Observatory Hill, true to its name, is still an exhilarating vantage point for some of Sydney’s classic harbour scenes and the lively, layered array of headlands, coves, terraces, towers and trees that wrap around and shape their edges. The promontory headland parks around the harbour edge – ranging from the fully bush-clad to the gently lawned and treed – offer an elegant counterpoint to the more reserved, concave bay parks with which they alternate. From this height, one of the city’s newest public spaces, Ballast Point Park, reads in the middle distance like a series of tilting stone battlements rising out of the water. Markedly distinct from its surroundings, it nevertheless contains some similar ingredients – weathered sandstone cliffs, buttressed seawalls and a scattering of structures and metal contraptions of indeterminate purpose.
When we zoom in closer, this highly configured landscape appears simultaneously to be newly extracted from the site and to be deeply embedded and enduring. The organization of the site seems at once purposeful and indecipherable. My curiosity is piqued by the distant view, and by the knowledge that this park has been designed by the same landscape architects who transformed the former BP tank site in Berry’s Bay from a major assemblage of fuel infrastructure into a thriving, living sculptural landscape. What kind of urban park has been created out of the detritus of yet another redundant industrial site, and how does it sit within the wider urban drama of the constantly changing harbour edge?
Coming from Auckland, a city with abundant harbour edges but comparatively less readily accessible public coastal access, I’ve always thought the ubiquity of Sydney’s harbour parks to be remarkably generous and far-sighted. Yet this public domain has also required strategic vision and vigilance to connect, protect and expand the parcels of land that have been set aside or become potentially available as former industrial uses have been transformed or relocated. Committed local and political pressure was exerted to return this headland site to public use after a long career as a constantly reconfigured working landscape, most recently as a lubricating oil processing plant. Eventually it came under the control of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.
The transformation of the landscape from its former industrial use to a public park was complex and potentially treacherous, both as a process and as resulting form. The project was bounced from the masterplan stage produced by one assemblage of landscape expertise (landscape architects Anton James, Context Landscape Design and Craig Burton) to a physical stripping and reshaping of the site for remediation purposes by other agencies, and at the design and documentation stage transferred to yet another firm, McGregor Coxall.
Protracted issues of site control and access, and uncertainties about the physical shape and structural strength of the landform and remaining industrial remnants, led to a highly responsive and nuanced design process. Through a meticulous process of on-site rediscovery, mapping, modelling and remapping, the designers balanced the overall programmatic and spatial intentions of the masterplan with the contingencies of radically reshaped terrain. The distinctive ambiguity of the landscape is reinforced by layers of artful design intervention that are as much concerned with paring away as with adding new fabric to the incised terrain.
The designed outcome also reveals the strength of the collaboration between landscape architect McGregor Coxall and architect Choi Ropiha, who designed a series of architectural elements within the park – elegant pavilion-like toilet blocks at each of the two entrances to the park and a lookout shade structure at the apex of the cliff. The refined material sensibility of these structures is evident immediately on entering the park and is notable throughout the site in the decisive but unforced use of materials, and in the way that both found and inserted elements are brought together.
The distinctiveness of the design language is particularly evident when entering from adjoining Mort Bay Park. The toilet pavilion is a study in contrast, with a solid concrete wall perpendicular to a row of high, finely striped wooden doors. Suspended above and overlapping the box is a material shade structure made from thin interwoven straps of vivid orange. Pulled taught, the straps vibrate and shimmer in the wind, casting a mesmerizing shadow while they thrum gently above the unusually generous cubicles. The animation of the roof structure, and its gentle buffeting from the wind, suggest the delight of days spent camping, an association reinforced by the concrete handbasin freestanding in front of a sandstone cliff face, which manages to infuse a municipal utility with a wholesome simplicity and dignity.
Further into the park, along the waterfront path, the three-dimensional complexity of the site starts to reveal itself, with another shimmering orange structure perched and singing high above a rearing concrete cliff. The desire to ascend immediately is gratified by the appearance of a flying metal stair that cuts its way through the concrete wall and lands nearby on a raised grass platform. No sooner does that possibility present itself than the base of a ramp tantalizingly appears and disappears from view. Along the waterfront a strange little leaning tower catches the eye.
All this draws you further into the landscape, where the exhilaration of moving up through the series of ramps and stairs and jutting terraces is interwoven with the pleasure of finding tiny sagas embedded in the massive, newly constructed gabion walls. Broken pottery, dented dials and vast amounts of anonymous rubble from the reshaping of the site creates a new material and spatial language for the park. The juxtaposition of original and new components brings into question the very nature of the constructed landscape, as the deliberate and polemical reuse of site materials is a critical strategy deployed in its design.
Championed by the landscape architects as a way of understanding and rethinking the interrelationships between large-scale urban processes and systems and the shaping of individual sites, this approach of redeploying materials on site, rather than shifting the problem elsewhere, demands a high degree of inventiveness from the designers. The landscape’s history is not treated simply as a collection of industrial artefacts or remnant landforms, but also as a repository of attitudes. The treatment of remnants of the largest tank, which previously stood high on the site, characterizes this approach. Pieces of the original tank skin have been cut, incised with text and remounted in a newly constructed frame as a sort of folly or (well-constructed) ruin.
Yet the ruin is enlivened with a new form of life – several small wind turbines are placed high on the structure, whirring erratically as they catch the wind passing over the top of the headland and generating their own power. The unexpected whirring and fluttering of the pavilion roofs and turbines plays off against the massiveness of the sandstone cliffs and the gabion walls. Everywhere things meet or cross, there is a studied consideration of the manner of their interaction. There is a strange and satisfying combination of lavishness and austerity in the park and its gestures. And from the whirring tank folly we look across the harbour, back to Observatory Hill and below it to the site of the next great harbourside park, and wonder what reworked detritus might end up there.
- Landscape architect
- McGregor Coxall
Sydney, NSW, Australia
- Project Team
- Philip Coxall, Adrian McGregor, Christian Borchert, Kristin Spradbrow, Jeremy Gill, John Choi, Steven Fighera, Tai Ropiha, Toby Breakspear, Claire Nye
- Choi Ropiha Fighera
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Landscape Solutions Australia
Electrical & hydraulic engineer Northrop Consulting Engineers
Graphic design Deuce Design
Lighting consultant Lighting Art and Science
Master planning Anton James Design, Context Landscape Design, CAB Consulting
Quantity surveyor WT Partnership
Structural and civil engineer Northrop Consulting Engineers
- Site details
Category Landscape / urban design
Type Culture / arts, Public / civic
- Project Details
Design, documentation 9 months
Construction 16 months
Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority
Published online: 1 May 2010
Words: Katrina Simon
Architecture Australia, May 2010