Meet philanthropist Naomi Milgrom AO whose support of architecture and design via the MPavilion project is shaping new ways of seeing the city through collective creativity.
Shaping the city in new, creative ways is at the heart of the MPavilion program launched in Melbourne by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation in 2014. This philanthropic platform which supports design and architecture through an annual commission and an activated events program, has blossomed into a place and a catalyst for collective creativity, echoing the mantra of American cities activist Jane Jacobs, who famously observed: "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
"My view is that you are only as good as your collective partners and the challenges around you,” remarks Naomi Milgrom when we speak about the thinking behind the MPavilion project.
“It’s very important to engage with people, to bounce other ideas and thinking. A few people aren’t able to come up with everything and collaboration helps us develop bigger ideas. The best projects when you unpick them and look closely have that underlying methodology."
With successful collaborations spanning 25 years across a broad range of organisations in the arts, education and science, Milgrom began thinking about design and architecture. Where music, performance art and education were part of the philanthropic culture, design and architecture were not. “I started to think about how we could help," remarks Milgrom.
An admirer of London’s Serpentine Pavilion held annually in Kensington Gardens, and one of the city’s top five events, Milgrom met with then director Julia Peyton-Jones in 2008 with an idea for a Melbourne pavilion that could serve as both a hub and a symbol to bring design and architecture together. "I thought there were possibilities around that idea," recalls Milgrom. "The MPavilion has grown differently to the first Serpentine pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid, but the notion of a pavilion emanated from there."
To get MPavilion off the ground, the first thing Milgrom did was go to the City of Melbourne and ask if they were willing to support the idea. The answer was a resounding 'yes', with the city becoming an integral part of Milgrom’s collective framework from day one, joining a list of more than 300 collaborators who Milgrom describes as having "a great desire to take part, both creatively and physically.” It’s this ability to bring people and ideas together so holistically that earned Milgrom a 2016 Philanthropy Leadership Award from Creative Partnerships Australia, recognising her foundation and the big ideas they have fired up across the arts.
A conversation with Naomi Milgrom is sprinkled with the collective ‘we’. For Milgrom it’s all about collaboration. "I describe it as collective creativity,” she enthuses. "If you imagine a completely new project which has no stakeholders, you can view it as a Utopian project where anything can happen. With MPavilion we didn’t start with any connections and that’s why we have been able to connect with so many."
Over the past three years this collective way of thinking has re-invigorated the Queen Victoria Gardens, a once forgotten park in Melbourne that connects Flinders Street Station to the bridge across the Yarra River and the city itself. The first MPavilion was designed by Sean Godsell Architects then AL_A in 2015, with the latest in the series by Studio Mumbai and made by a team of designers, engineers and craftspeople, in Mumbai and Melbourne, and assisted by local scouts proficient in knots. "One weekend I went to the pavilion and there was a group of scouts tying the rope,” recalls Milgrom. “It was wonderful."
The brief for the MPavilion was developed in response to the site's 14 by 14 metre grid, size being the only boundary set for each designer. "I have said that it should have a roof that is weather-proof, but I think the architects have not taken that literally," laughs Milgrom. "The thing I always look for is a strong architectural language that is unique, for me it's the single most important thing.”
During the MPavilion process, Milgrom spends time in each architect’s studio – locally in Sean Godsell’s studio for the first pavilion, in London to work with Amanda Levete at AL_A, and to Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai in India last December. “Bijoy’s studio was fascinating, how they work in a collaborative way with craftspeople from day one. It was a collaborative process in the true sense of the word,” remarks Milgrom. "The karvi panels were made over three months by a variety of Indians all over the Mumbai area. I think it’s now the largest bamboo structure built in Australia.”
Studio Mumbai’s airy bamboo pavilion is a place to sit, relax, to enjoy the garden, and engage with an eclectic program of events – from biodiversity workshops for kids, to Dada films, a conversation with Glenn Murcutt and mindfulness yoga. "When you sit in Bijoy Jain's space," Milgrom notes. “You actually don’t understand what makes it so harmonious, why you feel calm and at ease. It’s all in the perfection of the design."
At the end of MPavilion's three-month program, each pavilion is gifted to the city to become a permanent part of Melbourne’s story. “MPavilion is very different from that point of view”, enthuses Milgrom. "Sean Godsell’s pavilion has gone to the Hellenic Museum and Amanda Levete's has gone to Docklands Park at the bottom of Collins Street. The city will decide where Studio Mumbai's pavilion goes when the program finishes at the end of February. We want the people of Australia to enjoy them".
MPavilion is at the Queen Victoria Gardens until 28 February 2017. ‘The Making of the MPavilion’ is on show at RMIT Gallery, with process models, material samples, sketch books and texts, plus images of the work in progress in India by photographer Nick Watt. The exhibition is free to the public until 5 February 2017. For details about the design program, visit mpavilion.org/program/
The 2016 MPavilion is supported by more than 300 collaborators including the City of Melbourne, Creative Victoria, ANZ, The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, D.T. Williamson Foundation and Space Furniture.