Long considered irredeemably flawed, the post-Utzon history of the Sydney Opera House has been largely neglected by historians. Utzon’s successor, Sydney architect Peter Hall (1931-1995), inherited a magnificent shell but a huge dilemma – how to reconcile a changed brief for the uses of the building with Utzon’s original design intentions.

The design evolution of the Opera House theatre seating is one of many untold narratives offering new perspectives on the post-1966 history of this 20th century masterpiece. From his first months on the job Peter Hall recognised that seating design was both integral to the design of the auditorium interiors and central to visitors’ experience of the building. Over the next four years he struggled to convince the bureaucrats of the need for purpose-designed seating, persevered – despite criticisms of cost overruns – through a protracted process of design modification and model and prototype testing, and refused to compromise on quality, materials and finishes. Still stylish and functional 40 years on, the Opera House auditorium chairs are a testament to Hall’s design skills and judgement, his regard for Utzon’s building and his willingness to ‘battle the bureaucrats’ to do it justice.

Dear Ted – I am writing this in extreme discomfort caused, ironically enough, by the spacious seat spacing of a Boeing 720. There is a good 13” knee space, then some 19/20” to put your bottom on (back to back I cannot measure without seeming more eccentric than I wish) and they are good to sit in, but the fold-down table thing is a little remote … (I did measure them [back to back dimensions] to the interest and conversational stimulation of the whole plane – 3’1”) (Hall 1966a).

Not particularly prone to eccentric behaviour Peter Hall, the new design architect for the Sydney Opera House, was a preoccupied man. Writing to the New South Wales Government Architect EH Farmer en route from Boston to New York on 24 June 1966, Hall was already conscious that seating was shaping up to be one of the major issues of this controversial project. Hall, appointed by Farmer as Jørn Utzon’s replacement only two months earlier, was on the first leg of a three-month overseas study trip that was to take in North America, Europe and Japan. Charged with the responsibility of creating the brief to complete the remaining design of the Opera House – principally its interiors and glass walls – Hall’s busy travel itinerary included visits to numerous concert halls and opera houses, meetings with acoustic and engineering consultants, theatre design experts and architects. It aimed, in Hall’s own words, ‘to stimulate my mind to improve my capacity for the design of the remainder of the building’ (1966b).

The Seating Crisis

Seating had in fact been one of the critical factors contributing to Utzon’s withdrawal from the project on 28 February 1966. It is well known that before his departure Utzon had been grappling with problems associated with the design of the two main auditoria of the Opera House. While the designs for the Minor Hall, intended for drama, were relatively well advanced, the Major Hall (concerts, opera/ballet) was proving more troublesome. Not only was the space expected to provide acceptable acoustics for two very different types of performances, it was also to satisfy requirements for seating an audience of 2800. In a period of intense design activity in late 1965/early 1966 Utzon’s acoustic consultants, the Berlin-based professors Lothar Cremer and Werner Gabler, appeared to be nearing resolution of the theatre’s problematic acoustic design, but were unable to accommodate the required seat numbers. Caught between his acoustic consultants who were advising that the addition of further seating would acoustically overload the hall, and the intransigent Australian Broadcasting Commission (manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the principal future user of the auditorium) which, in an 11th-hour letter of 24 February 1966, reaffirmed its seating requirements and questioned the ability of a dual-purpose auditorium to deliver good acoustics, it is little wonder Utzon felt somewhat beleaguered. Clearly the project had reached crisis point. With Utzon’s ‘resignation’ four days later it looked as though it had reached an endpoint!

