Sydney Architecture Images- Circular Quay and area

Conservatorium of Music Former Government House Stables


Francis Greenway


Conservatorium Road.  Cnr Bridge and Macquarie Streets




Old Colonial Gothick Picturesque


Based on mediaeval Thornbury Castle.


Government stables
  Sydney Conservatorium of Music © Arup
The Sydney Conservatorium of Music ('the Con') is one of the world's finest music schools and is set in the Royal Botanic Gardens near the Opera House.

The Con was reopened in 2001 after extensive modernisation and expansion. Its award-winning new structures blend with the renovated original heritage buildings. The main concert hall holds 600, and the complex has recording studios and performance and practice spaces featuring the very latest in acoustic technology.

Tel: + 61 2 9351 1222

Self-guided Tour of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

This tour will take you through the public areas of the Con and give you an insight into the building's history, the personalities of some of its directors and a brief description of its main auditoria. The areas where you can visit are shown in black and those not open to the public, except on recital and guided tour days, are shown in blue.

The building

Old Conservatorium
In 1815, Governor Macquarie commissioned Francis Greenway to design a stables and servants' block on this site to serve the then existing Government House on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets and its planned successor on its current site. Greenway based his design on two castle in Scotland and the original building was arranged around an open exercise yard for the horses, where now stands the Verbrugghen Hall.

During the nineteenth century there were many internal changes and a rather haphazard approach to maintenance so that, by 1915, it was in a very dilapidated state. The New South Wales government of W A Holman decide that this would be an excellent location for a Conservatorium and spent some 22000 on a main auditorium and converting rooms, although the first Director, Henri Verbrugghen, 1915-1921, had to spend more money as the concert hall was not finished and the initial conversion of some rooms was not suitable for their intended use. A small performance hall and a new wing were added in 1919, at the time of the establishment of the High School.

Old Conservatorium
In 1957, Sir Bernard Heinze became Director and found the place dilapidated and the Concert hall crumbling. There was only a buffet and a small meeting room for the students, no staff common room, and the library comprised 2 tables and 12 chairs and its books were kept in metal filing cabinets in the corridors. The High School was housed in three haphazardly located rooms and the five staff had to keep all their equipment and books in a room of 9 sq metres!

Four levels were added in 1964 for the High School and library, and studios and a concert hall were built in the period 1964-1972. However, since its inception the building has suffered from damp, poor soundproofing, overcrowding and infestations of various types.

Between 1972 and 1984 there were seven separate enquiries into accommodation and between 1993 and 1997, four more. By 1995, however, the Con operated out of eight different buildings around the city and the NSW Government of Bob Carr decided to rebuild at a budgeted cost of $69 million.

The current building, designed by NSW Government architect Chris Johnson and the architectural practice of Daryl Jackson, Robin Dyke and Robert Tanner was completed in 2001 at a cast of $144 million and won an Australia Award of Merit for Urban Design Excellence in 2002.

New meets old
The architectural challenge was to create a working Conservatorium and to open up vistas of the Botanic Gardens and the original Greenway stables. Plus, the site presented particular difficulties as the Cahill Expressway bounds it to the northwest and the City Circle rail line runs underneath the administration area and practice rooms in the eastern part of the building. Thus there were soundproofing and noise reduction issues to be overcome. The answer to these problems was to build the accommodation underground and to separate the whole building from the sandstone in which it is built. Thus the building rests on rubber pads throughout except for the Recital Halls where a different solution was necessary because of the close proximity of the rail tunnel. Each of the 70 practice studios and all four recital areas are physically separated from the structure to avoid sound and vibration transmission, thus creating a "room within a room". So really, although some 30,000 sq metres were built, the building is twice that size.

 Let's take a tour lion

Level 3

On this level convict-built roadway and gutters uncovered during the building's recent reconstruction can be seen. These are located adjacent to the entrance doors and between the stairway and the northern glass wall.

On this level is the Verbrugghen Hall, the Con's principal recital venue. Named for the first Director of the Con, Henri Verbrugghen (1815-1821), the Hall seats 500 and has a stage large enough for a full symphony orchestra. At the rear of the stage is the 1973 Pogson organ built at Orange, New South Wales.

Under the stalls are the foundations of the 1790 bakery and mill that stood on the site before the stables block was built.

There is a clerestory of windows depicting "Music and Nature" dating from 1915 in the north and south walls.

