Endorsed by

Debneys Park and Preston Library by Site Office

There is much for children and young people to enjoy in Site Office’s collaborative reimagining of these two public spaces in inner Melbourne.

Two public projects in Melbourne by Site Office, a local practice established nearly a decade ago, have sought to tease out multifarious use of space, without inflicting formulated stories from which people are goaded to read. The projects are at Debneys Park, a flood plain sealed by urban infrastructure, and at the grassed forecourt outside the nondescript cream brick facade of Preston Library. Both required limited-budget design solutions, a collaborative approach with local councils and organizations and a variety of community consultations. While a library would naturally suggest a literalness-based narrative to underpin a design process, such an approach is problematic in helping attach identity to under-used open topography that appears subsumed by the surrounding built environment.

The redevelopment of the southern section of Debneys Park presented a design conundrum for Site Office. They were attempting to spark park users’ enjoyment and engagement with an indeterminate area of open space set among Melbourne’s transport infrastructure and 1960s housing estate towers. Debneys Park is wedged between the high-rise Holland Court Housing Commission estate and the Melbourne International Gateway (1995–99) that was built above Moonee Ponds Creek at its south-west corner. The park is further constricted on the ground by Mt Alexander Road with its associated tramline, and the creek with an adjacent train line on its southern boundary. As identified by Site Office, the scale of the surrounding infrastructure tends to overwhelm the landscape, repelling personal interaction within it and effecting a no-man’s-land.

Painted white lines on the walkways randomly curve and circulate around the park.

Painted white lines on the walkways randomly curve and circulate around the park.

Image: Andrew Lloyd

The freeway dissects the park as it leaves the ground through the Gateway, forcing motorists to bypass the landscape and focus on a distant elsewhere rather than the environment they are passing through. Below, in Moonee Ponds Creek, concrete culverts and weeds mishmash together, unseen in the emphasis on a staged arrival, in the impending excitement conjured up by the framed CBD skyline. As a consequence of the Gateway’s construction, Debneys Park was reinforced as a non-site representative of an underclass, reaffirming prejudices surrounding the socioeconomic status of nearby residents. While the Soundtube enclosing the three hundred metres of freeway between Mt Alexander Road and Racecourse Road was ostensibly built as a noise attenuator for the high-rise flats, it was also designed as high-speed visual theatre to enhance motorists’ experience of arriving in Melbourne. A side effect of the Soundtube is that it turns its back on Debneys Park, blinding views of of the park from the freeway, while from below, the concrete colossus robs the landscape of much of its potential naturalistic riparian renaissance. From inside the park the sheer scale of the grey monolith effectively jails the park between the flats and the Soundtube.

Children are able to explore, play and crawl through the forecourt’s play tunnels.

Children are able to explore, play and crawl through the forecourt’s play tunnels.

Image: Andrew Lloyd

Site Office has softened the effect of the elevated freeway on the park by emulating its massive, monosyllabic form above with an abstract expression of the creek’s meander below. On the bank’s edge, rivulets of chunky bluestone ballast serve as drainage lines, surrounded by swales of woodchipped mulch interposed between them, a surprisingly effective juxtaposition of colour and texture. Spurts of indigenous flora intercept the sinuously curved patterns, helping emphasize the topographical accents that Site Office has used in forming the hard surfaces of the park. Further reiterating the creek’s form, painted white lines randomly curve and circulate along the asphalt walkways that link the park to its surroundings.

As would be expected, a lot of thought went into developing places in both projects that would engage children. Eight-to-twelve-year-olds, particularly girls, were revealed to be the most disadvantaged demographic in design proposals. Part of Site Office’s inspiration for the distinctive rubberized concrete mounds around the basketball court was based on 3D computer-animated game graphics, and a desire to get children away from their screens and into the real world. The curvilinear organic forms sculpted out of rubberized concrete reach their design zenith as they wrap around the existing basketball court, serving functional value as spectator seating in addition to relieving the ground plane of its flatness by giving it interest through relief.

Rubberized concrete mounds surround the basketball court at Debneys Park.

Rubberized concrete mounds surround the basketball court at Debneys Park.

Image: Andrew Lloyd

Site Office incorporated fine specimens of existing trees in both projects. At Debneys Park significant individual examples of Eucalyptus viminalis and E.camaldulensis were left to enjoy their introduced grass understorey, while at the Preston Library forecourt the grass was removed and the gums became central to each play space, surrounded and protected by the swirls of recycled rubber pavements. Resisting the obvious temptation to inscribe the site within a legible but trite symbolism, Site Office was able to successfully deploy a cursive script that guided their design by upsizing the calligraphy so that it became a purely topographical element within the space. Although the large rubberized scripts originate out of the library to encompass garden rooms conceived for different social activities, Site Office aimed to achieve a cohesive whole that would also attract use from adjacent institutions. Their desire for the forecourt was to evoke the space as a community hub rather than just spell out and underline the library’s obvious knowledge repository function.

Unfortunately Site Office was not able to instigate all its desired proposals and concepts. Clearly requiring to be circumnavigable for full appreciation, Reg Parker’s large geometric sculpture, Untitled 8/73 (1973), still sits too close to the library wall. The planting palette around the library was only partly realized, subcontractors appearing to make do with available plants when needed rather than species stipulated by the designers. In addition, the rubberized “rocks” designed to be sat on in the lawn were inadvertently sunk to ankle height during the construction phase.

As can happen in collaborative work, Site Office’s lengthy design resolutions for both projects became divorced from some aspects of the realized built stages. Site Office was precluded from participating in the recently completed construction of Debneys Park Stage 2, where an admixture of generic play equipment has been built together with elements from the practice’s original concepts. This outcome highlights the problems with designers retaining and exercising intellectual property rights. It also reveals the political machinations that often come to roost on design processes, in this instance on the back of a federal grant in what was cynically interpreted by some as an attempt to help stave off the threat of a Greens swing against the retiring incumbent Labor MP Lindsay Tanner’s seat in June 2010. Unlike the political situation, there is still much to enjoy about Site Office’s projects.

Credits

Landscape architect
Site Office
Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Consultants
Contractor Excell Gray Bruni
Engineer TD&C
Site details
Location Preston,  Melbourne,  Vic,  Australia
Site type Suburban
Category Landscape / urban design
Type Public / civic
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 6 months
Construction 6 months
Client
Client City of Darebin
Website darebin.vic.gov.au

Credits

Consultants
Landscape architect Site Office
Site details
Location Flemington,  Melbourne,  Vic,  Australia
Site type Suburban
Category Landscape / urban design
Type Public / civic
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 12 months
Construction 12 months

Source

Project

Published online: 13 Mar 2012
Words: Julian Bull
Images: Andrew Lloyd

Issue

Landscape Architecture Australia, November 2011

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