Since our Spire sprung up to become an iconic part of Melbourne's skyline, Arts Centre Melbourne has played a vital part in our city's cultural and entertainment history.

Come take a look at where we've come from...

A home for entertainment

The 4.5 hectare site we love to call home is steeped in a rich past intricately connected to the arts and entertainment.

In 1877, Cooper and Bailey's Great American International Circus was one of the first travelling circuses to pitch a Big Top tent on the site. A permanent circus home, Olympia, was built in 1901 by the Fitzgerald Brothers' Circus, then Australia's biggest circus. Three years later, the area of the site not occupied by the Fitzgeralds was developed as a fashionable meeting place called "Prince's Court", featuring a Japanese Tea House, open-air theatre, miniature train, water chute and a 15-member military band.

Pretty much something for every taste!

In 1907, Wirth Brothers' Circus took over the entire site and remained there for the next 50 years. By 1911, the company had built a new circus hippodrome and roller-skating rink, and had leased the original Olympia as a cinema. During World War I, some of the buildings were used as repatriation homes for soldiers and nurses. Wirth Brothers' Circus continued to entertain children during the 1920s, while adults enjoyed the new Green Mill Dance Hall, which replaced an existing jazz pavilion, and the Olympia Dancing Palace. A replica Dutch windmill at the northern corner of the site provided a grand entrance for patrons.

The entertainment bug soon spread to adjacent streets. There was ice skating at the "Glacarium" on City Road and, around the corner opposite the Snowden Gardens (now the site of Hamer Hall ), Gregan McMahon's Repertory Company ran seasons of drama. In 1922, a 16-year-old aspiring architect, Roy Grounds, played the part of a boy scout in a production at the Playhouse Theatre, right opposite the present Stage Door of the concert hall he would later go on to design.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, and the worries of World War II, meant most of the entertainment venues, with the exception of the cinema, fell on hard times. The Green Mill Dance Hall, renamed the Trocadero, managed to survive this era as a rendezvous for servicemen and their partners, but eventually closed in the mid-1950s. Wirth Brothers Circus continued to occupy the site until its buildings were destroyed by fire in 1953.

The rise of Arts Centre Melbourne

Before construction of the National Gallery of Victoria commenced, during the late 1950s and early 1960s much of the site was used as an outdoor car park. But as early as 1942, the Victorian Government had begun considering the effect World War II was having on the provision of public buildings. A post-war reconstruction committee was established to look into future facilities for the Public Library, National Gallery and Museum, then all linked under one governing body, and housed on Swanston and La Trobe streets in Melbourne's CBD. The trustees of the National Gallery saw this as an opportunity to gain a new building and independence – a view shared by the architects, appointed by then Premier Sir Albert Dunstan.

In 1943, the architects recommended that a separate gallery and an auditorium to hold 1,000 people should be built on the Wirth Brothers' Circus site. The estimated cost of this venture was 2 million pounds. However, it would take many years and several changes of government before the land was secured for cultural purposes and plans would be finalised.

In December 1959, Roy Grounds, by then a noted architect, was appointed to the project. His master plan was approved in December 1960. The project was planned in two stages – first a gallery, and then a performing arts centre and spire.

The National Gallery was planned and built in seven years, without a major hitch, at a cost of $14 million, opening on 20 August 1968.

Stage two – "the Arts Centre"– proved somewhat more problematic.

The original plan was to put the theatres and concert hall underground in one building, topped by a copper-sheathed spire. It soon became evident, however, that the cost would be prohibitive.

Ongoing geographic difficulties of the site, where thousands of years ago a river had flowed, also forced the Building Committee to revise their plans, moving the concert hall to a separate site and raising the theatres halfway out of the ground.

This decision added three years to the project, with construction beginning in 1973. Under the chairmanship of Kenneth Myer and the direction of General Manager, George Fairfax, in 1979 the Arts Centre Building Committee appointed John Truscott – one of Australia's most successful designers and director of the arts, and an Academy Award-winning film designer – to redesign Roy Grounds' planned interiors for both the Melbourne Concert Hall and Theatres Building.

The Theatres Building opened in October 1984. The Playhouse premiered ahead of the rest of the building, with Melbourne Theatre Company's Medea gracing the new stage in May 1984. A Stretch of the Imagination, presented by the Playbox Theatre Company (which later became 'The Malthouse'), opened the Fairfax Studio and The Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty cut the ribbon in the State Theatre.

Construction of the Concert Hall, just 180 metres away on the small Snowden Gardens site donated to the Victorian Government in 1974, was much easier. Built on a firm basalt rock base next to the Yarra River, it was a far better substratum for engineers to work with than the silt-rich site of the Theatres Building.

On 6 November 1982, The Melbourne Concert Hall opened, and in April 2004 was renamed Hamer Hall  after former Premier Sir Rupert Hamer in honour of his tenacity and passion to ensure Melbourne could boast a major cultural facility able to compete on the international stage.

Hamer Hall was subsequently closed for two years to undergo a $135.8 million major redevelopment funded by the Victorian Government. Reopening in July 2012, key improvements were made to the auditorium (acoustics, technical capability, and audience and artist comfort) and public areas (foyers, bars and toilets), with the exterior of the building updated to include a new river entrance, fantastic views of the city and a chic dining precinct.

The spire

The Spire

Our Spire has become an iconic landmark in the Melbourne skyline since it first rose from the site in 1984.