One of the first tasks of the newly-appointed architectural consortium, Hall Todd & Littlemore (HTL), was to view the drawings handed over by the Utzon office on 17 May 1966. Of the 131 drawings on Utzon’s list Peter Hall identified 14 that were missing including, crucially, two drawings – SOH 1383, 1385 – showing the most recent seating layouts for the Major Hall. Note 1

The 131 drawings did, however, include plans showing row spacings (SOH 1277, 1278) and it was on to copies of these that seating layouts were superimposed. Alas, using Utzon’s dimensioned – and rather tight – row-to-row spacings of 2’5”, only 2250 seats of the optimum 1’8” width were available; using what was considered to be a more comfortable row spacing of 3’0”, only 1800 seats could be found – well short of the ABC’s requirements. In a report on the Major Hall seating prepared on 31 May 1966 the architectural panel commented: ‘At this stage it can be said with certainty that more seats are possible in the volume under the shells, but to provide them would mean that Mr Utzon’s design of the interior would have to be abandoned.’ Having accepted his new role in the perhaps naive belief that he was to be simply completing Utzon’s designs, a major redesign of the interiors was unthinkable to Hall at this early stage of his involvement in the project. It is not surprising then that the Opera House seating conundrum was on his mind as he wrote to Ted Farmer in his comfortably-proportioned Boeing seat en route to New York on 24 June.

(Image 1 – Peter Hall in New York, mid 1966. Peter Hall archive)

In New York Hall continued his tour of performance spaces, including those in the new Lincoln Center complex. He recorded seating dimensions, row spacing, lighting, floor and wall finishes, acoustic quality, paving and even washroom detailing. Most importantly for the future of the Opera House, Hall met Ben Schlanger, a highly-respected theatre architect who had consulted on Lincoln Center, as well as an impressive list of other high-profile performing arts centres. Writing from London on 7 July in a ‘personal and confidential’ letter to his new client, the NSW Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, Hall commented:

In New York I learned a lot. You will remember that Jordan [Dr Vilhelm Jordan, Utzon’s first acoustic consultant] … recommended that we engage Ben Schlanger to work on our seating and circulation generally in both halls. I know Ted [Farmer] doubted the use of this and I did too. However, after meeting Schlanger I have changed my views completely. He is a man in his sixties who has had two Ford Foundation grants to study special aspects of theatre design, he is called in on practically every major auditorium … in the US. … He has also made studies of seating, sight lines and exits in all of which we are in trouble [and] knows more about theatres than practically any other architect in the world … If Schlanger were to say that the ABC seating requirements cannot be done in the space available I doubt if there would be anybody, competent or insane, who would argue with him (1966c).

Hall’s advice to Hughes, that the unassailable expertise of such an international authority as Schlanger would provide ‘insurance’ against opposition and criticism at home, was well heeded. As a consultant to the Opera House project from October 1966 to his death in May 1971 Schlanger’s opinions on the seating, function and design of the auditorium interiors were to be crucial.

(Image 2 & 3

Pages from Peter Hall’s travel notebook and diary, 1966. Peter Hall archive)

Crucial too was the impact of Hall’s trip on the future of the building. Having absorbed overseas opinion on the difficulty of achieving good acoustics in a dual-purpose hall – and bearing in mind the ABC’s intractability over seating numbers – by the time of his return to Sydney on 18 September he was reconciled to some level of redesign of the Major Hall. Note 2 With the official ratification of Hall Todd & Littlemore’s new brief for the building, ‘Review of Programme’, on 21 March 1967 the future of the Major Hall as a space for concerts only and the Minor Hall as an opera theatre was all but sealed.

Throughout his three-month trip Hall comprehensively recorded his visits, meetings, impressions and responses to ‘place’ in a diary, notebook and photographs. Today they provide valuable perspectives on the new challenges of the Opera House project as well as Hall’s own design interests and attitudes. Up to his resignation on 11 March 1966 Hall had been one of the most promising young architects in the NSW Government Architect’s Branch. In 1965, at the age of 34, he had won the Sulman Medal for Goldstein Hall, a residential college at the University of NSW. The building embodied many qualities that defined his design philosophy: a preoccupation with functional modernism, an interest in experimenting with new technologies and materials – in this case rough off-form concrete – and the design integration of interior spaces – in particular the building’s dramatic dining hall – within the architectural whole. Reviewing Goldstein Hall in 1964, architect Don Gazzard described the building as ‘triumphantly successful. The Government Architect’s Branch once again has set a standard of architectural excellence that does the whole department credit.’ (Gazzard 1964: 3-4)