Rock Wall
Level 2

Round to your right as you come down the stairs is a cistern that was unearthed during the reconstruction. This dates from the same period as the 1790 bakery and was used for water storage for the bakery. You can see the marks on the inside of this 7-tonne piece of sandstone where the convict's adze chipped out the stone to form the tank. The archaeologists tell us that the convict must have been right-handed. The top of the cistern was formerly about one metre higher, i.e. approximately at ground level, and it was modified over the years as building and road works took place on the site.

Library Window
Continuing along this corridor brings you to the Library, which is available to the public to use, but borrowing material is only available to the students and staff. The library is on two levels; the upper is all music in various forms - CDs, sheet, tapes, and the lower level is all books. Both levels are served by natural light through the large circular roof.

If you would like to look at any music books or listen to any recordings, please ask the library staff for assistance.

Round Windows
Coming out of the library and back past the cistern, proceed along the walkway to the glass door (as far as you are allowed to go, I'm afraid). Look at the panels of 1829 drawings on the northern wall and see how many of those buildings you can still see around the city today. Clue: they are mostly in the panels to the left, except, of course, the Con itself.

You can also see where the 2 metre saw was used to cut through the sandstone.

On this level is the entrance to the Music Workshop. This is a multi-purpose room seating 220. The stage is a complex structure, part of which can be lowered two metres to form an orchestra pit. The first few rows of seats can be slid back under the back rows to create a large open floor. There is a sound recording studio and facilities for audio-visual presentations. This room is used for rehearsals, practice, teaching, examinations, recitals and even for opera performances.

Level 1

The Atrium houses a collection of artefacts which were unearthed during reconstruction, a lot from inside the cistern on Level 2. There is also a brick drain which was part of the road works.

The Atrium had to be moved from its originally planned location when the nineteenth century road and drain works were uncovered so the upper levels walls were shifted to the south to maintain scale. The timber steps perform a number of functions - steps to the East and West Recital Halls, sitting space for students and visitors, and informal practice and performance stages!

The Recital Halls are identical. Each seats 120 but the truly remarkable feature of the rooms is out of sight, underneath. Each room is supported by 15 concrete columns, at the top of which are eight coil springs about 350mm high, set in a resinous material to dampen vibration. The walls of the halls slope backwards so that sound is not bounced back and forth. These walls are of blackbutt bonded to 300 mm concrete; there is then a 50mm gap to separate the room from the actual building structure.

Outstanding Directors

Without diminishing the achievements of any of the directors, three stand out in various ways:

Henri Verbrugghen 1915-1921

The first director, Verbrugghen was a Belgian conductor and violinist. Eventually fell out with the NSW Government over his salary of 1250, which he said should be doubled because he also conducted the orchestras. That orchestra played 150 concerts between 1919 and 1921 and toured NSW, Victoria and New Zealand. Around Sydney they played in schools and cinemas to bring music to the people.

Sir Eugene Goosens 1948-1956

Raised musical standards exponentially. For example, when he came to the post, to graduate in piano a student had to have six pieces in the repertoire; Goosens changed that to 42!

He composed a number of pieces, including Judith where he cast for the title role a young soprano named Joan Sutherland. It was Goosens who first suggested that Bennelong Point should be the site of an opera house.

Rex Hobcroft 1972-1982

A major innovator, Hobcroft introduced jazz studies, Church music, music therapy, electronic music and piano tuning as Con courses.

As you leave

On you way out, stop for a cup of coffee and a snack in the Music Cafe at the entrance to the Con. This space, over two levels, was designed for small group jazz and as a nightclub, so that the sound absorption qualities are of a high order. Whilst you sit and sip, enjoy the splendour of the Greenway stable block and think of all the fine Australian musicians who have been here before you - James Morrison, Dale Barlow, Roger Woodward

Music Cafe

Thanks to 

Architecture Australia
High and Low
Music and architecture come together in the
Sydney Conservatorium redevelopment by the NSW Government Architect and Daryl Jackson/Robin Dyke.

