In The Romantic Theme of Ruins, Les Murray writes, “The truth and lies, we purvey both. You want truth? Just the one?” The truth and lies of history infuse a city’s cultural ruins and become central questions when we are asked to interpret place. These questions are particularly fraught when a place and its story are gritty, contested and pluralistic. Accordingly, the transformation of the series of remnant industrial sites along Sydney’s harbour foreshore present an intellectual and cultural challenge of the most profound kind.
In the case of the newly completed Ballast Point Park, occupying the former Caltex site on the Birchgrove peninsula, we find a spirited and insightful search for multiple truths. It is an approach to history and interpretation that is embedded in open enquiry and respect for the
full gamut of the site’s beleaguered history. The result is raw, challenging and wildly beautiful.
Ballast Point’s naturally high sea walls and deep water had long seen it associated with commercial shipping, and its name is believed to refer to the quarried ballast that was taken onto ships on the peninsula’s eastern shore. In the 1850s Thomas Perkins purchased the site and constructed Menevia, a residential villa and gardens that dominated the headland until the late 1920s. Texaco acquired the site in 1928 for the creation of a seaboard terminal and dramatically altered the landform to accommodate buildings and storage facilities for its operations. The radical topographic transformation of the peninsula continued in the late 1930s when, as the result of a merger, Caltex began manufacturing and packaging lubricating oils on the site. The site was earmarked for residential development from the 1970s onwards and local residents launched successive campaigns to agitate for the site to be given over to public uses. This outcome was secured in 2002 through the intervention of Paul Keating, Tom Uren and others, resulting in the point being compulsorily acquired by the state government and transferred to the control of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.
The masterplanning of Ballast Point Park was undertaken by Anton James Design (now James Mather Delaney Design), Context Landscape Design and Craig Burton (CAB Consulting). Their masterplan has been faithfully interpreted in the completed works with its strong respect for, and strategic engagement with, the remnant industrial landform. The plan developed a series of spaces of distinctive character arising from the site’s inherent microclimatic complexities. Its exposed ridge, sheltered sandstone pockets, dry exposed foreshore and cool shady platforms naturally and intuitively form distinctive places for viewing, walking, cycling, playing, picnicking, gathering and retreating.
In the short-sighted, commercial zeal that has become characteristic of the NSW Government, the project was opened to competitive tender at the documentation and construction stages and the works were transferred to McGregor+ Partners, now known as McGregor Coxall. Due to ongoing commercial disputes with Caltex and the Walker Corporation over the site’s acquisition, access to the site for the landscape architects was tightly restricted, no remediation plan was obtainable (despite the real risk of deep seepage from the oil storage tanks) and geotechnical information was nonexistent. As such, the project’s evolution resembled something of an exquisite corpse. Make no mistake, like almost every successful contemporary public project in NSW, Ballast Point has triumphed, in spite of the mode of its procurement and management and due only to the calibre and commitment of the practitioners and contractors at the coalface.
Fortunately, McGregor Coxall’s interpretation of the site was a philosophical fit for that of the original team. While amendments were made to the masterplan, these were typically the result
of responses to budgetary pressures and latent conditions that emerged during construction. From the water, the site now reads as a dramatic urban citadel, its evocative geometry making subtle references to the spectacular granite podium of that other man-made promontory,
the Sydney Opera House. In deference to Ballast Point’s industrial past, its walls are formed from stacked gabions filled with rubble from the site demolition works as well as mementos and relics from the construction workers. Children can be heard squealing in excitement at the discovery of hard hats, springs, valves, shoes, tiles, door handles and shells within the kaleidoscopic intricacy of the surface.
These walls negotiate a series of platforms and terraces on the site, skimming and curving seamlessly over remnant sandstone and concrete structures. Openings in original fabric are
incised, sliced and torn, revealing their forthright construction and exposing sprays of gnarled reinforcing and honeycombed concrete. The footprint of Menevia is marked in smooth, black, enamelled steel panels that contain a treasure trove of crockery, glassware and bottles found during excavation. Sandstone floaters on the northern flank still bear Thomas Perkins’
painted caveat, “Damage to this estate will be prosecuted.” Part of the concrete bund wall that formerly enclosed the oil storage tanks has been retained, now enclosing a powerful landscape room, open to the sky and entered via a metre-wide slice through its awesome concrete structure, which has been dropped flat to form a bridged threshold. Steel rings mark the position of the former tanks, and seepage is channelled between their circular footprints into treatment beds before making its way into the harbour.
Since its completion, Ballast Point has been the target of criticism from its original advocate, Paul Keating, for its lack of romantic verdancy. His preference is to return such sites to their pre-settlement condition and to erase what he refers to as the “industrial vandalism” that has
so radically transformed their character. This is an interpretation of history that risks replacing
the gritty authenticity of these places with the deceptive, pastel languor of a Lycett watercolour. It seeks to make amends by erasure, denial and the importation of the picturesque.
In the twentieth century, the harbour-side parks expressed a desire to bring nature into
the city, but since 1969 almost all of the harbour parks have been created on post-industrial sites. Paradoxically, it is these sites that we associate with environmental destruction that offer a singular opportunity for the creation of a contemporary cultural landscape in the inner harbour. Never again will precipitous escarpments be cut from solid bedrock, will the water’s edge be geometrically tamed by infill, will towering industrial cathedrals be wrought from brick and steel or dry docks and slipways excised from the shoreline. Rightly or wrongly, we are now far too politically and culturally timid to engage with the landscape in such a powerful way. At Ballast Point, the dramatic topography, the directness of intervention, the lack of prissiness and condescension in conception and detail, the brutal revelation of the history of work and use – all form part of a diverse, layered and inclusive story of the harbour. McGregor Coxall has battled courageously for nuance over pretence, and their victory is highly significant.
