The stepped path leads from the Derwent’s cold shore, slicing the hill to disallow any perception of what lies beyond. Golden, deeply veined walls of carved sandstone offer natural warmth and beg to be touched, a vast contrast to the stark oxidised steel and concrete insertion of MONA.
Arrival on the podium reveals Mona’s remarkable landscaping and the spectacular backdrop of the Derwent River and distant mountains. The architectural form is angular and harsh, the materials unembellished and industrial yet somewhat comforting and familiar. The podium level of MONA reeks of Tasmanian-ness from the shrubs and staggered gardens that could be from the summit of Mt Wellington to the lawns, picket fence-like boundaries and scaled down terrain that is of all-too-Tasmanian suburban familiarity, yet without being kitsch or insensitive in a way that is often associated with such gestures.
The entrance to the subterranean building is through an original 1950s modernist house by Australian Architect Roy Grounds. The only visible modification to the architectural treasure is a surreal wall of warped mirror that envelops the entrance in a sci-fi inspired manner. A serene interior with retro furniture and a large central fireplace is welcoming and indifferent to the scale of the surrounding complex. The only acknowledgement given to the museum is through the cavernous hole in the floor in which descends an epic steel staircase encased in walls carved from the sandstone hill that once stood.
The museum itself is deep within the sandstone, a ceiling of coffered concrete and exposed underside of Roy Grounds’ 60-year-old footings. The carved stonework remains as walls in its natural mottled state. The spatial qualities are breathtaking and stairs, paths and galleries weave their way defiantly through the subtracted void that was once solid sandstone. It has been left abundantly clear that this entire building is a negative space taken from the hillside rather than a positive addition, reinforcing the bold decision to remove an entire side of the island-like outcrop on which it is situated. The tomb-like qualities that are expressed by the building pay homage to one of the highlights of the collection, an Egyptian Mummy over 2000 years old.
Artwork is revealed piece by piece as the descent is made through the museum. Some of it is beautiful and some of it is exceedingly confrontational. All of it is fascinating. The museum spans multiple under-ground-planes and includes a cylindrical tunnel to the roundhouse library, another inspirational 1950s Roy Grounds building, which contains an abundance of books of Tasmanian significance. The building is a historically loaded and serene intermission from the contemporary museum.
Crowded with people visiting from Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and much further afield, MONA’s geographical location seemed to be no deterrent. This subtle, underground landmark is a building of world-class quality that demands attention. Every Architectural detail has been carefully considered and delivered with precision. There are no awkward moments and nothing to suggest that anything but absolute commitment has been given to the design and construction by everyone involved. The ferry ride from Hobart is a must and the glaring absence of entry fees to the museum ensures a delightful and rewarding visit. With ever-changing exhibitions, an extraordinary building and inspirational and intriguing artworks, MONA will become a highlight of every Tasmanian visit.
– David Johnston