The designers of the new Prince Alfred Park pool went to great lengths to deliver a distinguished building, with subtle nods to summers past. By Laura Harding.

Prince Alfred Park pool an urban oasis

Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park pool features warm hardwood panelling and light-flooded change rooms.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park occupies a triangular space between Central Station’s rail yards and two primary, orthogonal streets that mark the edges of Surry Hills and Redfern. Held between these places, but belonging to none, it has collected a peculiar range of uses and elements during its life. The historic Exhibition Building, ice-skating rink, agricultural shows and circuses have left no visible traces, but a public school, tennis courts, playing fields and swimming pool endured, in a setting that had degraded through overuse and neglect. The City of Sydney identified the park for renewal in the early 2000s.

The park’s intensely urban surroundings have seen it accrue a robustness that distinguishes it from the languid, picturesque sensibility of the parks that typically capture the public’s imagination. The view from Prince Alfred Park, across the hefty brick and sandstone railway infrastructure towards the city towers, is a thrilling urban scene, but it is an acquired taste in a city that has been taught to turn its back to urbanity and gaze obsessively at its harbour and beaches.

The old swimming pool always sat awkwardly; canted in defiance of both the linear street alignments and the finer, curving geometries of the park’s Victorian era. Neeson Murcutt Architects began working on an upgrade of the park in 2005 with Sue Barnsley Design landscape architects, and set about finding a way to make spatial sense of its randomly scattered public artefacts. They’ve transformed the park’s arrangement in the new works.

The folded concrete structure of the pool’s new amenities building peels out of the park like the crooked forearm of a swimmer, guiding circulation around it with consummate ease. Below this line, the café, administration, servicing, change rooms and a future tri-generation plant form a simple, linear arrangement. The plane that tilts down to the street is planted with wild and rangy lavender and tussock grass, while the interior face is lined with hardwood panelling and battening that rhythmically alternate to form walls, doors and screens, and offer a warm touch to bare bodies.

The universal test for contemporary architecture has become survival of the blingiest, so it is rare and precious to find new works that jolt us instead with the subconscious recognition of deeper, human experience. The hardwood boarding that is beginning to bleach in the sunlight, the faint, powder blue stripes on walls and concrete that form subtle blushes of colour, the feel of raw concrete beneath bare wet feet, are redolent of summers past – yet there is nothing sentimental about this work. Within a confident, urban-scaled form the craft of making, expressed through material, sparks subtle personal associations. This carefully cultivated public intimacy plays audaciously against the sweeping scale of the metropolis.

The change rooms are luminous. Ceiling and wall are melded and curl as one down the back of the space. Small, white hexagonal tiles amplify the daylight and form resonant chambers that collect the sounds of lapping water from the pool deck. Circular “light cannons” funnel morning sunlight onto weary bodies while a breezy gap between wall and roof draws in a slice of the big western sky, the tips of palm trees and the city buildings beyond.

The western side of the pool is enclosed by a row of concrete bleachers and decks, set into a landscaped berm. Elevated against the city panorama, a marching grid of yellow canvas umbrellas is a nod to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s epic land art projects, but also forms a surreal tableau that acknowledges the bizarre mix of elements that has typified the park’s quirky history. They form a whimsical semaphore, announcing to those passing by the shifting patterns of occupation and use within the pool.

This engagement sits in contrast to the street side of the building, with its planted incline. The planted roof was introduced in response to concern from city planners that the building might appear to occupy too much room in a cherished public space; a reading accepted by the architects, who adapted the design to fuse it into the green surfaces of the park. The decision to conceal the building on this side lends it a more subdued quality along one of its key public faces. The desire to clamber over it is gently discouraged by fencing and meadow planting.

This type of planted camouflage is a recurring obsession in Sydney, where contemporary architecture is perceived as a threat to the city’s picturesque sensibility. Sydney’s nature is lyrical and compelling, but there is also a city to be made and a rich built tradition to sustain. Is feigned invisibility the ideal to which our buildings should aspire? Or might Prince Alfred Park pool’s architectural richness begin to persuade us that when contemporary buildings can be this good, we don’t need to temper them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Urban oasis". Subscribe here.

Laura Harding
is a Sydney-based designer and writer.