(Image 4 – Peter Hall, Dining Hall, Goldstein Hall, UNSW, 1964. Peter Hall archive)

If Hall’s passion for modern design in all its manifestations – architecture, furniture, lighting, textiles, tableware – was nurtured in the environment of the Government Architect’s office and extended in, for example, his 1960s work for pioneering Sydney interior designer Marion Hall Best, it was deepened and consolidated in his 1966 study tour. Note 2. His notebooks include sketches of building details that he thought relevant to the Opera House, but also much design that simply appealed to him – from furniture, to fashion, to door hardware, to paving details.

Convincing the Bureaucrats

The repercussions of Hall’s 1966 trip on the Sydney Opera House were far-reaching, but in the short term his overseas investigations supplied him with the knowledge, expertise and confidence to move forward on some of the more immediate issues facing the project. One of these areas was the integration of furniture design within the total project. On 5 October 1966, just three weeks after his return to Sydney, Hall wrote to Davis Hughes:

As you know, the draft agreement between you and this firm does not include furniture. I understand, however, that you have always considered that the design of the furniture should be regarded as part of the design of the whole building. The fuller understanding of the job which we now have emphasises the correctness of this view, not only for reasons of design philosophy but also because of the very close relationship between furniture and building details. For instance, the design of the auditorium seating seems inseparable from the design of the whole interior (1966d).

Perhaps Hughes was dismayed by Hall’s reference later in the letter to the necessity of a two-year design development phase for the interior furnishings, or perhaps it was the mention of additional fees for this work, but it seems Hughes needed more convincing that this ‘non-building’ design work was essential to the successful outcome of the project. On 2 November Hall wrote to Hughes again, this time in a rather more bullish tone. After outlining some minor design development work already commenced he added:

It must be stressed that this differs largely from selection. This is what is usually done in a building project, but in this case it is simply not good enough. … One group of furniture, the auditorium seats, might be considered to give an example of the process of design which we think necessary. They will certainly not be selected from any existing range … In the design of each seating type research will be done into –

1. Dimensions based on posture, exit and access needs

2. Anthropometrics to determine comfortable seating posture

3. Materials, in relation to acoustics, durability, atmosphere and comfort

4. Mechanism, in relation to silence, ease and efficiency of operation and durability

Every one of these aspects will require much time and effort if the desired standards of quality are to be achieved and the work is to provide a stimulus to the raising of standards of industrial design in the country (1966e).

Whether or not Hall’s somewhat ‘strategic’ reference to the potential wider benefits of this additional design work appealed to Hughes is not known, but by mid November in a formal description of Hall Todd & Littlemore’s terms of appointment, furniture ‘commissioned by the Minister’ was included in the panel’s range of responsibilities.

While the issue of auditorium seating was an important one towards the end of 1966, it was soon overtaken by other more pressing priorities, notably the redesign of the Major Hall as a concert space for 2800 people. During 1967 Hall worked intensively with Schlanger and his acoustic consultant Vilhelm Jordan on a radically reconfigured auditorium, now without a proscenium and stage tower. Note 3. Hall’s first design for the auditorium ceiling – a system of concrete catenary arches suspended from the underside of the Opera House shells – took its inspiration from Utzon’s final design, but without the ostensibly problematic plywood box beam ribs that Utzon had been advocating. The design proved to be both aesthetically and acoustically flawed and by early 1968 had been scrapped for a new design that was to develop into the final Concert Hall scheme a year later.

First Designs

Meanwhile the seating platform plans – involving considerations of audience access, row spacing, seat dimensions and stagger, and sight lines – were evolving, with Hall able to declare in a major report of February 1968 that ‘good visual conditions’ had been established. The same report described the seating as having ‘discontinuous plywood backs with wool upholstered back rests and tip up seats’ and went on to elaborate on a proposed development strategy :

The furniture design has been given a considerable amount of thought … In principle the theatre chairs are designed and we have considered how the furniture design should be handled. We have prepared some sketches and feel that once we have prepared details, it will be necessary for us to work with a manufacturer for the refinement of detail and the production of prototypes. After this, tenders should be invited from selected firms for supplying and fixing furniture, using the prototypes as part of the basis for tendering. We have approached a highly reputable maker of good quality furniture and asked him for a proposal of how his firm might collaborate with us in the first stage of the process we have described. The programme for the design and manufacture of the furniture of course, is linked with the auditoria (HTL 1968a: 9).

