Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hamer Hall is back, but at a cost...

THE centre was meant to cost $24 million and open in 1977. But that was before it emerged that it had to build it on the top of old river bed, on silt rich in acid, 40 metres above the bedrock and with workers whose union used the project ruthlessly as a pacesetter in pay and conditions.

The construction of Hamer Hall was not easy. From conception to opening took almost 40 years. It stopped and started as more problems were discovered with the site, relationships frayed, and costs blew out. Had its planners known at the outset what lay ahead, they would never have begun.

But as premier, Dick (later Sir Rupert) Hamer saw it as an act of faith in Victoria's future to build a concert hall and theatre by the Yarra, as the second stage of Melbourne's Arts Centre. Premier from 1972 to 1981, Hamer was the first leader of modern Victoria, a forward thinker who saw the arts as a vital activity to human society, and wanted Melbourne to have the best of them.

As the cost of the project kept escalating, eventually to $225 million, Hamer, as premier, treasurer and minister for the arts, kept finding the money to keep it on track. It was still unfinished when he resigned as premier in mid-1981, but his Labor opponents recognised his role in the project with two unusually generous gestures.

In 1982, as premier, John Cain invited Hamer, the political father of the project, to open the first half of it to be completed the concert hall. And 22 years later, after Sir Rupert's death at the age of 87, then-premier Steve Bracks decided to rename it Hamer Hall, as a lasting memory to a man who had changed the course of Victoria.

But Hamer Hall has many fathers and one mother. Its story began in 1942, when Sir Keith Murdoch father of Rupert, husband of Dame Elisabeth, then head of the Herald and Weekly Times group, and chairman of the National Gallery of Victoria asked a committee of trustees to draw up a 50-year plan to redevelop the gallery, then squeezed into the State Library on Swanston Street.

They decided the best option was to build a new gallery south of Princes Bridge, on the site of Wirth's Park, a popular entertainment area. Albert Dunstan was premier of a Country Party government; he had little interest in the arts or Melbourne, but agreed to reserve the land.

Then Melbourne's music-lovers wanted in on it. Margaret Sutherland, the spirited composer, led a committee that collected 40,000 signatures asking for not just an art gallery, but a "Combined Arts Centre": a 1000-seat theatre, lecture hall, recital studios and courtyard restaurant.

John Cain snr, as head of a Labor government, passed legislation in 1946 reserving Wirth's Park for a national gallery and cultural centre. But it was only when Henry Bolte led the Liberals to power in 1955 that talk gave way to action. Bolte, too, had no interest in the arts, but he wanted to show he would govern for all. He decided to build the National Gallery, and start planning the rest.

Architect Roy Grounds was commissioned to design the gallery at the southern end of the site, on solid rock that was once the cliff overlooking the deep Yarra gorge. There were rows over his design, but the building went up smoothly. When the gallery opened in 1968 to widespread acclaim, Bolte was ready for stage two.

However stage two was not ready for him. The design changed constantly to meet the needs of different users.

In 1966 the cost was put at $11.76 million, but a year later that rose to $27.5 million. Some bits were trimmed, and in March 1969 the premier unveiled a new $24.3 million design, to be built by 1976.

That too proved illusory. Soil testing revealed a site, in one consultant's words: "beyond belief . . . the site is underlaid by soft ground and Coode Island silt. Below the silt is gravel, which forms the old bed of the Yarra, and below that, the basalt rock." And the silt was so acidic it could corrode steel foundations.

Bolte left it to Hamer, Grounds, and Kenneth Myer, long-time chairman of the building committee, to find a solution.

Grounds finally decided to enclose the entire building in a vast underground tub, of concrete a metre thick, surrounded by a protective rubber membrane.

The tub sat in steel pylons reaching all the way down to the bedrock, with electric currents flowing down the pylons to neutralise the acid.

Work finally began in 1977 but not for long. Drillers digging a lift well hit an aquifer, which flooded the site. Norm Gallagher, as head of the Builders Labourers Federation, made the site an industrial relations nightmare.

But Hamer's dedication to the project never wavered, though he agreed to downsize the spire as a cost-saving measure. (Jeff Kennett as premier reinstated the original design). In her history of the Arts Centre, A Place Across the River, Vicki Fairfax writes that Hamer's role in the project was critical: "It is unlikely that without his sustained personal support, it would have had the form . . . it did."

A lover of classical music, Hamer also founded the Victorian College of the Arts and later chaired the Victorian State Opera. His hall is a fine tribute to a broad-minded, generous man who exemplified long-term thinking and tolerance.