St George’s Performing Arts Centre

Learning Environments Australasia Victorian Chapter Awards 2023: Large Modernisation – Winner
2023 Master Builders Victoria Excellence in Construction Awards:
Commercial Buildings $10-$15 Million – Winner

The St George’s Performing Arts Centre is the result of the adaptive reuse of the heritage-listed St George’s Uniting Church in St Kilda, Victoria. Originally designed by architect Albert Purchas and completed in 1880, the church was purchased by St Michael’s Grammar School in 2014 to serve as an auditorium, albeit with severe functional limitations—the space was poorly ventilated and lit, while the church interior, designed for sermons and choirs, was ill-suited to the acoustic and spatial needs of modern productions.

Kneeler Design Architects engaged with staff and students throughout the design process to ensure the project was grounded in the school’s values and met their aims for improved teaching and learning outcomes. A key ambition of the project was to maximise seating numbers yet maintain good sightlines to the stage, all while negotiating a complex range of heritage controls, acoustic, theatre, and services requirements, and compliance with accessibility standards.

The design takes the form of strategic insertions and interventions that lightly touch the building fabric, so that the original proportions and detailing of the space are preserved. The key intervention—a multifunctional brass ‘ingot’ cast in the nave—houses tiered seating, a control desk, box office/learning space, bar, storage, and plant room, maximising the use and value of the limited space. The sides of the ‘ingot’ are perforated for supply and return air, with the main air intake fan unobtrusively integrated into the existing bell tower. Additional insertions house services or improve accessibility, and are designed to harmonise with the existing fabric. Key heritage features like the brickwork, stained glass windows, and organ were professionally restored as part of required conservation works.

New steelwork suspended from the original timber roof structure support stage equipment, drapes, and acoustic reflectors. A timber sprung floor installed over the stage supports movement across a range of genres. The integration of cutting-edge audiovisual technologies, including an immersive audio system and modular video wall, overcomes the acoustic and scenographic limitations of the heritage fabric, while allowing students to gain valuable production experience using the most sophisticated equipment available.

St George’s Performing Arts Centre is a reimagining of what a performing arts centre in an educational environment can be. It remains a recognisably ecclesiastical space while providing a visually exciting, immersive theatrical atmosphere for audience and performers alike, honouring the building’s past while equipping it to help shape present and future generations of performing arts talent.