Sydney’s Walsh Bay Arts Precinct Wows with Timber Cathedrals

Votes for the Australian Timber Design Awards close Saturday, September 30, 2023, so don't miss out!

Mon 25 Sep 23


Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as “timber cathedrals,” the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct is a sight to behold.

Designed by award-winning architect Peter Tonkin, a director of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, it is home to nine arts companies, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Last year, the project secured the Australian Timber Design Awards for Interior Commercial and the People’s Choice Award – awarded to the project that received the most votes from the public.

The development has five new theatres, concert halls, vast exhibition spaces, rehearsal rooms, bars, administration, and workshops for wardrobe, scenery, and props. 

The timber, mostly preserved from its original installation 100 years ago, contrasted beautifully with the modern theatre and dance stage.

Before the redevelopment, the Walsh Bay wharves were a departure point for World War Two soldiers and wool merchants.

Tonkin Zulaikha Greer was appointed by the NSW government in 2016 to redesign Pier 2/3 as a location for performances by Bell Shakespeare, the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and to renovate Wharf 4/5, which will be finished in December 2020 and was formerly home to the Sydney Dance Company (SDC), Gondwanna Choirs, and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Earlier this year, the WoodSolutions took a group of architects, designers and engineers on a walking tour where they visited the precinct. (Photo Credit: Brett Boardman).

In an interview with Architecture AU in 2021, studio Peter Tonkin called “that raw industrial sense of the timber cathedral” – while fulfilling demanding briefs for multiple cultural institutions’ long-term homes.

Tonkin Zulaikha Greer put boxes into the rooms to allow each institution to manage its acoustics to achieve acoustic separation within the old buildings. 

The boxes’ exterior mirrors reflect light from the bay and give the appearance that they are not there. 

At a fundamental level, the design involved the insertion of a series of boxes into the existing sheds to meet the particular needs of each art company. (Photo Credit: Brett Boardman).

Large elevated ceiling parts to accommodate lighting and sound equipment and movable seating to create versatile performance areas are further changes.

The timber cladding installed as an acoustic solution in the Australia Chamber Orchestra’s auditorium also gives the space a refined warmth. (Photo Credit: Brett Boardman).

“It’s fabulous,” Tonkin said. 

“You can walk around directly on the water, yet you’ve got these amazing high-quality performance companies doing their stuff. […] Not only is this synergy of all these companies working, but you can also get a little glimpse of it.”

Finely detailed glass, brass, and timber additions counter the building’s original large-scale industrial components. (Photo Credit: Brett Boardman).

According to former New South Wales Minister for Infrastructure Rob Stokes, the restoration is an important cultural link to Sydney’s waterfront.

“It’s [an] amazing achievement to have a public arts and cultural hub right on Sydney’s famous waterfront with new state-of-the-art facilities while preserving its iconic heritage,” Stokes said.

Judging for the 2023 Australian Timber Design Peoples Choice Award is underway, with submissions closing on Saturday, September 30, 2023.

About the People’s Choice Awards

The People’s Choice Award competition is intended to raise the profile of the Australian Timber Design Awards participants within the general public and the built environment industry.

It is intended for participants, friends, family, and industry affiliates to cheer the Australian Timber Design Awards participants on and show their support for our Awards!

Supported by Pentarch Forestry, the People’s Choice Award has been held every year since 2000 and is open yearly once the blind judging is completed for the Australian Timber Design Awards (ATDA).

About the Awards

There are 11 categories: commercial, fit-out and joinery, residential, public buildings and standalone structures.

“If unsure of your category, please email your brief description and image to our email, and we will direct you to the correct grouping.”

For 2023, award winners will be featured permanently on the Australian Timber Design website, whilst runners-up and all participants will be acknowledged in the yearly ATDA e-Book.


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