Setting sail

Bennelong ExternalArchitect Tim Greer’s reimagined Bennelong restaurant breathes new life into Sydney’s design masterpiece, writes Mitchell Oakley Smith.

There’s no denying the immensity of the Sydney Opera House. With its arching white sails that shoot into the city’s skyline, framing its famed harbour and playing home to some of the greatest creative talent, its place as one of the world’s most famous buildings is well deserved. But like the pre-show jitters that course through the veins of the musicians and actors that have performed within it, for any architect charged with a project associated with the house is, needless to say, something of a challenge.

“It certainly is daunting,” concedes Sydney-based architect Tim Greer of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects [TZG], the firm charged with the recent renovation of the venue’s flagship restaurant, Bennelong. “It has a legendary history thanks to a difficult birth, and it’s a really spectacular building. Bennelong is one of the great rooms of the world.” Located in the building’s southern-most sail, it frames the visitor entry to the Concert Hall.

Following Fink Group’s win of the public tender for the restaurant, Greer says that the experience was an enjoyable one thanks to the level of support in the process.

“Fink is an amazing business, the Opera House is an amazing organisation, and so there’s a clear vision and level of expectation, which makes it a little less scary than perhaps a grand project that has a limited budget. We were allowed to be architects.” TZG certainly knows how to be. As one of the country’s most acclaimed firms, its portfolio includes such significant projects as arts centre Carriageworks, Paddington Reservoir Gardens and the Glasshouse Arts Conference and Entertainment Centre.

“What ties our projects together is that we’re interested in what sits underneath the traditional typology of architecture,” says Greer. “We want to find out what Sydney is now, what the values are in the community that we can pull into our work, so that there’s something deeper to the [end product]. There should be a connection between societal and cultural values and the building. That’s what underpins our practice conceptually.”

In the case of Bennelong, the architecture and interior design mirrors executive chef Peter Gilmore’s approach to dining, which eschews the white table cloth-style of formal service for an altogether more relaxed experience.

“It matches our lifestyles,” says Greer. “Obviously there’s a fine line between a relaxed space and having a sense of occasion, and [Bennelong] sits on the latter, it’s still a really special place to go for dinner. But while it’s a completely grand space, a dinner or lunch between two of four people is also incredibly intimate and personal.”

The interior of Bennelong is siloed into three distinct dining areas—the lowest being the most formal, the middle a private dining table with an elevated bar an open kitchen, and the top, by the entry, a casual bar for pre- and post-show drinks and snacks. It was, says Greer, about creating unique experiences within the broader “cathedral”, as he describes the shell of the building. “You can’t compete with that, or at least you shouldn’t try, and so the shell stayed in its glorious curvilinear geometry and we worked to an interpretative design strategy within.”

As is the case with much of the architect’s work, the devil most certainly is in the detail, with little touches that speak of the building’s history and design. Just as the stairs of pre-cast concrete are tiered throughout the building, creating a mesmerising repetition, the walls of the newly-designed Bennelong are covered in layers of pleated grey felt, mimicking the effect on a miniature scale and helping to create an effective acoustics solution.

The Tom Dixon “Melt” pendant lights scatter the room like the acrylic acoustic rings in the Opera House’s Concert Hall, and in lieu of linen table cloths, the Marblo polymer dining tables, using the same brass as in the interior of the building, curve at the edges, creating the effect without the formality. “You don’t expect everyone to read all of that, but it makes the space unique,” says Greer.

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