(Image 5 – Preliminary Concert Hall seating sketch, 1968. NSWSR 10/24768)

By the end of April 1968 Diana Luxton, Hall’s interior designer, had completed a set of drawings for several Concert Hall seating schemes. Note 4. Employed on the project since October 1967, Luxton would be catapulted into the spotlight in May 1968 in a series of media profiles, one of which described her as ‘a happy, attractive girl who looks about 22 – although she says she’s 32’. Fortunately, most of the articles also detailed her considerable professional experience in both Australia and England. Responsible for assisting with furniture design as well as the selection of colour schemes, fabrics and finishes, Luxton’s apparent retort when asked to describe some of these designs was, ‘I can’t tell you a thing except that the designs are all very new and progressive – especially for Australia.’ (“Decorative too: Diana’s designs are top secret”, Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1968)

As well as three new seating design options Luxton prepared drawings for an example of ‘typical theatre seating’. It is instructive to compare the latter with the three other options drawn up during April 1968. Whereas the traditional theatre seating – with its amply-padded seat and back – is all curves and upholstery, the other designs feature clean lines with minimal upholstery, the latter no doubt at least partly dictated by the necessity for an acoustically-reflective area of exposed plywood above the back seat cushion. Functional, smart and modern-looking, but perhaps not very ergonomic, they were possibly the ‘progressive – especially for Australia’ designs to which Luxton had referred. They were, however, preliminary, and as the design of the Concert Hall’s dramatic tent-like plywood ceiling progressed during 1968, so too did the designs for the seating.

(Image 6 – Diana Luxton, detail ‘Concert Hall seating’, scheme 4 (preliminary), 23 April 1968. NSWSR AO66429)

While the auditorium chair designs may have evolved during 1968, the typically adventurous late-60s colour philosophy established for the Opera House upholstery and carpets remained relatively consistent from mid 1968. In a meeting between Hall and Luxton on 13 June ‘magenta purple wool’ was identified as the desired upholstery for the Concert Hall seating (and is still the colour in use today) although the black leather upholstery for the Opera Theatre was to be superseded by red leather in the early 70s. To be abandoned also as the auditoria design developed was the ‘gold leaf’ finish to the end wall of the Concert Hall and the faceted ‘Perspex and silver’ ceiling of the Opera Theatre (Luxton 1968a). Luxton was at this stage communicating with the Danish company Unika-Vaev over the production of upholstery fabrics and carpets. On 2 July she enclosed colour samples in a letter to Unika-Vaev via the local agent Scancraft. Responding from Copenhagen, Unika-Vaev’s Peter Willumsen noted the availability of the yarn colours and added that ‘the chairs you are making are very “shapy” like the chair shown in Mobilia no. 153 made by Jørn Utzon’ (Willumsen 1968). Willumsen was presumably referring to Utzon’s very curvilinear, synthetic foam ‘Utsep’ lounge system, featured on Mobilia’s cover in April1968, but it is hard to see the connection between it and Luxton’s crisp designs of the same month. Note 5. Nevertheless the Opera House seating, as finally designed in 1970, was to develop a more ‘shapy’ aesthetic, thanks to the mouldable qualities of plywood and perhaps a little to the precedent of 1950s Scandinavian – and American – design.

