In Australia, where large, risk-averse design firms almost obliterate small, grass-roots studios in the competition for projects, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA is building a bridge.

And what a wonderful bridge it is.

The studio is the fourth in a series of world-renowned architecture firms to build the annual MPavilion in Melbourne, commissioned by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation.

Ensconced within the parklands of Melbourne’s prime cultural precinct, MPavilion runs from October to February 2018. The pavilion’s summer programme presents the public with a diverse sampling of cultural activities that range from performance to discussions and presentations, launches and events, and more.

Photo Timothy Burgess

OMA is already doing quite a bit of work down under, positioning itself as an independent, international voice willing to collaborate and show new perspective in a highly competitive market for design business. The recent completion of its amphitheatrical MPavilion is a main driver in connecting the firm more closely to its Australian market, while also effectively providing the local community with a space to connect.

‘You can grasp all kinds of information and understanding about the place from what happens within a pavilion,’ says David Gianotten, managing partner and architect at OMA.

Photo Timothy Burgess

Gianotten is the propelling force behind OMA’s move into Australia. He and Koolhaas chose to take on the project – a relatively small undertaking compared to some of the landmarks the heavyweight firm has become famous for – for its compact scale and power to engage the public.

‘If you are an office like ours, you are really pushed into bigger things,’ comments Koolhaas. ‘For me it is really crucial to do small things not because they are necessarily easier, but because they are often more essential and existential in terms of what architecture really is.’

Photo John Gollings

Gianotten describes the MPavilion brief as being very simple, and OMA’s response as being very clear. ‘It was one piece of A4 paper,’ he says. ‘We had to create a space [within Melbourne’s Victoria Gardens] where 250 people could be seated, where debate, performance and initiatives could [take place].’

‘Our response was to have a space that could be used like a tool – in different ways. It needed to offer more than one configuration; and we wanted to create an archetype that everybody understood, that [spanned] cultures and time. The amphitheatre I think is a very clear position of that.’

For MPavilion, OMA reconfigured and reinvented the ancient amphitheatre model into a domain of ‘intensity and debate’. The main structure is constructed as two tiered grandstands – one static, the other shifting and rotating to open the pavilion to face the outside world, or close it off to create an intimate, insular atmosphere. ‘The roof is simply a grid – like a theatre grid with all kinds of possibilities,’ notes Gianotten.

Photo Timothy Burgess

OMA kept to budget by constructing the pavilion in Australia. For any designer living and operating within the country, manufacturing comes down to relationships and contacts. It is an industry ruled by high labour costs, yet it exceeds expectations in factory-based prefabrication.

OMA’s willingness to ‘go deep’ and interface with the local manufacturing industry reveals its considered and thorough approach to architecture and construction, as well as place and people. ‘In architecture it is important to understand what you can get – and where, before [anything is made],’ says Gianotten, who made numerous trips from Europe to Australia throughout the development of the pavilion. ‘Our engagement in the place was more related to that.’

OMA is the first architecture studio to design the MPavilion and have a hand in its event programme too. It’s all part of its assimilation into the Australian architecture and design landscape – a ‘bridging’ strategy that is aimed to bring new diversity and perspective to the country’s flourishing design scene.