Peter Hall was one of the leading Australian architects of his generation. Born in Newcastle NSW in 1931, his name is most often remembered as the architect who completed the design of the Sydney Opera House after the resignation of Jørn Utzon, but Hall has many other fine architectural projects to his credit. Hall spent his early childhood in Narrabri, won a scholarship to Cranbrook School and then scholarships to Sydney University and Wesley College. He was first a student of languages and archeology, then transferred to architecture and graduated with degrees in both Arts (1958) and Architecture (1957). In undergraduate years he held a traineeship with the NSW Public Works Department where he worked in the office of the Government Architect until 1966. Winning the prestigious Hezlet Bequest Scholarship he travelled overseas, marrying fellow former architecture student Libby Bryant in London in 1959. They embarked on an extended tour of Europe, and Peter was particularly absorbed by the architecture of the Mediterranean countries. He admired the early work of Utzon who in January 1957 had won the design competition for the Opera House: it was portentous that Hall even met Utzon when he visited his office in Denmark and enquired about the possibility of short-term work. Peter and Libby returned to London where he gained further experience in the office of Anderson Forster & Wilcox 1958-60.
Returning to work in the Government Architect’s Office, Hall’s talents were recognized and he was responsible for the design of a range of important public buildings. These included extensions to the Registrar-General’s building; the Law Courts in Taylor Square Sydney; a new Library for Macquarie University and new buildings for Chemistry and Agricultural Economics at the University of New England, Armidale. His design for Goldstein Hall and College buildings, University of New South Wales, was awarded the prestigious Sir John Sulman Award in 1965. Much admired and widely published, Goldstein Hall secured Hall’s reputation within the profession.
Sydney Opera House
In February 1966 Utzon resigned as architect for the Opera House. In the ensuing tumult Hall contentiously accepted an invitation from the NSW Minister for Public Works to assume the role of design architect in Hall Todd & Littlemore, the consortium established to complete the Opera House. Soon afterwards Hall undertook an extensive study tour of concert and opera halls in Europe and the USA, and in particular investigated seating and acoustic criteria.
The State Government determined that the design brief for the Major Hall as a venue for both opera and orchestral concerts should be abandoned in favour of it providing for concert performances only. Opera was to be relegated to the Minor Hall. When Hall accepted the commission he had assumed that he would face the relatively simple task of completing well-resolved designs. But Utzon had departed the project leaving scant documentation as to his intentions for the design of the interiors and the glass walls. Hall was thus confronted with the very complex and demanding challenge of designing entirely new theatres to a revised brief within the existing shells. The design of the enclosing glass walls alone posed extraordinary technical and architectural problems which were resolved with great ingenuity by Hall and his talented team in collaboration with the engineering consultants, Ove Arup & Partners.
Aside from the aesthetic and functional issues, Hall worked in the context of a turbulent political environment and a profession divided over ethical issues. There could scarcely have been a more demanding challenge for the architect of any major building in the history of the profession. Hall’s cultural background, his ability to articulate issues, his astuteness and power to resolve complex design issues stood him in good stead. The Opera House was completed in 1973 to acclaim from performers and the public. While inevitably the building will always be associated with the brilliance of Jørn Utzon, it is because of Hall and his team’s remarkable contribution that the Opera House enjoys its ongoing success as both a performance venue and an iconic destination. Belatedly, but fittingly, Hall’s work was recognized in 2006 by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ presentation of the important ‘25 Year Award’.
Post-Opera House Career
Fortified by his experiences Hall established a practice in North Sydney (1969-92) first as Hall & Anderson, later Hall & Bowe, then Hall, Bowe & Webber. The practice designed numerous highly-regarded buildings including the Swimming Pool/Recreation Centre at Sydney University; the Munitions Factory, St.Mary’s; North Sydney Technical College Stage 7; renovation/conversion of the Marian Street Theatre, Killara; individual houses and commercial projects, and the Blue Circle Southern Cement Plant at Berrima consulting to Ove Arup and Partners. The latter was awarded the Concrete Institute of Australia Award of Excellence in 1979 and is notable for Halls characteristic strong and elegant integration of structure and form.
In 1977 Hall accepted a three-year contract as Director of Architecture, Commonwealth Department of Housing and Construction. He brought his management skills to bear on the task of revitalizing this somewhat dull and engineer-dominated public office which employed over 400 architects throughout Australia. He transformed the organization of architectural services, integrated design and construction teams, involved leading private practice firms in design work, and activated a range of review panels for major projects including the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Garden Island Naval Base.
In the mid 1980s Hall worked closely in association with the office of the NSW Government Architect on the design of the Opera House Forecourt, developing its form, structure, paving and finishes. The Forecourt urbanely and discretely complements Utzon’s masterpiece and won the RAIA’s Lloyd Rees Civic Design Award in 1988.
In community service Peter Hall contributed his expertise as a board member of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Marionette Theatre of Australia, and chaired the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. With his health deteriorating Hall died of a stroke on 19 May 1995.
On Hall’s death Ted Farmer, the Government Architect responsible for appointing Hall in 1966, wrote:
‘The death of this man is a grievous blow to me. … He was one of those most wonderful first group of men, who under the scheme originated by [Cobden] Parkes and Harry Rembert, were admitted to traineeships in architecture … Eventually, as all the trainees did, he resigned to enter private practice and began what would have been a fine career in that direction. … Then the wretched Opera House affair came up and I had to choose a design architect who could replace Utzon. I then asked Peter if he would do this but warned him that the project would always be mixed up with politics. That it could lead to fame for him or the reverse, but without his ability I doubted if I could finish the place properly. … After a great deal of thought he accepted. He succeeded beyond doubt …’
Peter Webber 2017
Peter Webber is Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney, former NSW Planning Commissioner, former NSW Government Architect and colleague of Peter Hall.