Architects Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin are designing a tough new building for a nationally and internationally significant cultural tourism project that is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of treasures from Australia’s opal fields.
Planned for a 3.1-hectare site on the famous 3 Mile opal field at Lightning Ridge, the new Australian Opal Centre is literally a ground-breaker. Rather than “touching the earth lightly” – an expression synonymous with Murcutt’s work – it delves deeply, proposing an extraordinary museum embedded into a historic opal field. Site preparation and bulk excavation was completed in 2013 and construction is scheduled for completion in 2020.
The design is a spectacular response to challenges of climate, remoteness and the historic landscape. Off-grid and purpose-built to optimise sustainability, it will be self-sufficient for power and water and self-regulating for temperature and humidity.
Architects Wendy Lewin and Glenn Murcutt attended NSW State Parliament last week to visit a scale model of the new Australian Opal Centre (AOC), following discussions in September between AOC and government representatives.
“This is a bold and exciting project for all of us,” said Glenn Murcutt, Australia’s most famous architect and sole Australian recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize. “We have worked with the remarkable community in Lightning Ridge for over 13 years, and now, to be able to realize the new Australian Opal Centre in this iconic Australian landscape is just wonderful.”
The building is expected to provide new models for building design and technology in semi-arid Australia and become a study site for architecture and design professionals. Groups of architecture students from the University of New South Wales have already travelled to Lightning Ridge as part of Murcutt and Lewin’s teaching program.
Wendy Lewin described the proposed Australian Opal Centre as “a ‘tough’ building with a unique and complex programme.
“The site is off the grid and without any town services. We have designed the building to generate its own power, made provision for the collection, storage and recycling of water, on-site management of waste systems and passive heating and cooling systems. The structure will be ‘in and of’ the site. Being substantially embedded allows us to take advantage of the earth’s thermal mass and we will use some of the excavated material in the off-form concrete structure,” Ms Lewin said.
“Our ambition and that of our clients and their community is for this to be an exemplar of site appropriate, autonomous architecture. We believe it will be unique and culturally significant, globally.”
While at Parliament, the architects met with Member for Barwon Kevin Humphries, who said the new Australian Opal Centre would be the biggest inland tourist attraction west of Dubbo and an economic and tourism game changer for western NSW.
The new Australian Opal Centre will provide a global focus for opal-related education, training, research, science, art, tourism and cultural activities – a hub for creativity and learning, economic and cultural development in one of the State’s most economically disadvantaged, yet vibrant and culturally diverse regions.
Proponents of the new building, the not-for-profit LROFC Inc, are offering visionary benefactors the opportunity to become patrons of the new $34 million Australian Opal Centre and leverage construction funds from the NSW and Australian governments.
“This project is my Number One tourism infrastructure priority for western NSW and is expected to have high impacts on the visitor economy throughout NSW and inland Australia.
“We are always trying to diversify out of traditional income bases, which isn’t easy in rural sectors. Once completed, this facility will attract international acclaim and increase visitation, providing new and increased economic opportunities for years to come,” Mr Humphries said.
According to a recent study, construction and operation of the new $34 million Australian Opal Centre is expected to result in 345 new jobs directly and indirectly and, once operating, to generate $49 million in NSW every year. The facility will be self-funding as well as self-providing for power and water.
LROFC Inc has to date raised over $1 million in cash donations and pledges, has acquired and obtained development approval for the 3.1ha development site, amassed the world’s most significant collection of rare and valuable opalised fossils, and established educational and cultural programs.
It seeks government support to complete the project, targeting more than $20 million in funding through the NSW Government’s Regional Growth – Environment and Tourism Fund and the Federal Government’s Building Better Regions Fund.
Australian Opal Centre President, Vicki Bokros, said the new facility would create benefits throughout inland Australia, long-overdue recognition for Australia’s national gemstone, and a model for more responsible construction in semi-arid regions.
“The natural and cultural heritage of Australia’s outback opal fields is extraordinary, with hundreds of millions of years of changing landscapes and environments, tens of thousands of years of human habitation, and resilient communities built on and inspired by a rare and precious gemstone,” Ms Bokros said.
“The world looks to Australia for leadership on opal-related knowledge, training and industry standards. At the Australian Opal Centre, we will finally be able to meet that demand and celebrate our heritage, in an inspiring 21st-century icon of Australian sustainable architecture.
“This project delivers sustainable long-term beneficial outcomes and the outstanding return on investment for social and economic good. And thanks to many good people, including members of our design team, it’s poised for completion.
“We’ve created an opportunity for up to 148 visionary AOC Founders to become patrons of the historic Murcutt + Lewin Australian Opal Centre building. AOC Founders will together contribute more than $9 million towards the Centre’s construction and with that funding; we can leverage the rest from government.
“We’re resourceful and have achieved an enormous amount. Now we’re seeking benefactors to help complete this extraordinary project and leave an enduring positive legacy in Australia’s physical and cultural landscapes.”