Looking towards Barangaroo from Balls Head, the vast tract of empty concrete is gritty and compelling. A terrain vague. Direct, slightly melancholic, beautiful in a brutish, lonesome way: a horizontal platform, the glint of darkening sandstone wrapping the base of Clyne Reserve, the dreamlike Palisade Hotel forming an almost Gothic peak to the promontory. There is a sense of freedom and desolation, as well as possibility. So how will the western maritime edge of the city be reimagined?
Landscape architect Peter Walker presented his proposal for the Barangaroo Parklands at the 2011 Natural Artifice conference. It was an opportunity to move past the tangle of politics and intrigue that has surrounded the project, to hear how Walker engaged with a brief to retrace the shoreline of this point on Sydney Harbour and his position on the erasure of the subsequent history of the site. To engage with ideas of connection: to the physical city and the ghost city of memory, to the grain of the western working harbour, and to choices made in representation and form. Was the approach nostalgic and pictorial? Idyllic? An expensive folly or an opportunity for large-scale urban ecological restoration? Has something been lost in the work of the mending hand? Or is the proposal open to future demands and desires?
Walker opened by positioning the urban landscape as an artifice, as a conscious amalgam of idea and program made visual. He traced a line between his project and the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux at Central Park, New York, citing how Olmsted’s imagery for the park was inspired by the early painters of the Hudson River, whose work appropriated and pressed meaning into the landscape. He talked of the social purpose of Central Park and the heightened experience of the park as the towers of New York grew, surrounded and conditioned this open space. This was Peter Walker’s contract with Barangaroo. Ideas of process remained largely unanswered.
Like the markers at Sydney Olympic Park designed by Peter Walker Partners, the headland is a mounded artifice quarantining contaminants while also bunkering a car park and cultural centre, although both were unmentioned in the talk. Unlike Homebush, where the mounds are clearly artificial, here the gradient is pushed towards naturalism. This makes it easy to read the headland as bucolic, especially when the seams and joins of the project remain hazy. Without detailed sections to help explain the scheme, much was unsaid and left to conjecture. What do we make of the invisible cultural centre? How have the interfaces with Clyne and Munn Reserves been drawn? Will the cliff that wraps these reserves separate and preserve the community at Merriman Street from constant public exposure? Why has the 1836 shoreline become the blueprint for the headland and what is the nature of the water’s edge between this new shoreline and the trimmed caissons? The lingering question: will physical clues remain to trace the shaping of the city?
I take myself to Balls Head and imagine the proposal to reconstruct a headland at this point, and against prevailing opinion, the idea of drawing the green cover of Observatory Hill west to a lost shoreline seems curiously appealing. It insulates Walsh Bay from East Darling Harbour and holds this place taut between the base of the Harbour Bridge at Dawes Point and Millers Point, allowing Walsh Bay to hold on to a maritime psychogeography, something Darling Harbour swept cleanly away.
Ultimately the proposal is defensible even though the shoreline and the seams of the project remain ambiguous. The headland is, however, only one part of the Barangaroo Parklands. The other is a city park that regularizes the landscape between this remade landform and the extended city grid. This is where the vision for the site blurs and the scheme has escaped public examination. Likened to the Domain, this central city park is fringed by a promenade and double row of trees, with an amphitheatre and playing field. It is a mannered forecourt to new residential towers and separated by Globe Street. In contrast to the grand gesture of the headland, the park and coves seem suppressed, formulaic and weak companions in this new urban ensemble. There is a politeness that betrays the figuring of the harbour and an awkwardness in the form and scale of the coves. Here is a lost opportunity.
Some of the most vital and powerful places on the harbour bear the scars of intervention, through addition and subtraction, often counterpointing nature with the pragmatic expression of human purpose. The city park needs to recognize this in its relationship with the proposed headland. Just compare the choreography of bush and industry close by at Balls Head, where the platform of the Coal Loader is directly grafted to this ragged point. Or at neighbouring Goat Island, where a large boat slip folds into the harbour beside stone outcrops, and boardwalks navigate this liminal edge. There is a binding tension and directness in these landscapes, where the play of shifting boundaries, of positive and negative space, of simple construction, prospect and use are vividly wrought.
Without turning to irony or pastiche, it remains possible to mediate headland, platform and coves in ways that evoke the robust industrial qualities of the site. Revealing traces of a past that still guides us. Making visible what lies unseen, the emergent qualities of the site, as suggested by fellow speaker, Luis Callejas of Paisajes Emergentes.
Reading Forty Years of Landscape Architecture: Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted, I am reminded that the making of public space has always been contentious and political. With a new state government in power and the resignation of Paul Keating as chairman of the Design Review Panel, the lie of the land is shifting again. It is time to cast our eyes south of the headland and to view the site as a whole.