Located on St Kilda Road by the Yarra River and Southbank, the Arts Centre comprises Hamer Hall, the State Theatre, George Fairfax Studio, the Playhouse, the Alfred Brash Soundhouse, the Performing Arts Collection and the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (handed over to the Arts Centre in 1980).
The site has a history of entertainment. In the 1870s it was home to visiting circuses. In 1901, Australia's largest circus, FitzGerald Brothers, built the Olympia, a hardtop. By 1904 Princes Court also occupied the site, offering among other diversions a Japanese tea-house and open-air theatre. The area was renamed Wirth's Park after Wirth's Circus moved onto the site in 1907. A popular dance hall known as the Green Mill was opened and later became the Trocadero. The site was earmarked for cultural development in 1946. In 1953 Wirth's buildings were destroyed by fire and the site was used as a carpark until plans for its future were finalised.
In 1959 Roy Grounds was appointed architect for the National Gallery of Victoria, which opened in 1968. Work began on the Arts Centre in 1973. The Performing Arts Collection and the Concert Hall (the Hamer Hall) opened in 1982, and the theatres in 1984. Designer John Truscott (1936-93) was responsible for the interior design. Attention is drawn to the complex by the gold, silver and white spire, a landmark image of Central Melbourne. In Grounds' original design the spire was to have been encased in copper cladding; in 1996 its height was increased to 162 m after cost-cutting had restricted it to 115 m on completion in 1981. The theatres descend to six levels below St Kilda Road and the State Theatre seats over 2000. Among those responsible for a project which has provided a focus for ballet, opera and theatre in Melbourne, are George Fairfax, composer Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984), and businessman and philanthropist Kenneth Myer (1921-92).