Hyde Park is Sydney’s most loved and used green space, and has a history going back to the early years of the colonial town of Sydney. However the maturing landscape we admire today really dates from the late 1920s when the city engineer Norman Weekes won a design competition for a much needed upgrade of the park. Weekes’s scheme, as partially implemented, followed formal Beaux Arts compositional principles with its central allee, short cross avenues, sunken parkway at Park Street and radiating pathways. At the time the ‘City Beautiful’ movement was also influencing the design of civic infrastructure and this is evident in the fine sandstone walls, flights of steps, light fittings and fountains through the park.
Today’s massive fig tree avenues and expansive lawns belie the fact that for almost twenty years at the turn of the 20th century most of the western side of Hyde Park had been dug up for the construction of the City Circle underground railway line, which was built using the cut-and-cover technique. This required the excavation of a massive trench through the park, parallel to Elizabeth Street, in which the brick railway tunnels and railway stations were built. Construction dragged on much longer than planned and eventually public outcry forced the government and the council to act – leading to the 1926 design competition and Norman Weekes’s winning scheme.
Weekes emphasized the need for large open sunny lawns, for health and recreation; and favoured the elimination of ornamental flower displays in preference for big plantations of trees. He was excited about the horticultural possibilities of Australian plant species and many of the trees introduced to the park were NSW native species – such as the figs, crows ash, flame tree, lacebark kurrajong and hoop pines.
Weekes’s scheme was gradually muddied by the later introduction of groves of palm trees and much more ornamental shrub and understory planting, as well as the filling up of his grand open lawns with more traditional Gardenesque tree plantations. Successive master plans for the park developed since the 1980s have aimed to reduce these additions. Since the 1990s, tree management has become a significant issue in parks across Sydney generally and Hyde Park has had its share of cultural problems with trees – such as the discovery of Phellinus, a fungus that attacks fig trees, and the gradual over-maturity and senescence of older trees.
Architect Bruce Dellit’s extraordinary ANZAC Memorial building and reflecting pool at the southern end of Hyde Park was not part of Weekes’s park design and its introduction caused considerable controversy in the late 1920s as there was a strongly expressed community view that parks should generally be devoid of extraneous buildings. The growing strength of sentiment around an appropriate memorial to the fallen of the Great War led to the acceptance of the project, which was built through public subscriptions. Dellit’s reserved monumental design for the memorial and sculptor Rayner Hoff’s highly emotive figures and bas reliefs are of such astonishing quality in design and execution that any reservations have long disappeared.
The underlying geology and natural soils and drainage of the park are of great interest to landscape architects and horticulturists, as they help to account for the growth and performance of trees in the park, as well as their decline – but maybe that is a topic for another time!