The Royal Exhibition Building is the only surviving Great Hall that once housed a 19th-century international exhibition and is still used for exhibitions. Joseph Reed, of the firm Reed and Barnes, was the architect. Reed’s was a grand design, influenced by Rundbogenstil, a round-arched architectural style combining elements from Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance buildings. The dome’s design was influenced by Brunelleschi’s 15th-century cathedral in Florence.
When it was built, the Great Hall was the largest building in Australia, and the highest building in Melbourne. It is brick, set on a bluestone base, and has long central naves and stunted transepts. There are four triumphal entrance porticoes, one on each side. The building is set in ceremonial gardens, which were designed by Reed and William Sangster. A wide avenue lined with plane trees links the front, southern entrance of the building with the city beyond. There was a viewing platform around the dome that allowed visitors to survey the progress of the booming city.
In 1880, the main exhibition hall stood with two brick annexes to its east and west. There was also a series of temporary halls of timber and corrugated iron. These were dismantled at the end of the exhibitions and reused for a variety of purposes.
The brick annexes were used at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition as machinery halls. In 1901, the western annexe was converted to accommodate the Parliament of Victoria while the newly formed Federal Parliament met in the State Parliament Building. The western annexe was demolished during the 1960s. The eastern annexe was partly demolished in the 1950s, and ultimately replaced in 1979 by a mirror-fronted Convention Centre (this was demolished in the 1990s to make way for Melbourne Museum).
In 1880 the window and door joinery was painted green. The rendered walls were left unpainted. The combined effects of trams, horse-drawn traffic and industrial pollution gradually discoloured the exterior surface of the building. It was painted for the first time in 1888, and on several subsequent occasions throughout the 20th century.
The interior colour scheme of 1880 was replaced with a new scheme for the 1888 International Exhibition. In 1901, the interior was redecorated in time for the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. The decorations were under the control of John Ross Anderson, who is also known for the interior design of the ANZ 'Gothic' Bank in Collins Street, Melbourne.
In keeping with the solemnity and importance of the occasion, Anderson chose a sober scheme. The great dome was painted to represent the sky. Underneath are four mottos suitable for a new nation: Dei gracia – by the grace of God; Carpe diem – seize the day; Aude sapere – dare to be wise; and Benigno numine – with benign power. A frieze shows the products of agriculture and hints at the wealth of the new nation.
On the arches are lunettes (half-moon shaped spaces where the arches meet cornices) representing Peace, War, Federation and Government. The Federation image shows Britannia welcoming the six federated states as young women, while the Government image shows Knowledge enthroned, surrounded by figures representing the arts, education and defence. Eight women in draped costumes symbolise the Four Seasons, Night and Morning, and Justice and Truth. Under the dome are plaster heads from the first decorative scheme of 1880. They include an Indigenous Australian, a Chinese man, and an Indian.
In 1888 electric lighting was installed for the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition. Over 60 miles of cabling allowed the interior and exterior of the building to be lit. Visitors were now able to visit the building at night; the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition was the first in the world to have night-time viewings. For the celebrations around the opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901, the exterior of the building was lit with festoons of small incandescent lights. More recently this has been enhanced with fibre optics and digitally created images.
In 1992, conservators investigated the previous colour schemes. The ceiling had been painted four times, while parts of the ground floor walls had over 25 layers of paint with evidence of an earlier scheme burnt off. Of the three major schemes, the 1901 murals on the lunettes and the cross of the dome were the most intact.
The 1901 scheme was selected for a major conservation and restoration project, completed in 1994. This is the scheme that visitors to the building see now. More recent conservation work allows ongoing use of the building as a major exhibition hall.