Jeff Mueller presents a response in six parts.
January / February 2002

Project Description

The redevelopment of the Sydney Conservatorium and the Conservatorium High School comprises three elements: the refurbished Greenway stables and Verbrugghen Hall; the new terraced buildings surrounding this colonial centrepiece; and a dramatic three-storey foyer linking old and new. The concept was designed by the NSW Government Architect and developed by a project team led by Daryl Jackson/Robin Dyke in response to the acoustic brief, and to heritage, technical and urban constraints. Located within the Royal Botanic Gardens, at the top of Macquarie and Bridge Street, the site is a sensitive historic, urban and landscape precinct, with the added complications of the Cahill Expressway and two underground City Circle rail tunnels. The historic site required a sympathetic yet decisive response. The intervention of a new foyer clearly defines and announces the new building. It also reveals a remnant drainage and road system found by archaeologists during the excavation and displays the excavated rock face, Groundborne vibration and airborne noise from the railway tunnels were also major considerations, necessitating unique engineering solutions. The project has several main functional areas: the refurbished stables and Verbrugghen Hall, the main studio and teaching spaces to the east of the foyer, the high school to the north of the Greenway building and the performance spaces south of the foyer. To the west, the new library and music technology rooms are distributed over two levels. The new roof gardens draw on the tradition of landscaped terraces to provide a seamless extension of the Royal Botanic Gardens and to re-establish the relationship of the stables to the gardens and to Government House. A series of light courts and skylights provide natural light to the studios and office below. The new conservatorium reinterprets the extensive layers of interventions on the site and inserts a contemporary layer that responds to the existing form while meeting the expectations of a world-class performance facility. An interface between old and new, the project also adds to the rich history of the place.
NSW Government Architect and Daryl Jackson/Robin Dyke.

Review by Jeff Mueller
Prelude. The basis for music's inclusion in the quadrivium of classical and medieval education was as the astrophysics and quantum theory of the day: it was an earthly emanation of the music of the spheres, the harmonic relationships connecting everything. Music and architecture in the west have long been surrounded by cloudy, ancient ideas of an underlying order that can be seen by those with appropriate knowledge and capacity for discernment. The best-known re-formulation of this idea in relation to architecture is by Friedrich von Schelling in his Philosphie der Kunst (1809): "Architecture in general is frozen music." But rather than opening up the question of how any order might constitute itself or find expression in the materials of the everyday, the use of this aphorism tends to paralyse thinking about these activities, and the relations between them. In this understanding Brunckner's symphonies are cathedrals in sound, and modern pop music is mean, ugly project homes or developers' towers.

How, then, to approach a building designed in relation to some odd pieces of heritage for a new, urban, state-funded institution, which teaches music? My strategy is twofold - to examine old music/architecture saws for what they may yet reveal, and to look at the building via the conceptual framework through which students with an intimate relationship to musical performance are taught to conceive of their undertaking.

Composition. The largely underground new conservatorium development makes decorous institutional gestures to Macquarie Street, the Greenway stables building (restored to its Macquarie-era external appearance), the Botanic Gardens and even the gaping maw of the Harbour Tunnel entry. From the Farm Cove approach, the building seems to be another terrace of introduced species in the gardens. The restoration of the original windows has made the stables seem surreal; the strange proportions and scale of the building are now apparent - especially when one knows that the turrets now contain tiny rehearsal rooms for divas to let down their hair. The lawns, which cover much of the new work, are accessible to the public. They create new spaces around the stables, revealing the building from new angles, and open a habour vista from Hunter Street.

The decision to build into the ground has many resonances with myth: the resurrection of an institution, or its emergence, like Oprheus, from Hades. It could also be read as a metaphor for the modern professional performer and his or her relationship to the invented musical traditions of the nineteenth century. In architectural terms, it offers rich yet problematic opportunities to manipulate light conditions. Top lighting solutions have been creatively pursued, and internal partitions tend to be transparent. Sunken courtyards, which will be colonized, punctuate the building and create pleasantly lit corridors, giving natural light to most practice and teaching rooms. Most staff offices enjoy enviable relations to the Botanic Gardens and treetop views to Farm Cove and beyond. For the performance venues the problems of leaky sound and light are reduced, in principle. The difficult proximity of two underground rail lines, which troubled recording in the old buildings, seems to have been alleviated by the rubber mountings of the shells of the Recital Halls and Music Workshop and the Verbrugghen Hall.

Performance. A live musical performance demands our attention and alters our perceptions of time and space. This compulsion has famously caused envy for any other art: "All art constantly aspires to the condition of music" is Walter Pater's 1873 dictum. Since Pater's time, we have developed a different understanding of the condition of reception of music and architecture. But, for architecture, perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of Pater's conception is that art in an ideal state - like an abstract piece of music - has no meaning outside itself. By contrast, the conservatorium redevelopment was invested with meaning long before the first sketch was made. The redevelopment of the Sydney Conservatorium site occurred in a climate of several contested cliams for territory. Even the location of the Sydney Conservatorium and the Conservatorium High School on the Macquarie Street site was questioned. Hot on the heels of a perceived defeat on the East Circular Quay controversy, a building in the Botanic Gardens, in the coveted Greenway Stables, was never going to please the urban conservation lobby. An almost comic outcry followed the discovery of archeologically significant drains - but is this the right kind of attention to pay to urban design and conservation?