(Image 7 – Diana Luxton to Scancraft enclosing upholstery and carpet colour samples, 2 July 1968. NSWSR 10/24768)

The Cost of Control

Diana Luxton may have had overseas experience on the interior design of projects of a similar scale to the Opera House, but with the design – and manufacture – of the theatre seating both she and Hall were on an extremely steep learning curve. In his 1965 Descriptive Narrative Utzon had been very specific about the materials to be used – moulded plywood, steel, foam rubber – and about creating a seat design that was both unique and integral to the building. Hall was determined to do the same. Inexperience, however, dictated a dependence on outside expertise – and a consequent potential loss of control of the final design. It was a dilemma that Hall was to struggle with throughout 1969. From the outset, the importance of developing the design through models and prototypes was paramount and Hall wasted no time during 1968 approaching Davis Hughes for the necessary additional funding. In a report comparing current cost estimates with Utzon’s 1965 estimates Hall Todd & Littlemore identified a figure of $300 per chair – as opposed to Utzon’s allowance of $107 – and an overall additional cost of approximately $600,000. Note 6. (HTL 1968b). But with which company were they to collaborate on prototype development – local or international – and who was to design and manufacture the all-important tilt mechanism for the tip-up seats? Such a high-profile project naturally attracted the attention of a number of furniture manufacturers including Race Furniture (UK), Gustav Wegener Sitzmöbel (Germany), Sebel (Australia) and Spectrum Contracts – managed by Marion Hall Best’s son, Michael Hall Best – the Sydney agent for two Canadian manufacturers, Ducharme & Fils and the Canadian Seating Company.

By November 1968 Luxton was able to report:

The seating is to be developed to production stage, with full specification by an overseas theatre seating company of high repute. … Through extensive research with local manufacturers, it is agreed that the development of the original seating prototype and specification is too highly skilled engineering for an Australian company … (Luxton 1968b)

In the mean time, the Toronto-based Canadian Seating Company had decided on a more proactive approach, visiting Sydney and subsequently sending their design engineer, Joseph Brunskole, to work with Hall’s team on the chair design in the latter half of April 1969. On 16 May, following Brunskole’s return to Toronto, Canadian Seating’s sales manager Dean Dewey wrote to Hall:

To date we are designing and developing the hinge mechanism. Mr [Hans] Isele and Diana Luxton are designing the shape and construction of the back and seat. Together with our frame and hinge mechanism and your design of back and seat, we will detail the entire chair. … to complete the above, including the two actual samples, final drawings and specifications … the estimated cost … is $25,000 (Dewey 1969).

Alarmed by the estimated expenditure and the potential loss of control, Hall’s response (29 May) clearly outlined an alternative working methodology:

We are a bit worried … at the extent of the services you propose to supply for us and the total cost of the development work outlined by you. The appearance of this chair is tremendously important to us and we want to control the design here in our office. We think the best way we can do this is by working with local people so that we can do our own investigations on profiles, metal alloys and finishes… How we would like to go about tendering on this job is that we make a prototype here, using the action which Joe Brunskole has already sketch designed for us (Hall 1969a).

But in the best tradition of Sydney Opera House ‘complications’ it was at this point that things started to go somewhat awry. Whether he simply misunderstood, or chose to misunderstand Hall’s letter, Dewey’s next letter confidently states that the first prototype chair is near completion and is only awaiting the ‘plywood parts’ from Sydney. Hall’s response on 4 September 1969 was unequivocal:

It seems that we have been misunderstanding each other. What I meant to convey in my last letter is that you should stop working on the chair and invoice us for the cost to date. … the point is that we are involved in an organic developing situation and at this stage collaboration between your Company and ourselves is not really possible (Hall 1969b).

The Canadian Seating Company nevertheless ploughed on, advising Hall in their next letter of 22 October that they were sending the ‘second prototype’ to their Sydney agent Michael Hall Best and enclosing their invoice for the past eight months’ work. Possibly it was all too much for Hall who had other more pressing matters on his mind, but there seems to have been no response to this letter. Indeed there was no correspondence between the Opera House and Canadian Seating until July the following year when the company president, Dean H Dewey, wrote to Lionel Todd enquiring about the usefulness of the prototype and reminding him of their unpaid invoice (Dewey 1970a). Todd was terse in reply: ‘Hall Todd & Littlemore at no time authorized your Company to proceed with prototypes … the model sent to us was of no value at all as the chair design was still not finalised’ (Todd 1970). Todd continued, ‘All this development and engineering on the part of the Canadian Seating Company has caused us considerable embarrassment. We regret your financial outlay but cannot accept responsibility for it’ (ibid). Somewhat affronted by Todd’s belligerent tone Dewey refused to revise the invoice adding that the company wished only to ‘recoup their expenses’ (Dewey 1970b). Note 7.

