A lot of people were pleased when Prince Alfred Park swimming pool starred at the recent 2014 NSW architecture awards. As well as the prize gong, the Sulman Medal for public architecture, the new pool received the Lloyd Rees Award for urban design.
I was among the pleased people as during 2013 I acquired a collection of 18 models made during the pool’s design and approval process. Rachel Neeson who designed the pool with her late partner Nicholas Murcutt suggested that I must have ‘sniffed’ an award win 12 months ago. I certainly loved the pool but also like anyone who visits architect studios I was often struck by the number of design models lying around apparently discarded. Despite the advent of 3D imaging and design software models are still a crucial part of the design process for most architects, hence my request to Rachel for the pool models.
The Powerhouse holds a substantial collection of presentation and display models documenting the work of several prominent architects and the design of numerous significant structures. However models created as part of the design process rarely enter public collections, in part due to their ephemeral character. Rachel’s donation gave us a rare opportunity to preserve the elements of the complex and lengthy design of a public building.
Design work on the new pool began in 2006 but the pool did not open until May 2013. There were several reasons for this slow gestation notably the difficulty of satisfying the expectations of multiple constituencies and functions. Sydney City Council has commissioned two new pools in recent years – the Ian Thorpe pool in Ultimo and the Cook and Phillip pool, East Sydney – as well as refurbishments to the Victoria Park pool, Glebe and the Boy Charlton pool at the Domain. These pools are part of Council’s strategy to create leisure facilities for the booming city residential population. Pools are no longer merely venues for exercise and play but often feature cafes, gyms, childcare facilities and other spaces.
The original brief for the Prince Alfred Park Pool also included community meeting spaces but these multiple functions conflicted with another expectation – that the pool would conform visually to its urban setting. For this reason the first design was rejected and the brief modified to ‘achieve a more lightweight and transparent appearance appropriate to the park setting’. The lightweight pavilions of the early design were replaced by a ‘folded landscape’ of planted earth facing Chalmers Street and covering the café, kiosk and other rooms. From Surry Hills a historic vista of the park was recreated and the pool is all but invisible from this vantage point.
Architecture today is riven by conflicting expectations of urban conformity on one hand and of individuality and design statements on the other, a challenging dualism to say the least. As one reviewer observed: ‘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’.
In fact from most directions the pool is far from invisible although its modest profile means that the primary landmark is a forest of yellow umbrellas as well as a jaunty dome above the toddler splash space, two wonderfully apt signifiers for a pool complex. Much of the architectural pleasure is in the details and the pool experience, notably the extraordinarily dry and airy change rooms with their Corbusier-inspired ‘light cannons’ piercing the concrete and earth roof.
The first Prince Alfred Park pool opened in 1958 on the site of the demolished 1870 Exhibition Building. A typical product of the post-war boom in Olympic (50 metre) pools, the pool location was retained for the new complex. The simultaneous redesign of the park (by Sue Barnsley) focused walking and cycle ways towards the pool’s entrance at the North East corner near Central Station, Chalmers and Devonshire Streets; the pool conforms to the overall strategy of moving structures and activities to the edge but it also contributes to the park through its play spaces as well as providing the main visual focus. At the same times the new landscaping gives the pool a sense of enclosure and intimacy lacking in most open air pools.
The City of Sydney’s pool building program has seen the design and urban potential of pool complexes invigorated by architects including Harry Seidler, Ed Lippman and Rachel Neeson. The eighteen mainly Balsa models are a great record of the design potential of an underappreciated building genre.
Charles Pickett, curator