But it's had a complex history in that brief period!

The original plans for a single performing arts building envisaged the entire site topped with a 126-metre Spire. However, the changes to the original building designs meant the Spire, too, had to be rethought. Sir Roy Ground's investigations into the possibilities of an open-lattice space-frame design coincided with technological developments used in the stadium construction for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Sir Roy's revised 137-metre design included spectacular gold webbing around its lower section, simulating the flowing folds of a ballerina's tutu. This design was subsequently adopted, although the height was reduced by 22 metres to 115 metres. Some years later, as a result of increasing structural deterioration of the original upper Spire structure, the opportunity arose to replace the tower and add a further 46 metres to the original construction.

Completed on 12 January 1996, the Spire now reaches 162 metres above street level and is topped by a 10-metre mast. The total weight of steel in the Spire and mast is 97.7 tonnes.

The new design included a network of dramatic night-time lighting that includes:

  • 6,600 metres of fibre-optic tubing
  • 17,700 metres of power and control cables 
  • 14,000 incandescent lamps on its skirt
  • 150 metres of neon tubing on the mast
  • 496 computer control devices to manipulate the colours and movement of the lights
  • 900 power and control plugs.

(Find out more about our policy around Lighting the Spire)

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl

It's been compared to a bird, a plane and an umbrella.

Some even say its unique aerodynamic shape was actually inspired by Louis Armstrong's trumpet!

Whatever your view, it's clear that the Sidney Myer Music Bowl is one of Melbourne's best-loved architectural and performance icons.

Standing in the five-hectare Kings Domain between the Yarra River and Royal Botanic Gardens, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was presented to Melburnians on 12 February 1959 by the Sidney Myer Charity Trust. The inspiration for the Bowl came from Mrs Sidney Myer (later Dame Merlyn Myer), wishing to perpetuate the visionary interest in the Arts of her late husband Sidney Myer, who wished for Melbourne to have a permanent home for outdoor concerts.

Designed by architects Yuncken, Freeman Brothers, and Griffiths and Simpson, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl's structure is unique because of its acoustic canopy, which not only protects the audience and stage from outside noise, but also provides a valuable weather shield. It was the city's first major purpose-built outdoor venue. With aeronautical experts engaged to fine-tune its acoustics, the award-winning design of the 4,055-square-metre roof, made of aluminium-coated plywood panels suspended from two tapering masts, was an amazing feat of structural engineering.

Construction began in February 1958. Almost 35,000 cubic metres of soil over 1.43 hectares was excavated, with the earth banked into giant mounds.

The opening gala concert on 12 February 1959 was attended by 30,000 people, including Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and united the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras to play music by Wagner, Bizet and Gershwin under the baton of American conductor, Alfred Wallenstein. The annual Carols by Candlelight event debuted in December of the same year and has since become a ritual, attracting a national television audience of millions.

Over the years, the Bowl has hosted some of the country's seminal music and entertainment events, from rock concerts and symphony to ballet, opera, jazz, variety, ice skating, theatre, film and religious rallies. It was the site of The Seekers' famous 1967 concert, which attracted a site-record 200,000 people—one tenth of Melbourne's population at the time.

Since then, the Bowl has been a safe, secure venue for every kind of rock act, featuring the likes of AC/DC, Abba, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, Bon Jovi and more – with many more to come!

In 1980, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was handed over to the Victorian Arts Centre Trust by then Victorian Arts Centre Chairman, Kenneth Myer, Sidney Myer's son. The Bowl's facilities were upgraded in 1989, including raising the height of the lawn by three metres to significantly improve audience viewing. Ten years later, the go-ahead was given for a 2.5-year, $20 million refurbishment of the Bowl, with $3 million coming from The Sidney Myer Fund, the Myer Foundation and Myer family members. The signature canopy was repaired, a new balcony was added and technical infrastructure was replaced, with the site reopening in late 2002.

A few more fun facts about us...

  • Eight suburban houses can fit on the stage area of the State Theatre.
  • The State Theatre's basement area is two-thirds the size of the MCG's playing field – that's one massive, cavernous space!
  • 75,000 brass cups are fitted to the ceiling netting of the State Theatre. The original design featured only netting, but designer John Truscott ordered the cups to be installed to further enhance the look. Unfortunately, the cups failed to take into account the potential weight of water from fire sprinklers hidden in the ceiling above them, so each of the cups had to be drilled with holes to allow water to escape in the event the sprinkler system was activated. Feel free to count the them!
  • Hamer Hall's walls are painted in colours and patterns that reflect Australia's gemstone deposits, giving the impression that the building was carved out of a hillside.
  • The Smorgon Family Plaza – named for the Smorgon family and their long support of the arts – features a ceiling covered in fine copper leaf five times thinner than foil.
  • The Theatres Building is built on Coode Island silt – the soft, unstable remnants of a watercourse that flowed through the area thousands of years ago – and its basement is seven metres below the water table. Special anti-corrosion and uplift treatment was required to securely anchor the building, including concrete and steel piles, and 100mm square steel rods anchored 40 metres into the surrounding bedrock, each with a continuous electrical current running through it to prevent corrosion.
  • The backstage scenery lift has a 25-tonne capacity and takes seven minutes to travel three floors, so you can imagine that our team tries not to forget any important boxes before each trip.
  • John Truscott wore out 41 pairs of shoes over the course of the project.