William Somerville’s idea, to create an open-air auditorium resembling a ‘Cathedral of Trees’, was first noted by the Senate in 1927.
Somerville’s wish was to create an open-air venue that displayed the beauty he had witnessed during his travels through untouched primaeval forests.
"If the idea could be realised, there would be a thing of beauty in the University grounds which, in addition to being ornamental, could be used as an open-air auditorium …"(1)
William Somerville was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (LLD) by the University in 1941.
The design used was a floor plan of a ‘Gothic Cathedral’ that could seat up to 2500 people. Its overall measurements were to be 83 yards x 74 yards with an approximate area of 1¼ acres.
It features a nave (the body, pillars and aisles) and transept (north south arms) with a semi-circular platform. Norfolk pines were selected to represent the pillars of the nave. It is estimated that the pines are between 70 and 80 years of age and have an approximate life span of up to 120 years.
Where the walls of the cathedral would have been, hedges of Western Australian Peppermint trees (agonis flexuosa) were planted.
A temporary stage was used until the construction of an acoustic shell in 1951. In the 1953-1954 season, an orchestral pit was constructed thereby increasing the facilities again for the production of opera and ballet.
In 1945 the Senate approved that the official name for this venue would be the "Somerville Auditorium" in honour of the man who inspired its creation, William Somerville.
The same year also saw the first performance at this venue; "Everyman’s Music" presented by the Adult Education Board Scheme. It became the main venue for their post-war Adult Education Board Summer School performances.
It is now used as a venue for the Perth International Arts Festival (formerly the Festival of Perth) Film Festival.
(1) Somerville, W. (1954). Somerville Auditorium and its stage and the sunken garden. Perth: Pilpel & Co.
Harrold, L. (1994). Caption History of the University of Western Australia. Unpublished.