Discover hidden messages in braille and Morse Code at Pier 2/3
“There are so many beautiful secrets in this place”, ACO Cello Julian Thompson said when he recently caught up with us about how it feels to have finally moved to a beautiful, custom-built permanent home for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “At Pier 2/3 there are all these magical touches, like the braille on the walls.”
Pier 2/3, designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects after many years in the dreaming, planning and making, is home to a stunning made-to-measure concert hall for the Orchestra, named The Neilson after the generous donation of Kerr Neilson and his family, as well as a beautiful Rehearsal Room, which doubles as a performance and workshop space, the Belgiorno Room which is a unique events space with spectacular views of Sydney Harbour, and made-to-measure practice rooms, a media suite as well as offices for the Orchestra’s administration teams.
You only have to scratch the surface (not literally, please) of the pristine finish of our new home to discover some of the wonderful secrets Julian was alluding to.
In The Neilson, like in many concert halls, there are indentations in the wood of the auditorium walls and shrouds of the air conditioning ducts in the ceiling, designed to sweeten the acoustic reflections. They are actually reverse braille, and they spell out the beautiful Beethoven quote, “Kant spoke of the moral law in us, and the starry sky above us. What is music? It is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
And that’s not the only secret quote woven into the architecture — the Rehearsal Room ceiling features African American poet Rita Dove’s powerful quote, “I do think music is a grace but it is as well the eye of God – baleful, glittery with his glorious outrage,” also in braille.
And there are three quotes hidden in Morse Code in Artistic Director Richard Tognetti’s office, the Green Room, and the practice rooms. British philosopher John Ruskin’s layered description of Beethoven as always sounding “to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer,” overlooks Richard’s day-to-day, and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation that “Without music, life would be a mistake” inspires our musicians as they practise. In the Green Room, Plato says, “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.”
Other stunning design features that beautifully encode the ACO’s passion for the music it plays is embedded in the acoustic design of the ACO’s home at Pier 2/3 by Arup Acoustics. In The Neilson, glass panelling has been sized according to ratios between the notes of the chords in Bach’s famous Chaconne for unaccompanied violin, and ceiling depths determined again by interval ratios — this time by the intervals heard in Wagner’s famous ‘Tristan’ chord, Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ chord and the secret ‘DSCH’ motif Shostakovich hid in many of his pieces.
“It just feels like this is the space for the ACO, and this is where we can pursue great music and great art,” Julian says.
“After two years of carefully transforming an empty wool store into a premium 21st century space for the arts, Pier 2/3 welcomes the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Theatre for Young People and Bell Shakespeare as its new resident companies,” Minister for the Arts Ben Franklin said when we first arrived at Pier 2/3. “The evolving story of Walsh Bay Arts Precinct now shifts into the hands of the many artists who will transform this precinct in new and unforgettable ways.”
Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects have beautifully restored and honoured the 1920s industrial architecture of this pier, which is part of the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct on Gadigal land — home to organisations that include the Sydney Theatre Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre.
As well as the stunning new music features, the venue is striking for the juxtaposition between new metal and old industrial wood. In places, scratchy old beams sit wonkily next to perfectly straight glass doors; in opposite corners warn old wooden number markers sit high above brand new venue signage emblazoned with the ACO logo.
“I think it looks amazing. It’s such a big project that you can’t sum it up in a few words. The biggest thing is that it still feels like an industrial wharf. It feels expansive, as opposed to being divided into little boxes, which in fact it is,” lead architect Peter Tonkin has said of Pier 2/3, which is also home to the Australian Theatre for Young People and Bell Shakespeare.
“It was essential to keep the character. There’s nothing like these buildings anywhere. Sydney has got a bunch of these wharves currently being demolished. They’re just so unique, you couldn’t build them now.”
Full list of musical architectural features to spot at Pier 2/3
- Braille walls: “Kant spoke of the moral law in us, and the starry sky above us. What is music? It is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
- Ceiling: The ceiling has five sections that have an ABCBA pattern of the depths of the timber elements. The A sections are based on the intervals in Wagner's ‘Tristan’ chord. The B sections are based on Shostakovich's ‘DSCH’ motif. The C section is based on Richard Strauss's ‘Elektra’ chord.
- Windows: The glazing on the east/west walls is based on the chord progression of Bach’s ‘Chaconne’, with each of the 16 windows "spelling" one of the chords (the widths of the panes of glass are in proportion to the intervals of the notes in the chords). The depths of the panes of glass within the frames are also modulated so there are four different depths, corresponding to the notes Bb, A, C and B natural – spelling BACH in German notation.
- Braille ceiling: “I do think music is a grace but it is as well the eye of God – baleful, glittery with his glorious outrage.” – Rita Dove
- Windows: The glazing is based on a mathematic sequence called a quadratic residue sequence, which has been used by some composers in the compositional process.
Artistic Director’s Office
- Morse Code walls: “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.” – John Ruskin, 1881
- Morse Code walls: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
- Morse Code walls: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.” – Plato
Please visit us and see which beautiful music-inspired features you can spot if you’re in Sydney. And discover more about our new home and venue at aco.com.au/pier23.
On the weekend of 29 April - 1 May, we are throwing the doors open for our ACO at Pier 2/3 Opening Festival. For those who can’t attend in person, we’re streaming three of the concerts in full, for free, on our website, Facebook Page and YouTube Channel. Register for the live streams here so you don’t miss out.
Register for the three live streams below:
Register for Live Stream 1: ACO at Pier 2/3 Opening Celebration | Fri 29 Apr, 7.30pm AEST
Register for Live Stream 2: ACO Music in Time Part One: Hildegard to Tchaikovsky | Sat 30 Apr, 6pm AEST
Register for Live Stream 3: ACO Music in Time Part Two: Mahler to Now | Sun 1 May, 6pm AEST