A ‘Big Step Forward’

Meanwhile, back at the Opera House things were proceeding apace. While Hall was going cold on the Canadian Seating Company he appears to have been warming to the idea of using local manufacturers to develop the seating. In a March 1969 report headed ‘Challenge to local manufacturers’ Hall had stressed both the innovative nature and the high quality of the work required, ending in a rather cajoling tone: ‘To meet these standards, it is necessary for a very big step forward to be made by Australian Manufacturers in all aspects of Furnishing Finishes, Furniture and Industrial Design.’ At least one Sydney company, Coordinated Design & Supply, seemed up to the challenge for by June Hall was requesting funding to place an order for two prototype chairs with the company, and by early 1970 Diana Luxton was able to report that CDS had developed a ‘hydraulic seat action’ and that as the company had ‘specialised knowledge of our requirements they have the most potential as the successful contractor for the Auditoria Seating subject to price. They can be strongly recommended on all aspects including quality and finish’ (Luxton 1970)

CDS was, in fact, a highly experienced company already familiar to Hall through its work for the Government Architect. Over a three-year period the company collaborated closely with the Opera House team, developing – in the absence of appropriate computer software – a punch card data retrieval system to identify the many complicated variations in the size, location and details of the seats. At least nine prototype chairs were tested including a version with sled-like steel supports and a plywood seat back in a compound curve that proved technologically impossible to achieve. Diana Luxton completed a drawing for this chair in July 1969 but by September it had been superseded by a design similar to the final scheme of April 1970. Note 8. With its curved plywood seat and back wrapping around the sides of the upholstered squabs it is hard to resist a comparison of the final design with Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic 1956 lounge chair and ottoman. In this context it is worth noting that Hall was a long-term admirer of the Eames’ work and had accompanied Charles on a tour of the Opera House site on his first visit to Sydney in 1968. Note 9.

CDS managing director Phil Peach recalls the Opera House seating contract as the most prestigious and rewarding project his company had undertaken, but also the most challenging. There were, inevitably, many dramas and compromises. Arguably one of the most frustrating were the modifications required to make the seat cushions more fire resistant, a consequence of the oversensitivity by the authorities to a perceived greater fire risk due to the use, for the first time in Sydney, of aisle-less Continental seating configurations. The thinner profile of the fire-retardant synthetic foam and a canvas-like buffer between foam and upholstery fabric made the chairs firmer than was desired. Note 10.

Unsurprisingly, and despite criticisms of the tendering process by the NSW Guild of Furniture Manufacturers and a major Sydney furniture company Pongrass, CDS was the successful tenderer. Predictable also was a request from Davis Hughes to reduce the tender price which at $1,237,000 was a little over the 1968 budget prediction of $1,150,000. Reporting that the architects could find savings of no more than $6 for each chair, the Government Architect noted:

In order to have brought the total price within the budget allowance a saving of some $34.00 per chair would have been necessary but in discussions Mr Hall points out that such a saving could not possibly be expected. The chairs are of a very high quality and are very durable and robust. … He points out that vinyl would not be acceptable in lieu of leather because of acoustics and its uncomfortable feel after sitting in one for a performance. (Government Architect 1970)

