Under the spire at the Arts Centre

Under the spire at the Arts Centre
Robin Grow

The Arts Centre spire is an icon of Melbourne and Southbank. The white lacework spire rises graciously over the Arts Centre on St Kilda Rd and provides a visual highlight for Southbank.

The spire was a key part of the planned centre, designed by Sir Roy Grounds. But it wasn’t always intended to look like the finished version.

Early designs were for an underground auditorium, topped by a spire that would be sheathed in copper.

School children all over Melbourne contributed copper coins as part of a public appeal for funds that started in 1961. Imagine the patina on the copper if it had come to fruition! Grounds modified his vision for the spire four times as part of the numerous changes (architectural and engineering) to plans, budgets, interior design, and surface materials for all parts of the complex.

The finished spire was a space frame system, with its open lattice design, and combined anodised aluminium tubing connecting to stainless steel. The base section was likened to folds of a ballerina’s tutu. It was also highly innovative, with few companies having the expertise to construct such a structure. Overall, the Arts Centre project was so complex that it’s a wonder it ever was built!

Beneath the spire are three state-of-the art theatres that host performances of opera, theatre, ballet and others. But it is the spire that stands out as concert and theatre goers approach the centre, providing a signpost for the entire complex.

After delays (for many reasons, including political), construction of Roy Grounds’ 115-metre space frame began in 1973 and was finished in 1981. Sadly, he died before seeing his completed work.

Although Grounds had been forced by budget pressure to compromise his vision for the spire, it was an outstanding example of 1960s design and engineering. But the upper spire structure suffered deterioration, due to metallurgical problems, and was replaced with a new spire in 1996. Thousands of people gathered to watch the final piece lowered into place from a helicopter!

The elegant and sculptural new spire reached 162 metres above St Kilda Rd with a 10-metre mast at its peak and combined fibre-optic and neon tubing, with the colour and movement of the lights manipulated by computer-controlled devices.

Southbank is much richer for the vision of Roy Grounds and the expertise of architects and engineers •

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