As the Federal Government tightens its grip on the funding of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority increasingly shackles itself to development outcomes, the public edges of the harbour are, once again, lacking a public custodian. It is time for the community to agitate for the holistic consideration of the harbour edge, rather than see its evolution limited to the outcome of a series of highly charged battles over industrial sites.
The transformation of Goat Island, Barangaroo and the Coal Loader site at Waverton are imminent. Do we want these sites to be sanitized – or are we interested in all of the competing truths of their history? At Ballast Point, the site’s industrial, residential and landscape remnants have been fused into an exhilarating urban wonderland. Indeed, it was Lewis Carroll who told us “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
At ballast point park in Sydney the combination of muscular topography, primal sandstone, industrial remnants, pure geometries, free-form escarpments, cantilevered walkways, carved passages, colossal figs, budding forests, dry stream beds and cascading stairs creates a work whose ambient mysticism points both to the future and to the past.
Ballast Point Park is sited on a sandstone peninsula protruding into Sydney Harbour. During the twentieth century its south side was cut back to form a lower platform and a sheer cliff face, while the north side was scalloped to accommodate the circular shapes of oil depot tanks.
Above the two cliffs are a series of stepped platforms and a palimpsest of nineteenth- and twentieth-century elements. Each of these topographic conditions has been reconsidered as a theatrical event that will change with the growing vegetation. The south-east side is exposed to the harbour through an open forest while the north side is composed of sheltered spaces – but this simplification of the park’s structure is unfair. There are too many spaces to discuss in one short review; a few, however, warrant special attention.
Material inertia and cities
In response to the profane use of material in today’s society, the designers have rigorously reflected on material use in Ballast Point Park. Reuse and restraint has been a feature of the design process with the use of waste-filled gabions and low-carbon concrete. The material expression has its precedents. The Igualada Cemetery in Barcelona, by the team of Miralles and Pinós, popularized the use of gabions together with eccentric off-form concrete. Likewise, Teresa Galí-Izard has used waste and gabions in more innovative and systematic ways to construct artificial terraces at the Garraf dump site. These references have not landed blindly on Sydney Harbour’s shores; McGregor Coxall’s deft touch has made these construction techniques its own. Unlike the brusque construction of the Catalan parks, there is urbanity in the placement of the almost nautically smooth concrete finishes and fine steel handrails against the raw gabions filled with smashed brick, junk and bathroom tiles. Gabions may become the future bricks of landscape architecture if they continue to keep waste out of landfill.
Placing all this waste on site forces a realization of the material inertia of our cities and the energy needed to keep constructing “new” objects. Perhaps the most poignant measure of societies’ attitudes to past and future generations on the site are the recently excavated foundations of the nineteenth-century villa Menevia, which were brutally built over with the Texaco/Caltex oil tanks. This palimpsest is exposed to leave us to think about our treatment of heritage.
At the top of the site, eight vertical wind turbines are fixed in a skeletal ring in the footprint of oil tank number 101, signalling the need to displace Sydney’s fossil fuel addiction. The graphic of the massive rivets used to hold the oil tanks together is used as a motif to punch out words of poetry from the steel sheets. Afternoon sun shines through the rivet holes, projecting the words in a daily arc over adjacent steel tanks.
Unlike the gabions, whose story is not immediately obvious to the casual visitor, the wind turbines clearly signal change. There is an ongoing measurement of the energy used to run the park’s electrical infrastructure so the effectiveness of the wind turbines in offsetting energy costs can be assessed. While the turbines were not turning on the two visits I recently made to the site, a quick web search or visit to the park itself reveals the polemical power this sculpture has for visitors to the park. With its imaginative and empowered constituency, Balmain is fertile ground for such visual messages.
At Ballast Point Park, human-scale interventions civilize the post-industrial elements without gagging their legacy and spatial impact. The heaviness of the remaining industrial infrastructure and the beauty of the sculpted sandstone are reconfigured into considered compositions. The approach is one of spatial compression, disguise and exposure. The harbour is hidden from view before being revealed through 1.6-metre-wide shotgun slots in reused bund walls. The slots are cut to leave the concrete polished and sensuous to touch. Like the experience of entering through a threshold into the vaulted space of a cathedral, visitors are ultimately thrust towards the expansive blue of the harbour. For the northern bund, the concrete slab is cut and reused as a linear slab path jutting out towards the harbour. Next to the south bund wall, a descent into the cool space behind reveals a surreal subterranean experience. Brutal oversized gabions, massive concrete and gnarled reinforcing bars contrast with the civilizing human-scaled steps and slim, polished 33-millimetre handrails.
Spontaneity and growth
It is the spontaneity and spatial surprise that overturns post-industrial alienation most effectively at Ballast Point. No geotechnical survey was available for the park during construction. Many new elements needed to be incorporated and negotiated with the contractors, Landscape Solutions. As a result spontaneity was the modus operandi. The uncovering of a buried sandstone rock shelf required the redesign of a large stretch of the park into a dramatic escarpment. New discoveries resulted in unexpected richness.
Landscape architects are often heroes of the ephemeral; however, everyday park maintenance needs to be creatively written into management plans to redefine ongoing municipal acts like mowing the lawn, pruning, mulching and plant replacement as considered works of design.
This has already begun to happen with bio-retention swales acting as surrogate watering systems and the use of local provenance seed setting the park up for a dynamic self-seeding ecology. The material tension between the cultivated and the wild is the special domain
of the landscape architect; Ballast Park is a provocation in this direction for the future.
- 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
- Project Details
Design, documentation 9 months
Construction 16 months
Category Landscape / urban
Type Culture / arts, Public / civic
Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority