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Why Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall is ARM’s Crowning Prize!

Fully re-purposed and recycled timber was the heart of the final project in the Sydney Opera House's "decade of renewal"


Sun 04 Feb 24

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Hollywood movie mogul David O. Selznick was asked after the 1939 premiere of Gone With the Wind, the most successful film ever … “Well, David, how do you top that?”

The movie, screened at the magnificent Parisian-style Loew’s Grand Concert Hall in Atlanta, Georgia, has in fact, never been topped for box-office success.

Constructed in 1893, the theatre was originally DeGive’s Grand Opera House and hosted numerous concerts and operatic productions.

Talking with Wood Central, principal architect at ARM Architecture, Andrew Hayes said he could relate to our comment.

“Of all our award-winning structures, the re-designing and re-shaping of the iconic Sydney Opera House, a seven-year project, was our stand-out project, and, yes, it will be hard to top,” Andrew said.

[ARM this year won the Australian Timber Design Supreme award staged in Melbourne and three NSW architecture awards – the 2023 Architecture Medallion, the Greenway Award for Heritage and the John Verge Award for Interior Architecture]

ARM used brush box (Lophostemon confertus) and white birch (Betula pendula) in the restoration. In the days leading up to the reopening on July 20, 2022, construction crews were still putting the finishing touches on the incredible restoration project. (Photo Credit: Chris Bennett)

Andrew recognises the Sydney Opera House is among the world’s greatest buildings, an internationally famous symbol of modern Australia, “so the team at ARM was given an enormous responsibility – a privilege and an honour.”

Andrew said the project called for modifications that were sensitive and respectful of the World Heritage listed building while elevating the accessibility of acoustics and functionality to a world-class standard.

By 2012, the Opera House faced problems, including end-of-life theatre machinery, poor acoustics, and accessibility issues. The Concert Hall was fitted with ageing theatre technology and presented difficulties for contemporary stage crews. Several front-of-house areas had poor accessibility, with some levels impossible for mobility-restricted patrons.

“Smart timber interventions” were made into the existing ceiling to enhance acoustic performance. Remarkably, all timber used in the project was entirely re-purposed or recycled. (Photo Credit: Lisa Maree Williams from Getty Images for Sydney Opera House)

In 2012, the Sydney Opera House management announced it would undertake a ‘decade of renewal’ leading to the building’s 50th anniversary.

ARM Architecture commenced design work in 2015, with the Concert Hall reopening in July last year.

“There was a strong focus on wood in the restoration project,” Andrew said.

In a total acoustic upgrade, ARM used brush box (Lophostemon confertus) and white birch (Betula pendula) that the architects found stored away in the hall after the initial construction. It was used to reconstruct solid carved panelling around the stage, stalls and rear walls. In addition, smart timber interventions were made to the existing ceiling to enhance the acoustic performance.

“So, a lot of timbers used in the project were re-purposed as well as recycled,” Andrew Hayes said.

In the lead-up to the grand opening, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra tested out the acoustics of the new Concert Hall. (Photo Credit: Daniel Boud)

The project involved a complete acoustic reconstruction and enhancement with new over-stage retractable/variable reflectors, acoustic diffusing box fronts, operable in-wall reflecting shelves and fully automated acoustic drapes that quickly transform the auditorium from ‘acoustic’ mode to ‘amplified’ mode.

The new acoustic reflectors included 18 new petal-shaped reflectors finished in a magenta colour that references the building’s original seat fabric. They provide direct and early reflections to the musicians on stage and the choir while also pushing the acoustic energy out into the auditorium.

Andrew Hayes said wing redesign and a rebuilt stage included automated stage risers for orchestral layout, expanding the size of both to increase access for crews and performers.

“The stage itself was lowered by 400 mm and completely rebuilt with the introduction of the automated risers. This allows the ideal ‘horseshoe’ tiered risers for the orchestra to be automatically deployed at the touch of a button,” Andrew said.

The new acoustic reflectors included 18 new petal-shaped reflectors finished in a magenta colour that references the building’s original seat fabric. This helped transform the auditorium from ‘acoustic’ to ‘amplified’ mode. (Photo Credit: Lisa Maree Williams from Getty Images for Sydney Opera House)

In Wood Central’s further fascination with the Concert Hall re-build, we pushed Andrew Hayes for more background information.

The initial approach to the Opera House project was to immerse ARM in a study of both Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s original design for the iconic building and Australian Peter Hall’s subsequent completion of it.

“On hand, we had the Utzon Design Principles and an array of books on the history of the design,” Andrew said.

“Perhaps the most valuable was a pre-publication version of Dr Anne Watson’s ‘The Poisoned Chalice: Peter Hall and the Sydney Opera House’, which details Hall’s work and pays long overdue recognition,” he said.

“Our work directly interacted with Hall’s interiors. While the Sydney Opera House is World Heritage listed and one of the world’s most famous buildings, its Concert Hall was widely regarded to be compromised, technically and acoustically.

As part of the restoration, the stage was lowered by 400 mm and completely rebuilt with the introduction of the automated risers, which “allows the ideal ‘horseshoe’ tiered risers for the orchestra to be automatically deployed at the touch of a button.” (Photo Credit: Lisa Maree Williams from Getty Images for Sydney Opera House)

Andrew Hayes himself is worthy of a tribute.

He started at ARM as a student and then graduated when it was a smaller firm of 15 or 20 people. It was a nine-year apprenticeship, and he got to work on projects such as the National Museum of Australia, Melbourne Central and the MTC Southbank Theatre.

He then left for seven years to work in a smaller office with more responsibility.

“One reason I came back to ARM was that there are more senior people here. ARM has such a breadth of experience and knowledge from the top to learn and draw from,” Andrew said.

“With design, you’re always learning, looking, seeing what’s out there, what’s been done before, what’s new. And you also learn on the job from good people who’ve been around a long time.

“I’ve always worked in firms where design is the primary focus. At ARM, the realities of fees and things won’t stop us from doing whatever it takes to get the right design.”

ARM Architecture was established in Melbourne with offices around Australia.

Editor’s note: The Sydney-based Omega Ensemble is performing on the Concert Hall stage this month. Recognised for profiling elite Australian musicians in challenging and innovative chamber music presentations, the ensemble has been hailed “first rate” by Australian and international concert critics.

Author

  • Jim Bowden

    Jim Bowden, senior editor and co-publisher of Wood Central. Jim brings 50-plus years’ experience in agriculture and timber journalism. Since he founded Australian Timberman in 1977, he has been devoted to the forest industry – with a passion.

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