Sydney Opera House Concert Hall reopens after major renovation

Australia’s iconic Sydney Opera House Concert Hall has reopened after long-awaited renovations to its outdated acoustics, functionality and accessibility.

Carried out by a team led by Australian studio ARM Architecture and engineering firm Arup, the redesign was the final stage of a wider overhaul of the entire building.

The Sydney Opera House concert hall has reopened. Photo by Susan Kuriakose via Unsplash

The project was completed in time for the building’s 50th anniversary in 2023.

“In 2012, Louise Herron, CEO of Sydney Opera House, announced that Sydney Opera House would embark on a ‘decade of renewal’,” said Andrew Hayne, Principal of ARM Architecture. “The concert hall was the latest and greatest in a series of projects,” he told Dezeen.

Renovated concert hall at the Sydney Opera House
Its acoustics have been improved with new reflectors

The Sydney Opera House is a multi-hall performing arts center designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and completed by Australian architect Peter Hall in 1973.

Defined by its vaulted shells clad in tiles, it is considered one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century.

ARM Architecture was commissioned as architect and project manager for the renewal of its concert hall in 2015.

Orchestra rehearsing in an empty concert hall
New reflectors and wooden panels have been introduced

The studio worked alongside Arup, heritage advisers Design 5, theater consultants Theatreplan and construction company Taylor on the project, as well as theater machinery contractor Waagner Biro, service engineers of the Steensen Varming building, Müller-BBM acoustics and the opera project team.

ARM Architecture’s proposal for the redesign focused on the concert hall’s acoustics and accessibility issues, which Principal Hayne said had “afflicted” the building.

Petal-shaped acoustic reflectors
The reflectors are petal-shaped. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

“Nearly 50 years old, the concert hall was faced with end-of-life theater machinery above the ceiling, a bad reputation for acoustic and mobility issues that plagued the entire building with spaces important only accessible by imposing staircases”, Hayne explained.

“We were appointed in mid-2015 and have spent the past seven years working carefully with the SOH and consulting team to ensure the right design solutions to improve acoustics, functionality and accessibility have been implemented in this iconic building.”

Empty stage at the Sydney Opera House concert hall
Her stage has been lowered to improve sightlines. Photo by Getty Images

To improve the acoustics of the concert hall, the team replaced the original overhead reflectors with 18 petal-shaped fiberglass versions that improve acoustics for performers and audiences. Magenta in color, these also nod to the venue’s original Hall-designed seating.

The petals work in tandem with various other new acoustic details, such as a series of functional wall reflectors and carved wood panels that wrap around the stage and stalls.

Hayne said these measurements were vital because of the room’s high ceilings and the fact that it is “at least a third longer than what an ideal concert hall should be”, resulting in poor acoustics. .

Tiered stage set up for an orchestra
The stage has been equipped with an automated level system

“These two factors meant that the acoustic energy of the orchestra was getting lost in the upper part of the ceiling and not getting to the back of the room either,” Hayne explained.

“The acoustic improvements also bring equity to the listening experience for those attending the shows,” he continued. “[It is] plus a room with different acoustics depending on where you sit, there’s a consistency and vibrancy to every seat in the house.”

As part of its redesign, ARM Architecture has also introduced modern theater machinery that will enable more diverse and ambitious performances in the venue and speed up changeover times, while backstage and rehearsal areas have been improved.

Sydney Opera House foyer with purple carpets
Circulation around the Concern Room has been improved. Photo by Anna Kucera

The main stage has been lowered to improve sightlines and fitted with automated risers that allow a tiered layout to be quickly set up for orchestral performances.

Finally, circulation has been improved by a new passageway crossing the East foyer and lifts that connect all levels of the North foyer, the circle and the upper circle.

The new elevators allow wheelchair users to access these spaces for the first time. According to Hayne, this was particularly important in the North Foyer, as the area overlooks Sydney Harbour.

“It brings fair access to what is one of Sydney Opera House’s most scenic locations with fantastic harbor views,” he explained.

Hayne said renewing the building’s “highly valued heritage fabric” was “a difficult process” and required considerable research to ensure the intent of its original architects was preserved.

The studio also worked closely with Design 5 and the opera house’s Design Advisory Panel (DAP), who peer-reviewed all designs to ensure suitability.

“We dove deep into the history of the place, getting to know and understand Utzon’s original design approach, but most importantly, the work of Peter Hall who took over once Utzon left and was unfairly maligned over the years,” Hayne said.

“It was primarily his work that we interacted with and so understanding the context and design intent of his elements was critical to the success of the new interventions we did.”

Circulation space inside the Sydney Opera House with purple carpets
Elevators have been added. The photo is by Anna Kucera

Another iconic 20th century building undergoing major renovation is the Center Pompidou in Paris, France, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.

In 2023, it will close for four years while aging components, including its heating and cooling system, escalators and elevators, are repaired and replaced.

Photography is by Daniel Boud unless otherwise stated.

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