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Peter Brian Hall (1931–1995)

by Roy Lumby

This article was published:

Peter Brian Hall (1931–1995), architect, was born on 16 May 1931 at Merewether, Newcastle, only child of New South Wales-born parents William Laidley Hall, clerk, and his wife Eileen Mary, née Ritter. By 1933 the family had moved to Narrabri, and by 1940 to Boggabri. An outstanding student at Boggabri Public School, Peter won a scholarship to Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill. Boarding there from 1943, he played for the school’s first XI cricket team, captained its debating team, and became a prefect.

Awarded a scholarship to the University of Sydney (BArch, 1957; BA, 1958), Hall resided at Wesley College. He initially enrolled for an arts degree, before transferring to architecture in 1952. The same year he was accepted as a trainee architect in the government architect’s branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Works, which paid for his educational and living expenses. He soon joined its design room, a select team of young men led by Harry Rembert. President of the Architectural Students’ Society, he also played for the university’s first-grade cricket team.

Registering as an architect in July 1957, that year Hall was awarded a Board of Architects of New South Wales research bursary, and a Hezlet bequest travelling scholarship. He departed for England the following year, and worked for several months in the London office of Anderson Forster & Wilcox. In London he renewed acquaintance with Elizabeth Hardinge (Libby) Bryant, who had also studied architecture at the University of Sydney; they married on 2 June 1959 at the parish church of St Bartholomew the Great. Later that month the couple left England to travel in Europe. Visiting Denmark, he approached the architect Jørn Utzon, the winner of the competition to design the Sydney Opera House, seeking work, but none was available.

The Halls returned to Sydney in 1960, and he went back to the government architect’s branch, while she began working for the interior designer Marion Hall Best. Initially employed on small items, from 1961 he was engaged on the design of several significant projects. Two additions to public buildings—an extension to the Registrar-General’s Department in Macquarie Street and an addition to Darlinghurst Courthouse at Taylor Square—demonstrated his sensitive response to historic context. He also designed buildings for the universities of New England, New South Wales, and Sydney, and for Macquarie University. These structures demonstrated a direct and unassuming use of materials, reflecting the aesthetics of the Sydney School of architecture, and several were notable for an assured use of off-form reinforced concrete. One such was Goldstein Hall at the University of New South Wales, which in 1964 jointly won the Sulman medal, awarded by the New South Wales chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA). He also undertook some private commissions, including the refurbishment of Best’s shop in Paddington.

Leaving the government architect’s office in 1966, Hall set up his own practice. On 28 February that year Utzon resigned from the Sydney Opera House project, provoking outrage among members of the architectural fraternity and the public who sided with Utzon in his dispute with the State government. The government architect, Edward Herbert (Ted) Farmer, initially sought to replace Utzon by engaging a partner from each of two prominent architectural firms, but those who were asked declined. Hall, whom Farmer respected as a designer, was then approached. He was reluctant to accept, and would have stepped down if Utzon had returned. His decision to take up the commission met with recriminations from many of his fellow architects that were to endure for many years.

On 19 April an ‘architectural panel’ to complete the opera house was announced. It consisted of Hall, Lionel Todd, and David Littlemore. Hall was responsible for design, Todd for contract documentation, and Littlemore for supervision, while Farmer was chairman. Hall first inspected Utzon’s drawings, which had been handed over to the Department of Public Works, but not all of the Utzon documents were found, notably two relating to the seating layout of the major hall.

One important issue that required resolution related to the great difficulties arising from the requirement that the main hall of the opera house fulfil dual roles as an opera and concert venue. In May the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) advised that it would not be likely to use the main hall in the form that it had taken prior to Utzon’s departure. Through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the ABC was to be the main hall’s major user, and Hall had been instructed to ensure the venue was suitable for it. He embarked on a three-month tour to inspect performing arts centres in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Japan, and to meet with various experts. Drawing on these experiences, he based his proposal for completion of the project on three factors: ‘a partially completed building’; the ABC as ‘the main user of the major hall’; and the conflicting requirements of opera and concerts that could not be met in the main hall ‘without loss of quality for both’ (Hall 1967, 114). The revised scheme entailed a concert hall to seat 2,800 and an opera theatre seating 1,500, as well as various smaller spaces, and cabinet accepted it in March 1967.

