Profile: Naomi Milgrom on enriching culture
Sep 7, 2017
Naomi Milgrom AO, is the Executive Chair and CEO of the Sussan Group, Australia’s largest fashion retailer, and through the work of her namesake foundation, she is a passionate champion and collector on the international art scene. In 2017, the Melbourne-born businesswoman was appointed commissioner for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In homage to her home city, she continues the work of her foundation’s annual architectural commission, MPavilion, designed this year by Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten of OMA.

Speaking to Naomi Milgrom, it’s clear to see that her combined interests in art, design and philanthropy are intertwined with her approach to business. “Design ultimately impacts the way we live and has the creative power to solve real-world problems,” she says. “Our cities, the way we work, and our homes all play a role.”

In 2014, Milgrom established the Naomi Milgrom Foundation with the aim of initiating and supporting great public design, architecture and cultural projects. “The aim of the foundation is to enrich Australia’s cultural life,” she explains. Focusing on the promotion of design and its connection to contemporary culture, MPavilion is the foundation’s annual project, and has become Australia’s leading architecture commission, forming a temporary space for performance, events and art installations each summer between October and February. It’s an undeniably ambitious project, and one that Milgrom says she hopes will change the way we see design and architecture.

The architects chosen for the pavilion each year all have major international profiles, and the projects are notably inventive. Last year, Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai worked collaboratively with a team of skilled Indian craftspeople on site in India to create a series of prototypes before the final design was chosen and constructed in Melbourne. “The pavilion encapsulated Jain’s ongoing interest in traditional craftsmanship and human connectedness,” Milgrom explains,“which is part of an international movement in handmade architecture.” This year, Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten of Netherlands-based international architecture firm, OMA have designed the pavilion, with a focus on public engagement and social change in cities. 


Francesca Gavin: How did the collaboration with Rem Koolhaas and OMA begin?

Naomi Milgrom: In the early 2000s, I travelled to New York in search of inspiration within contemporary retail, and the one shop that particularly stood out was OMA’s Prada store in downtown Soho — in the building that formerly housed the Guggenheim. It completely took my breath away. Every element was a work of art. It was so much more than just a fashion store — it was a real ‘stage’ for the clothing within the space. Rem’s contribution to the cultural landscape has made him one of the world’s most influential architects and I have long been impressed by OMA’s research arm, AMO, which works in tandem with OMA’s architectural clients. AMO enables a multidisciplinary way of working; spanning not just architecture but also writing, publishing, research, graphic design, sociology, art, theatre and history. 


FG: Tell me about the inspiration for the 2017 design. What were the considerations and what did David and Rem set out to achieve?

NM: OMA’s MPavilion in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens was conceived with a dierent dynamic to the three previous iterations. Rem and David wanted to create a type of stage, in the manner of the traditional amphitheatre — inspired by the stage that OMA designed for the historic Syracuse Greek theatre in Sicily. As a result, the MPavilion design is a theatre of ideas and a platform for debate inspired by ancient Greek and Roman amphitheatres. Rem talks about architecture being a ‘wrapper’ for activity, which is exactly what we hope the MPavilion is — a wrapper for the many performances, talks and interactions that will take place there.


OMA is renowned for creating exciting civic and cultural spaces and the 2017 MPavilion is a perfect example. OMA has combined the traditional features of an amphitheatre with a huge sheltering metal canopy which hovers over the tiered seating. There are two curved grandstands under the canopy: one is hugged by a landscape of native plants, while the other is a metal tribune that rotates and redefines the space, oering a new perspective on the surrounding gardens. 


FG: Do you have any favourite features from the design of this year’s pavilion?


NM: I love how OMA’s vision blurs the lines between inside and outside. The rotating seating encourages everyone to be part of the beautiful garden and city as much as to be part of MPavilion’s inner space. MPavilion 2017 is both a stage and a playground. I’m excited about the opportunities that this kind of design creates in terms of our cultural program and the many kinds of people who are curious to experience the space.


FG: Can you tell me about the sound installations and programming that takes place in the pavilion? 


NM: Every evening at twilight during MPavilion’s presentation, the pavilion erupts into an audio-visual symphony presented in collaboration with artist and sound designer Philip Brophy and lighting designer Ben Cobham of bluebottle. During the summer period, MPavilion presents over 300 free events attracting a diverse audience. These include the popular MTalks, MMusic and MProjects workshops in addition to wellbeing and children’s events. Both Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten have given lectures alongside other international guests this season, including London based architect Jack Self, contemporary Albanian video artist Anri Sala, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism Rory Hyde, and Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrick Schumacher, to name a few.

"Design ultimately impacts the way we live and has the creative power to solve real-world problems. Our cities, the way we work, and our homes, all play a role."

FG: How do you feel the MPavilion commission compares to other annual architectural commissions, for example, the Serpentine in London?

NM: The Serpentine Gallery has been very supportive of the MPavilion project. I'm a close friend of the former Serpentine co-director Julia Peyton-Jones, in fact, she's an advisor to the Naomi Milgrom Foundation board. The Serpentine has been an inspiration and model for MPavilion and is very much a sister project.

The difference however, is that we are not associated with any one institution. MPavilion is for the whole city, and is donated to the City of Melbourne at its close. At the end of each season, MPavilion is moved to a permanent new home within Melbourne's CBD, creating an ongoing legacy amongst the city's increasingly sophisticated architectural landscape. Sean Godsell's inaugural MPavilion, inspired by Australia's outback sheds and verandas, now stands in the gardens of the Hellenic Museum; Amanda Levete's 2015 iteration, which uses technology from the aerospace industry to create a forest canopy of translucent petals now lives on Collins Street, Docklands; and Bijoy Jain's 2016 MPavilion, which explores ideas around handmade architecture, is open in the Melbourne Zoo.

FG: The MPavilion by OMA is the firm's first commission to be finalised in Australia and only the fourth iteration of the commission. What does this mean for the future of the project and for Melbourne as a culture centre?

NM: MPavilion is about championing contemporary architecture and design, and raising greater public awareness about the value of design in our everyday lives — which is a huge benefit in itself. Each year, the architect commissioned to design MPavilion is chosen on the basis that they have an extraordinary ability to encourage challenging debate and dialogue around design, and to make a meaningful contribution to urban innovation and the creative industries in Victoria. MPavilion is a project that has created global connections for Melbourne, championing its international profile as a design capital. It encapsulates the spirit of the city as a cultural leader, and has become Australia's leading inspirational design project.