Davis Hughes may have been finally convinced of the necessity of this level of expenditure on the chairs – $1.2 million was the figure released to the media – but not so some members of the public. ‘I am astonished’, wrote Bill Courcier to the Australian on 19 January 1971, ‘that the recent official announcement about seating for the Opera House seems to have created no reaction whatsoever. … I suppose the Opera House history has stunned our minds to such a degree that no one even bothers to check on these announcements any longer.’ And referring to the same letter, the managing director of Duff Steel wrote to Davis Hughes that its ‘import … was too serious to ignore. May I suggest you consider ordering an independent investigation of the relevant contract to clear any suspicions one way or the other’ (Weickhardt 1971). The irreverent Kings Cross Whisper had its own take on the controversy, casting Davis Hughes as ‘Mr Devious Huge, Minister for Working the Public’, and creating a hilarious, but typically ribald cartoon of the chair complete with, amongst other novel features, an ‘automatic tiara polisher’! Note 11.

(Image 8 – Diana Luxton, ‘Auditoria seating – typical section’. 27 April 1970. NSWSR AO65757)

A year later the chairs were officially ‘launched’ as part of a carefully manipulated media promotion of the now-complete Opera House interior design. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gavin Souter detailed the chair’s features including its innovative aluminium frame, its curved back, seat and arms in Australian white birch plywood to match the Concert Hall ceiling, and its moulded polyurethane foam seat squabs. Asked to comment on the building’s bold colour scheme Hall is reported to have declared:

I’ve chosen clear, strong colours like the ones Matisse used. … people today are capable of much stronger assaults on the senses than they used to be. You’ve only got to hear the new pop music. … Nobody’s going to walk through muted grey interiors here!’ (Souter 1972)

(Image 9 – Aluminium, December 1971: 16. Photo: Coordinated Design & Supply / Comalco)

The Herald article was accompanied by a fetching photo of a model attired in a diaphanous outfit posing beside the chair on the Opera House steps. A similar photo, but this time in colour, appeared in an article about the chairs in the magazine Aluminium.(“Opera Goers Will Listen in Comfort”, December 1971:17) Heavily quoting Coordinated Design and Supply’s director Phil Peach the article made no reference to the role of the Opera House design team in the chair’s protracted development. Peter Hall was not happy:

The article is not a bad one but I take strong exception to the complete omission of any mention of the design role played by the architects. I think you would agree that the concept of the chair originated in this office and in fact the first drawings for it were produced here. … I hope you will understand my considerable annoyance at what I consider to be an incorrect report. (Hall 1972)

While CDS had played a major role in the resolution of the chair’s many final design hurdles, Hall’s annoyance was understandable. In the face of the government’s extreme cost-sensitivity and despite the unprecedented demands that the completion of the Opera House had made on him and his team over the last six years, he had not wavered in his intention to provide the auditoria with high-quality, functional and stylish, modern seating. Like Utzon before him on other aspects of the building, Hall had insisted on full design control and the necessity – and expense – of models and prototypes to solve design problems. Through this process he, in collaboration with technical experts like those at CDS, had explored and implemented a number of innovations including a unique, silent hydraulic tilt mechanism and seats where considerations of ‘postural comfort’ resulted in an ‘unprecedented design … [incorporating] features not observed in any other theatre in the world’ (“Meeting on chair design”, 16 February 1970). Under Ben Schlanger’s advocacy, Hall introduced Continental seating configurations to Sydney audiences, necessitating a revision of the NSW Theatres and Public Halls Act. And with Schlanger, Hall and his team struggled for several years to reconcile the conflicting demands of commercially driven seating quotas with the need for the best possible audience circulation and sight lines. Note 12. While he was initially critical of the standards of local manufacturers, Hall in the end forged productive collaborations with local industries in the manufacture of the seats as well as the weaving of their Australian wool upholstery by Living Fabrics of Sydney.

By December 1971 the components for 4981 chairs for the four Opera House theatres Note 13.were being made in five seat widths ranging between 20” and 23.8”. Installed during the latter half of 1972 and early 1973, the seats were arranged in row spacings between 36” and 39”, equivalent to that of the Boeing 720 Hall had so diligently measured en route to New York at the very outset of this complex and demanding project.

(Image 10 – Opera Theatre. (from Smith, V (1974), The Sydney Opera House, Paul Hamlyn, Sydney, 41.)


