Canberra, the Bush Capital of Australia. A landscape of dry Eucalypt forest, flat plains and rugged mountain ranges surround the master-planned city, made up of post war modernist homes and civic office buildings. In the inner city suburb of Acton, a peculiar object emerges from within the bushland. It’s organic in shape, yet it could have landed from outer space. It’s a fine example of architecture responding to a brief, to the landscape and reflecting the profession of its inhabitants. Welcome to the Shine Dome.

The Shine Dome was purpose built to give the Australian Academy of Science a permanent home. Six architects were invited to submit plans for a building which reflected the inquiring and innovative nature of science. The brief specified the need for a large conference hall with raked seating, a council room, offices and a Fellows’ room. Only one of the submissions perfectly addressed these requirements.

The Academy’s Building Design Committee selected “the most radical design”, belonging to Roy Grounds, of Grounds, Romberg and Boyd. This trio of architects made up one of the most innovative architectural practices in Australia, known for their modernist and functional design. Roy Grounds had a well-known fascination with circular and triangular geometry, and his winning design was a 46 metre wide concrete dome, weighing  710 tonnes. Several dome structures appeared around the world in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but Grounds’ dome was the first of its kind to feature circular cut outs at its base and be surrounded by a moat.

Concrete pillars are submerged in a shallow moat.
Left image: Kait Moncrieff
Right image: Sean Fennessy, The Design Files

Before the dome was even built the Academy knew it was a special building. At the laying of the foundation stone in 1958, Professor Mark Oliphant, founding President of the Academy, remarked on their lucky, or perhaps wise decision, in selecting Grounds’ design:

“Mr Roy Grounds… with remarkable insight into our needs and with the boldness of the true contemporary artist, has designed a building which we believe will prove to be one of the great creations of this period of architecture.”

He was correct.

The Shine Dome under construction, with precise timber formwork and scaffolding to shape and set the concrete. Image courtesy of the Australian Academy of Science.

However, a 710 tonne concrete dome had never been perched on narrow supports before and some architects and engineers doubted it could be built. A 1:40 scale model was created to test the stress on the building. As the story goes, Roy Grounds himself ‘gave it the bum test’ and sat on top of the model, which held his weight. The secret to its strength was submerged underwater. “To contain the dome’s lateral spreading he devised a massive concrete ring beam (built as a moat) that straps everything together like the hoop on a wine barrel.” A crowd formed the day the timber formwork and supports were removed, only to watch the dome drop “less than a centimetre as it took its own weight.”

The 1:40 scale model. Image courtesy of the Australian Academy of Science.

The copper-clad building remains in place 60 years later, where it continues to service the needs of the Academy. Awarded Heritage status in 2005, it is a truly iconic piece of Australian architecture and a welcome addition to the landscape.

The Shine Dome in the present day.
Image: Sean Fennessy, The Design Files

Architect: Roy Grounds of Grounds, Romberg and Boyd
Builder: Civil and Civic Contractors Pty Ltd
Completed: 1958
Materials: Concrete, Copper, Vermiculite, Brick
Awards: Sulman Medal RAIA 1959, Meritorious Architecture award 1959