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12 February, 2021

How vision became reality for the Sidney Myer Music Bowl

This year, Live at the Bowl is providing Melbourne with a COVIDSafe season of live performance. This season of celebration shows how fortunate Melbourne is to have the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. This is thanks to the vision of Kenneth Myer, the Myer family, and the Sidney Myer Charitable Trust, who announced the Bowl in 1956 as a gift to the people of Melbourne.

Baillieu Myer is Sidney Myer’s son and Kenneth Myer’s brother. He recently donated a set of four presentation albums covering the construction and opening of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection. Images from the albums give a fascinating insight into the daring design and skilled construction that made the vision a reality.

A time of optimism

Kenneth Myer (third from right) with the model of the Bowl on site

 

Kenneth Myer (third from right) with the model of the Bowl on site
Photograph by Richard Andrew-Cukielewski, 1957
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

1956 was a time of optimism in Melbourne. The Olympics had been a great success and planning was underway for what was to become the National Gallery of Victoria and Arts Centre Melbourne. A new outdoor venue across St Kilda Road in the Domain, inspired by the success of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, would provide a home for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s popular Sidney Myer Free Concerts, and other large-scale events.

But the growing city suffered from a shortage of building materials. Barry Patten, the principal architect, conceived an innovative design that minimised the amount of steel and concrete needed by designing a lightweight shell supported in tension by a network of cables.

Cutting edge design

Excavation for the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with the Olympic Swimming Pool in the background

 

Excavation for the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with the Olympic Swimming Pool in the background
Photograph by Richard Andrew-Cukielewski, 1958
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The structure was at the cutting edge of design. Bill Irwin, the structural engineer, had recently completed another dramatic tensile structure just across the river, the Olympic Swimming Pool. He worked with engineers from CSIRO and the Commonwealth Aeronautical Research Laboratories to understand the tensile forces and aerodynamics of the shell, including wind tunnel testing of a scale model of the design.

First performance

Left: The first performance at the Bowl.
Right: Workers position the Western mast onto its baseplate.

 

Left: The first performance at the Bowl
Right: Workers position the Western mast onto its baseplate
Photographs by Richard Andrew-Cukielewski, 1958
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Many of those who built the Bowl were recent migrants to Australia from war-torn Europe. Photographer Richard Andrew-Cukielewski, himself a refugee, recorded the first performance onsite, as an Italian worker serenaded his colleagues with opera. Excavating the site meant the Bowl was partially sunk into the ground, helping shield it from the noise of the city.

Precision construction

Left: Fixing the main cable to the top of one of the masts. Right: Riggers suspend.

 

Left: Fixing the main cable to the top of one of the masts
Right: Riggers suspend
Photographs by Wolfgang Sievers, 1958
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Two masts were erected, and a single steel cable slung from them. This cable held up the roof, while 27 smaller cables, anchored in the earth behind, braced it against the wind.

The innovative design required skilled construction. A group of Italian riggers, who had come to Australia to erect transmission masts for the launch of television in 1956, were hired to erect the mast and cables. The roof was made from laminated plywood and aluminium panels, a lightweight material developed by the aviation industry.

A vision of modernity

Wolfgang Sievers photographed the sweeping lines of the almost-finished canopy

 

Wolfgang Sievers photographed the sweeping lines of the almost-finished canopy against a dramatic storm-laded sky, 1958
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The photographer Wolfgang Sievers came to Australia as a Jewish refugee from Nazism in 1938. His photographs of the Bowl under construction show his admiration for the clean modern lines and structural daring of the architecture, as well as the skill and strength of the workers who built it.

These four albums of photographs show us what an exciting and innovative building the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was at the time that it was built. They record the generous and forward looking vision of a place for (as the original title of the Sidney Myer Free Concerts put it), ‘Music for the People’. This summer, as that vision continues in a new way, the Bowl is perhaps more important to the people of Melbourne than ever before.

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

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