(1.) Several versions of these lists, some of them annotated by Hall, survive in the Peter Hall archive.

(2.) Hall redesigned Marion Best’s Woollahra shop in the mid 60s and his architect-trained wife Libby (née Bryant) worked for Best for several years.

(3.) Utzon’s acoustic consultants, Cremer and Gabler, had resigned in November 1966 in protest over the abandonment of Utzon’s scheme for the Major Hall. Their resignation cleared the way for Jordan, liked by Hall and preferred by the ABC, to resume his role as acoustic consultant. Jordan and Schlanger had also worked effectively together in the past.

(4.) Drawings AO66429-32 (State Records of NSW)

(5.) Ironically Utzon’s seating for public lounge and foyer areas was first conceived in Sydney.

(6.) Utzon’s July 1965 estimates allocated £225,000 ($550,000) for fixed seating (Rider Hunt & Partners, SOH Estimate, July 1965) making HTL’s total 1968 estimate $1,150,000.

(7.) The company was eventually paid $4028.11 early in 1971.

(8.) These drawings are held by NSW State Records – AO 69193B, 7 July 1969; AO 69193A, 16 September 1969. Diana Luxton also has a photo of the prototype compound curve chair.

(9.) Charles Eames’ photos of the Opera House were subsequently published in the Italian design magazine Domus (no. 490, September 1970:4-7). A copy of the article and Eames’ photos are in the Hall archive.

(10.) Peach remembers the contract as ‘the best job he ever did’ but that, like just about everything else connected with the Opera House, it radically pushed the boundaries of the company’s expertise. (Conversation with author, 17 February 2010). Continental seating, used widely in Europe and the US, allowed both a greater number of seats and a more visually pleasing arrangement of continuous rows.

(11.) “At $200 Each This Is How We Reckon the Opera House Seats Will Look”, Kings Cross Whisper, no. 98:2, no date [1971].

(12.) Architect Harry Ellis recalls the ‘tedious but challenging exercise’ of preparing the complicated Concert Hall seating layout in pre-computer days: ‘I spent many hours drawing little boxes of differing widths, with lines, head width apart to the stage in plan checking for even distribution and good sight lines.’ (email to author, 3 February 2010)

(13.)The final number of Concert Hall seats (including seating behind the orchestra) was 2690.


(Correspondence and reports cited are held in the State Records of NSW collection – Hall Todd & Littlemore and NSW Public Works Department papers,)

Dewey, Dean (1969). Letter to Peter Hall, 16 May 1969.

Dewey, Dean H (1970a). Letter to Lionel Todd, 2 July 1970.

Dewey, Dean H (1970b). Letter to Lionel Todd, 23 September 1970.

Gazzard, Donald & Hall, Peter (1964). “Goldstein Hall, University of New South Wales”, Building Ideas, September 1964: 2-5.

Government Architect (1970). “Sydney Opera House Auditoria Chairs”, 3 November 1970.

Hall, Peter

— (1966a). Letter to EH Farmer, 24 June 1966.

— (1966b). Letter to Davis Hughes, 9 June 1966.

— (1966c). Letter to Davis Hughes, 7 July 1966.

— (1966d). Letter to Davis Hughes, 5 October, 1966.

— (1966e). Letter to Davis Hughes, 2 November, 1966.

— (1969a). Letter to Dean Dewey, 29 May 1969.

— (1969b). Letter to Dean Dewey, 4 September 1969.

— (1972). Letter to Phil Peach, 4 January 1972.

Hall Todd & Littlemore (1968a). Copy, untitled and undated report, [assumed February 1968].

Hall Todd & Littlemore (1968b). Letter to Davis Hughes, 4 September 1968.

Luxton, Diana (1968a). Minutes of meeting,13 June 1968.

Luxton, Diana (1968b). “Report on Auditorium Seating”, 18 November 1968.

Luxton, Diana (1970). Memo, “Companies Eligible for Tendering”, 19 January 1970.

Souter, Gavin (1972). “Furnishing the Opera House”, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 1972: 19.

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