In Praise of Sandstone

Rick Stevens/Barangaroo Delivery Authority
The sandstone blocks at the Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney’s new waterfront park, which opened in August 2015

The creation of an expansive, charming public space at the heart of a great commercial city is a rare event. Sydney’s Barangaroo Reserve, which opened in August 2015, joined New York’s High Line and London’s East End Olympic redevelopment as a landmark public park that helps define a major metropolis’s sense of place. Barangaroo forms the northwestern section of Sydney’s main business district and was previously part of the Port of Sydney. The relocation of industrial activities to nearby Botany Bay created the opportunity for redeveloping an area of a little over fifty-four acres in the downtown of a city with a population of 4.3 million.

About fifteen acres of this site went to the creation of Barangaroo Reserve. The park includes an enormous subterranean arts space and a substantial grassy summit as well as an urban forest. Its chief designer, Peter Walker of PWP Landscape Architecture, who also worked on New York’s National September 11 Memorial, faced a difficult task in balancing the expectations of the local community, governments, and developers. The all-too-contentious battles that followed have left a residue of discontent. Australia’s former prime minister Paul Keating, who championed the concept from the beginning, is a polarizing figure. But without his constant oversight, shortcuts would doubtless have diminished the quality of the final product.

Barangaroo Reserve is best understood as an act of restitution as expressed in Sydney’s unique Hawkesbury sandstone. The rock, which outcrops only within a 160-mile radius of Sydney, supports a unique flora and fauna of exceptional diversity. It supports more tree species, for example, than can be found in all of Europe, and more species of a single lizard family, Scincidae, than all the reptile and amphibian species of the British Isles. Triassic in origin—between 251 and 199 million years old—the sandstone dates to a time when the first dinosaurs were evolving, and when Australia was joined with Antarctica.

The sand forming the rock was laid down by a Ganges-sized river whose headwaters lay in the Transantarctic Mountains, and whose mouth emptied into the sea hundreds of miles north of the modern location of Sydney. Hardened, raised, and cracked over 200 million years, it has come to determine the topography of the region. Sydney Harbor, for example, is defined by joints of weakness in the sandstone, while the headlands and bluffs mark layers of harder, more durable rock.

Abundant, easy to cut, honey-colored, and marked attractively with bands of brown, white, and pink, Hawkesbury sandstone was the builder’s natural choice. In the decades following Sydney’s foundation in 1788, the city grew into a glorious Georgian sandstone metropolis, much of which persisted until after World War II. But by the 1960s the easy availability of concrete and the need for rapid expansion of…

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