Melbourne’s Hamer Hall Reopens: Is $136 Million Money Well Spent?

Melbourne’s Hamer Hall Reopens: Is $136 Million Money Well Spent?

The $136 million refurbishment of Hamer Hall (formerly the Melbourne Concert Hall) has been delivered on time and within budget, and is now open to the public after two years labour. But what will patrons, performers and backstage teams get for the money? Lucy Graham reports.

Arrival

When Hamer Hall opened 30 years ago, some regarded the structure as dull and austere.  Now the arrival experience is more user-friendly.

Conceptually the building has been ‘turned around’ 90 degrees. Patrons are drawn to the vast glass walls and walkways on the north side, offering a pleasing view of the Melbourne skyline, riverside access and boulevard walk along the river to Southgate.

While the St Kilda Road entrance remains, an additional entrance from the river enables access to and from Southbank restaurants. If you have a boat, presumably you can now paddle to concerts via the Yarra, alighting at the new riverside entrance. It’s all so Venetian, darling!

Hospitality

Once inside, patrons will enjoy a reconfigured and enlarged St Kilda Road foyer with upgraded bars and expanded cloaking and box offices facilities. The escalators have been replaced with wider versions on every level.  

Speaking at the opening, Victorian Minister for Major Projects, Dr. Dennis Napthine claimed access had been improved to the extent that “the building can now be cleared in 10 minutes”.

And ladies rejoice greatly! There are now 80% more women’s lavatories.  

While walking the foyers I had a flashback to an opening concert 30 years ago when I sang in my school choir on stage. An enduring memory is of school friends receiving electric shocks courtesy of the carpet’s static build up. You’ll be pleased to know I performed the zap test on my plus one (who’d also been in that choir) when she wasn’t looking with no adverse result. So relax people, it’s all clear!

Where the Money went.

The Hamer Hall renovation has seemingly touched every aspect of the venue. Arts Centre Melbourne says 

an expected annual increase of 600,000 new visitors to the precinct justifies the cost.

Schuler Shook was the theatre-planning consultant. Their work cost $128.5 million. Company partner Robert Shook said the company’s contribution included planning the auditorium and stage, front-of-house and back-of-house areas, and designing the special theatre equipment systems such as audience seating, stage rigging, stage lifts and stage lighting. 

“Our planning work includes studying audience sight lines and ensuring that all audience members have the best possible view of the stage,” he told Stage Whispers. 

The Hall

Moving into Hamer Hall, the 2,464 seats are now wider, and have been provided by the original Spanish seating supplier, Figueras. Leg room between rows has been preserved. My road test of the apricot coloured specimens deems them very comfy indeed.

“Everyone directly benefits from this large, complex renovation,” said Robert Shook.  “The patron experience has been much enhanced with the re-configuration of the foyers to provide clearer access to all levels, more views at all levels, and larger open spaces, as well as the new audience seating, which is much more comfortable and durable than the old seating.” 

 

I was reminded that Hamer Hall is underground, and the wall design continues to represent the texture and colour of the river clay bed. The ceiling is quite beautiful, with suspended star lights, an ethereal feature.

“An environment has been created that will deliver the best possible performances for audiences in unparalleled comfort and amenity,” said Dr. Napthine. “All this has been done while remaining true to Sir Roy Grounds’ and John Truscott’s original design vision.”

Schuler Shook commissioned Jands as the theatrical machinery contractor for the project, with responsibility forengineering, fabricating, and installing the motorized fly system, the folding acoustical reflector panels, and the orchestra pit seating wagon system. 

“These systems for the Hamer Hall project were extremely complex and challenging,” said Shook, “and required the highest level of expertise to complete successfully.”

Four configurations of the new acoustical reflector will enable The Hall to more readily host musical performances using either orchestral, chamber or amplified mode.

For orchestras the acoustic ceiling is positioned 13.5 metres above the stage, but it can be lowered to 10.5 metres for chamber music, and to stage level for servicing.  But there is a fourth option. The reflector can be folded away and flown out where no reflection is needed, allowing for manipulation of theatre rigging.

The tender for Hamer Hall’s lighting system was vigorously sought, and consequently won by PRG. The set-up includes the PRG V676 console currently being used worldwide in theatres, venues and at rock concerts.

Performers

It’s not only the patrons who will enjoy the enhanced acoustics. On stage, performers will be able to hear each other with heightenedclarity. Off stage, green room spaces have all been expanded.

Backstage

The backstage boys and girls have not been forgotten. Technical staff will benefit from the new 10 tonne scenery lift, measuring 8m x 3m, a re-configured loading dock and freight lift, allowing for greater efficiency in delivering productions elements down to stage level.

The Verdict

I have no doubt the renovated Hamer Hall is a gift to be cherished. I love the manner in which it now acknowledges the city across the water, that the renovation has considered so many elements, improved access, and given the city’s arts centerpiece a new lease of life. One hopes that with its capacity for greater musical diversity, growing numbers of Melbournians will be encouraged to attend a concert therein. 

Originally published in the September / October 2012 edition of Stage Whispers.