In 1966 and 1967 Hall and Utzon communicated several times, and Utzon let it be known he was willing to return to the project, but the minister for public works, (Sir) Davis Hughes, refused to reinstate him. Work was finally completed and the opera house opened in 1973. Its acoustics were highly praised by early performers, including the soprano (Dame) Joan Sutherland and the violinist (Sir) Yehudi (Baron) Menuhin. During a trial performance in December 1972, Sir Bernard Heinze, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s conductor, found the major hall ‘delightful in its resonance’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1972, 1). According to Peter Murray, ‘the quality of [Hall’s] interiors for the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre bear comparison with other, similar halls around the world’ (2004, 132).

As a result of his involvement with the Sydney Opera House, Hall’s personal life suffered. In 1969 he was divorced. On 13 August 1970 at the chapel of Wesley College, University of Sydney, he married Penelope Anne McDonnell, a student; they later divorced. He had formed a professional partnership with Jim Anderson in 1969, and in 1971 David Bowe also became a partner. Following Anderson’s departure from Hall Anderson Bowe Pty Ltd in 1973, the practice became Hall & Bowe Architects Pty Ltd. From November 1977 to the end of 1980 Hall was chief architect in the Commonwealth Department of Construction, while also continuing in private practice. That year a former government architect, Peter Webber, joined Hall & Bowe, which became Hall Bowe & Webber Pty Ltd. Webber left the firm in 1990; Bowe had departed in 1988.

During this period Hall and his colleagues worked on a range of projects. Among these was the design of new forecourts for the Sydney Opera House. Hall Bowe & Webber shared the New South Wales chapter of the RAIA’s 1988 Lloyd Rees award for this work, which formed part of the upgrade of Circular Quay and Macquarie Street. The firm also won the institute’s 1988 national civic design award for the same project.

Hall thought seriously about the practice of architecture, although not often articulating his thoughts. He was concerned that the buildings he designed gave their users what he termed a ‘good experience’ (Webber 2012, 106), and he strove to achieve functional solutions that fulfilled the needs of users. Olive-skinned, dark-haired, and slightly built, he was charming, courteous, and forthright, with a fine sense of humour. His former design room colleague Ken Woolley described him as ‘articulate, highly intelligent,’ and generous (Woolley 1995, 7). A stylish and at times flamboyant dresser, he keenly appreciated classical music, literature, and the fine arts; admired unusual cars; and was a keen player of cricket, squash, and golf.

Early in 1992 Hall’s practice went into liquidation, a victim of the economic recession of 1990 and 1991. He accepted a position with the management consultants McLachlan Consultants, but left at the beginning of 1995. His health was failing. He died of a stroke on 19 May 1995 at St Leonards, and was cremated. The daughter and son from his first marriage, and the two daughters and one of the two sons from his second marriage, survived him.

Some years after Hall’s death, the contribution of Hall, Todd and Littlemore to the Sydney Opera House was praised and acknowledged. More than a quarter of a century after it was completed, Utzon wrote that he was pleased with its success, and that the work of Hall, Todd and Littlemore and Ove Arup had enabled it to operate effectively. In 2006 the architectural quality of the concert hall and the opera theatre were recognised by the New South Wales chapter of the RAIA’s 25 year award. Utzon and the Sydney Opera House had earlier won the 1992 commemorative Sulman award and the 2003 25 year award. Acknowledging Hall’s design, the RAIA assessed his interiors ‘among the major achievements of Australian architects of the 1960s and 1970s’ and considered that they combined with Utzon’s ‘great vision and magnificent exterior’ to form ‘one of the world’s great working buildings’ (Architecture Bulletin 2006, 48).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Architecture Bulletin. ‘25 Year Award.’ July/August 2006, 48
  • Hall, Peter. ‘Function is not a “Dirty” Word.’ In The Sydney Opera House Affair, by Michael Baume, 109–117. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson (Australia), 1967
  • Murray, Peter. The Saga of Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia. London and New York: Spon Press, 2004
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Opera House Hall Passes Test for Sound.’ 18 December 1972, 1
  • Watson, Anne, ed. Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 2013
  • Webber, Peter. Peter Hall Architect: The Phantom of the Opera House. Boorowa, NSW: Watermark Press, 2012
  • Webber, Peter. Interview with the author, 16 July 2015
  • Woolley, Ken. ‘Peter Hall.’ Architecture Bulletin, June 1995, 7
  • Yeomans, John. The Other Taj Mahal: What Happened to the Sydney Opera House. Camberwell, Vic.: Longman Australia, 1973

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Citation details

Roy Lumby, 'Hall, Peter Brian (1931–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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