During World War II, two large oil tanks were built in Sydney to provide fuel for the naval fleet at Garden Island. Located on the eastern side of the Domain in Woolloomooloo, the tanks have since been decommissioned and remained hidden until now.
As part of its Sydney Modern Project expansion, the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) is transforming one of the tanks into a new space for artists and audiences. The scale, structure, and acoustics of the 2,200 square metre space are remarkable, and the creative use of this underground treasure will undoubtedly be one of the Art Gallery’s new highlights.
If you have ever been inside a large empty space, you will understand how every footstep and word spoken reverberates. Now imagine the soundscape inside an empty underground oil tank with smooth concrete surfaces and seven-meter-tall ceilings supported by a uniform forest of structural columns. The slightest sounds linger in the air and combine to create a reverberant soundscape like no other.
So, how do you turn a piece of Sydney’s heritage into a contemporary art experience? Working with AGNSW, architects SANAA, and Infrastructure NSW, our acoustics team took on the challenge of transforming this space with new creative energy while respecting its incredible past.
90+ recordings and measurements
2artworks from AGNSW collection auralised
5operational situations modelled for various acoustic treatment options
Taking acoustic fingerprints
The first challenge for this project was to document and preserve the acoustic signature of the space. We realised the oil tank’s unique acoustic environment would change once construction started to convert it into a publicly accessible exhibition space.
With support from AGNSW, we took over 90 recordings and measurements to document this sonic part of the oil tank’s heritage. Using specialised audio equipment, our acoustics team went inside the oil tank to capture the soundscape before construction started.
We created a detailed measurement plan to guide every step of the recording day in precise 15-minute blocks. To record, we used microphones with different directivity, including ambisonic and dummy head binaural microphones. We then analysed the sound and started to plan the design using our SoundLab.
At the end of a long day of detailed, technical measurements, our team could not resist the opportunity to have some fun with the unique acoustics of the space, with two team members playing a duet with a French horn and flute, weaving ambient harmonies together inside the tank.
I will forever remember playing a duet in that magical acoustic space after a long day of detailed measurements – the thought still sends tingles down my spine. Nick Boulter, now retired, maintains it was one of the best days of his consulting career. I fear I may have peaked early. ” Mitchell Allen Project Director
Developing a digital twin
Having captured the acoustic signature of the tank, the team turned their attention to creating a 3D digital twin acoustic model of the space. The digital twin allowed the team to test different scenarios and configurations to inform the final design of the tank as well as AGNSW’s operational considerations.
Key to this process was the use of auralisations, or ‘visualisations for the ear,’ in Arup’s SoundLab. The SoundLab enables anyone to hear existing and future spaces and to test the sound of different designs. It helps our team design acoustic solutions in finer subjective detail beyond decibel charts or acoustic maps.
The SoundLab’s auralisations are perfectly matched to real-world conditions, so clients are assured we are focusing on finding the right balance of solutions and have added trust with our designers.
Modelling acoustic possibilities
Arts venues are a hive of activity with sounds ranging from quiet exhibition viewing, school groups, community events and keynote speeches – to time-based artworks. As a result, the oil tank required flexibility to cater for diverse artists, exhibitions, and audiences.
Using the SoundLab, our acoustics team simulated what the space would sound like in five different operational situations: a conversation, a static exhibition, an event with over 800 people, a formal speech, and a music performance. We also used the model to test various time-based artworks from AGNSW’s collection to help inform curatorial thinking of artworks that could be exhibited in the space.
Our acoustics team then simulated each of these situations with three acoustic treatment options: acoustic curtains around the perimeter of the space, acoustic panels on the walls, and acoustic baffles hung from the ceiling. The acoustic baffles were particularly interesting as they preserved the raw state of the tank as much as practical, while providing customised acoustic flexibility as for exhibitions and events.
The SoundLab provided AGNSW with an accessible and human-centric view of the oil tank prior to construction commencing, helping the Art Gallery to think about the future potential of the space based on the acoustic outcomes experienced aurally. This process also provided valuable information to AGNSW on its future operational considerations in the space.
With deep appreciation of how the Art Gallery operates and how acoustic design can help shape the artistic experience, we helped bridge the art world and beauty of the tank’s engineering with its industrial roots for the Sydney Modern Project. I am proud to have led the project’s acoustic design and assisted our clients in realising the tank’s potential. ” Harvey Yang Senior Acoustician
Transforming an institution
As the Art Gallery of NSW engages with artists worldwide on commissions, installations and exhibitions, our network of SoundLab facilities across the globe can help us test the sound experience in the tank, allowing artists to better understand its acoustics and create artworks for the space remotely.
The Art Gallery of NSW has an important piece of Sydney’s acoustic archive and the potential to use this as part of its public programming and community engagement.
We are proud to be involved in this once-in-a-generation project, transforming the Art Gallery of NSW into a two-building art museum that will almost double the space for displaying and enjoying art.