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The Sydney Opera House Restaurant Gets a High Design Makeover


BY BROOKE PORTER KATZ

Bennelong looks forward while honoring its storied past. 

The Sydney Opera House is perhaps the most iconic and recognizable architectural structure on the entire Australian continent. So you would think the architect tasked with designing its new restaurant—only the fifth in its 42 history—would be just a little bit intimidated. If so, you haven’t met Tim Greer.

The first thing Greer does when approach- ing a new commission is think about context. For the tri-level Bennelong—which includes the main dining room, the relaxed Cured & Cultured for oysters and charcuterie, and a top-floor bar for pre- and post-show drinks— that meant considering not only the restau- rant’s past, but also its future. Greer calls this“continuum architecture.”

“I always think about the ideas that underpin a project,” says Greer, whose Sydney- based firm, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, has designed everything from cultural institu- tions and Virgin Australia airport lounges to war memorials and the city’s new Old Clare Hotel. “We like to go in and un-build historicstructures, figuring out where those concepts came from and how to take them forward.”

Take the lights. An old iteration of the restaurant had 1970s globe lamps—leading to the decision to use Tom Dixon’s new Meltlamps, which debuted at this year’s Milan Design Week. “We played with the original idea and just reinterpreted it in a sophisti- cated manner,” Greer says. The new lights have an almost unstable quality, in that they appear to float in space like a constellation.

Greer and his team also played off the Opera House’s color scheme and natural tones, though each floor takes a different approach. The bar has a bright ochre carpet “in celebration of people being excited about going to the theater,” he explains. In the main dining room, the hue is more subdued, allow- ing the other showstopping elements—the building’s soaring concrete ribs, the view of Circular Quay and beyond—to shine through. According to Greer, it’s the only spot in the entire building where you can see the complete structure. “If you want to explain to someone how the Opera House was made, you go and stand in the restaurant and you can just see it,” he says.

In addition to reimagining elements from the Opera House and its previous culinary concepts, Greer incorporated some of the old pieces into Bennelong, including the Fritz Hansen swan chairs on the uppermost level, which he had reupholstered. “To be honest, it would have been easier to get new ones, but we wanted to keep the connection to the past,” Greer says.

But the building’s history isn’t the only thing that inspired the design approach; he also looked to its chef, the acclaimed Peter Gilmore, who strongly values natural, local ingredients. This influenced the decision to eschew tablecloths. “You think about what goes into keeping them white and starched,” says Greer. “It’s not very sustainable.” Instead, the tables—backlit by Neoz lights— are made out of a resin called Marblo, which has a tactile quality and takes on the tem- perature of the room, like stone. The edges are subtly rounded, giving the illusion of a tablecloth’s corners drooping over the side. (The seats are a simple and timeless leather- and-timber EL chair by B&B Italia.)

Aged brass is incorporated throughout, an ideal match for the natural brown palette. You’ll find it in the table legs, the oversize bar at Cultured & Cured, and the private dining area. And to counteract the restau- rant’s cathedral-like acoustics, the walls are covered with thick horizontal strips of dark gray felt, which resemble concrete.

Greer sums up the beauty of and mission behind Bennelong perfectly: “I like to think that people come to the restaurant and get a sense of the Opera House as an icon, but also what dining in Sydney is like in 2015,” he says. “It bridges the gap between then and now. That’s the goal of the whole project, and I think it gets there.”