In his most famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1938), Walter Benjamin makes a proposition about the reception of buildings: contrary to other works of art, they are not appropriated in terms of the "attentive concentration". In Benjamin's understanding, buildings are appropriated by tactile use and perception in a state of distraction. This offers a more useful way of understanding the experience of the conservatorium buildings than Pater or Schelling's dicta. The new public foyer is rendered in a palette of materials similar to other recent institutional buildings in the city: sandstone facings (complete with the de facto gesture of rustication made by the exposed foundation materials) and polished black granite, balanced against fine steel and toughened-glass roof supports and handrails. Discretion of the best sort seems to be the aesthetic deployed in setting up a light rhythm of raked columns through which the stables can be viewed at close range. The Macquaire-era brick drains (sensibly) do not pass overhead, but sit a little forlorn in a few corners: staff and students affectionately call one "the pizza oven". The sandstone cistern is a more splendid ruin, and sits well in the large space of the foyer. The glass floored areas displaying the exposed excavations offer compromised protection to the in-situ brick artefacts. Perhaps the most disappointing note is the prosaic nature of the display of the smaller archaeological artefacts in citrines against one wall.

Musicology. Each type of live music has its own ideal spatial and acoustic setting which reflects its origins. The now-archetypical music venue, the concert hall, illustrates the intertwining of musical and architectural effects: the enlargement of the orchestra and the development of a particular sound were responses to the acoustic of larger spaces produced to accommodate a paying public.

The range of music training offered by the conservatorium requires a number of different acoustic settings. The foyer serves a number of performance venues tucked under the Botanic Gardens - from the Music Café for jazz or cabaret, to a 350-seat auditorium with flexible pit arrangements. But it is also a possible venue itself: tiers of musicians might be placed on the stairs to the recital halls, and smaller ensembles placed on the narrow balconies around the top of the foyer space.

The Music Workshop, the largest of the venues directly off the foyer, demonstrates a robust approach to detailing. The material palette of veneered plywood and steel handrails evokes string instruments: fabric banners, for the adjustment of reverberation time, hang unobtrusively over painted concrete block walls. The acoustic is perfectly suited to training young musicians, and especially, voices - it encourages accuracy, and detailed musicianship, rather than simple volume and endurance. It will take the audience a while to realise that, in this acoustic environment, its every move is also audible. The most important functional aspect of the Music Workshop is the pit, which enables the training or orchestral musicians and singers in staged performance. Although it has no flytower, it nevertheless offers the opportunity for professional-standard productions, and will be a valuable venue for introducing new singers and works to audiences in the heart of the city. The two 150- seat recital halls have similarly lively acoustics and will make it possible to revive the song recital - if an audience can be found. The refurbishment of the 600-seat 1912 Verbrugghen Hall, inside the stables building, makes use of the same palette of materials as the other venues. It has yielded a greatly improved internal acoustic and separation from street and train noise.

Improvisation. The new conservatorium building will easily succeed in fulfilling its functional brief, and will produce an effective institutional image. The real success of the institution and the building will, of course, be in the spaces for casual social engagement between students and staff, and the support that it is perceived to give the casual and independent activity generated by its students. The building seems to be full of in-between spaces, which encourage casual interaction and appropriation.

Coda. The conservatorium redevelopment has answered the need for new venues and for the presence of a musical institution in the city. What practices and values it can be seen to embody will vary with the eye of the beholder. As an example of daring but discreet work in a heritage context it is exemplary. The provision of four professional-standard venues for students recitals, orchestral concerts and opera two minutes from the CBD means that it is a valuable addition to Sydney's concert life, and to the educational life of its 800 students. As an urban design gesture it works as large, slow tempo pedal notes, allowing the refurbished stables to act as an iconic flourish on Macquarie Street. As an inhabited building, it imposes order through the rhythm of natural light along its corridors, and connection to exquisitely manipulated images of nature. As a series of institutional spaces, the building seems supportive in the best possible sense, like a room which gives a singer's voice resonance and power to make the loudest or the most tender of gestures.

Jeffrey Mueller is an associate lecturer in architecture at UNSW.

Thanks to