NIDA: 21 years in the limelight

Take a fresh look at the Sulman award-winning National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) as it comes of age.

From modest 1958 beginnings on the grounds of the University of New South Wales via a 1962 converted UNSW Army Hall dubbed The Old Tote and a 1969 lecture hall that became the first iteration Parade Theatre to a striking, new millennium build on Sydney’s Anzac Parade, the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) has been a shining light in the arts and entertainment world for 21 years.

On 23 April 2002, graduate Mel Gibson AO officially opened the monumental NIDA complex, complete with five world-class theatres, including the new Parade Theatre. Since then, Hassell’s landmark design on Gadigal Country has provided the stage for a growing institution that now supports an annual quotient of 17,500+ students, 1450 staff and contractors, and 24 fully-staged productions.

As Australia’s leading dramatic arts educator and innovator, NIDA has nurtured some of the world’s most influential and in-demand storytellers across stage, screen and new digital platforms. Among them, alumni including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Snook, Mel Gibson, Judy Davis and Baz Luhrmann are outspoken about the crucial role NIDA played in developing their talents and launching their careers on the national and international stage. Every NIDA graduate and award-winner becomes an ambassador of Australian creativity and ingenuity.


Led by Ken Maher AO for Hassell in association with Peter Armstrong Architecture, this innovative upgrade put NIDA on the map with a grand gesture — a giant glazed box – that projects a bold and confident new public face for the prestigious institution.

An eleven-metre-tall curtain glass wall abuts the footpath of Anzac Parade, capped in modernist style with a skillion roof. Inside, a suspended, cylindrical centrepiece wraps the 730-seat Parade Theatre in a veil of louvres that cuts up through the ceiling to drink in the sky. The project was environmentally engineered to facilitate the lowest life cycle operating costs while ensuring acceptable comfort conditions are maintained year-round.

Equally confident and transparent, the edifice is bathed in natural light by day and awash with performance lighting by night, putting next-generation theatre-making on show for arts-lovers, passers-by — and the world — to see.


When NIDA won the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) 2002 Sir John Sulman Medal — the foremost award for Public and Commercial Buildings — the awards jury was unanimous in calling the extension a project of intelligent resolve… of memorable discovery and clearly defined priorities… illustrating that a building of significant accomplishment need not be overdramatised.”

This is a memorable building that gives NIDA a headline address that no one will ever have trouble finding… it surely fulfils the need for an assertive public face through invention and a strategic use of available funds.”

— Architecture Australia

Photographer: Patrick Bingham Hall
Photographer: Patrick Bingham Hall

According to Ken Maher AO, architecture above all is experiential. The idea of making the experience of urban places more meaningful and interesting through a contextual response drives Hassell’s cross-disciplinary practice and its quest for design excellence. While Ken concedes there is a place for icons, wonderful individual buildings that have nothing to do with the structure of the city, he says that often the most successful design provides some interpretation of the nature of our lives and the experience of place.

At NIDA, we sought to dramatise the relationship with Anzac Parade, to bring the building out, [and reveal] its insides… it’s also about the spirit of a place, the character that exists and can be made more powerful.”

— Ken Maher AO, Hassell Fellow

Source: Australian National Construction Review

Photographer (above and hero image at top of page): Max Creasy

From a distance, especially at night from the street, the louvred veil is a magnet for the eye, like a memorable fragment from a grand stage set.”

— Architecture Australia

Photographer: Nicole England
Photographer: Nicole England


Hassell’s design relationship with NIDA has continued over decades.

In 2013, we delivered NIDA’s Graduate School as a two-storey extension to the existing Rodney Seaborn Library. In concept and composition, the Graduate School is expressed as a distinct form, articulated separately above the strong horizontals of the existing roof plane. 

This design collaboration with the original architect Ken Maher created two new levels above NIDA’s Sulman award-winning Stage II complex, providing valuable space for Masters study and research in Creative Producing, Design for Performance, Advanced Acting Techniques, Teaching Voice, Physical and Visual Theatre, and Cultural Leadership.

NIDA’s Graduate School was officially opened by (then) Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, MP Prime Minister of Australia and Mel Gibson AO on 6 December 2015.

Other images: Hassell archive

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