A near-perfect example of a small park in the CBD.
Midland Park is immensely popular, and whenever the weather is half-decent, lunchtime finds it thronged with inner-city workers and shoppers. Part of this popularity may be by default, as there are few public spaces like this along Lambton Quay, but it seems to do most things right.
It's surrounded by tall buildings on most sides, but they're far enough away on the northern edge for it to be sunny at lunchtime. One side is very active, with a couple of shops and a sidewalk café, and although the other sides are next to streets, the trees and street furniture give it a subtle sense of enclosure. The fountain is a classic example of a multi-functioning urban element, acting simultaneously as sculpture, informal seating and a place for children to play. There's a fine balance of hard and soft surfaces, and a mixture of sun and shelter that gives a variety of microclimates. Above all, it manages to be a place to relax without losing a sense of urban vitality.
It's a great space, and an active space, but not particularly open, given the proximity of so many tall office blocks. This proves that public spaces don't have to be large "open spaces", unarticulated paddocks with low-rise surroundings, in order to be lively and successful. Quite the opposite: the offices provide a large daytime population that generates demand for the park, and its intimacy would be lost if it were twice the size. The designers also knew the attraction of edges. The centres of large open spaces are usually the last to be used, so the surface of the park has been broken up into smaller units, with plenty of ledges as well as seats to sit on.
This could be an exemplar for public spaces in the CBD. For every few blocks of high rise offices, a small park or square of this size (0.15ha, smaller than two suburban sections!) will provide enough relaxation space for workers and shoppers. But only if it's as well designed and situated as Midland Park: dark, windswept plazas in leftover spaces are almost never used, and might as well be built upon. Design for sun and enclosure, with active edges and varied spaces, and you'll have spaces as delightful as this.
While not a masterpiece of landscape design, it's certainly an attractive place. The multiple levels provide variety and articulation, with an informal arrangement that counters the formality of the harder surfaces. The planting is appropriately scaled, and screens the park from some of the less prepossessing buildings outside. The most memorable element is the fountain, which features organic metal shapes reminiscent of both sprouting seedlings and bent human figures.
On the downside, a lot of the furniture is starting to look dated. The "Mobil on the Park" office building that dominates the eastern side is a generally well-mannered example of late postmodernism, but is let down slightly by some cheap façadism on the streets that lead away from the park.
On the whole, Midland Park's attractiveness as a space is more due to its human qualities, and the crowds that are drawn by its intelligent form, than any particular architectural delights.
It's a green space, but more in the literal sense than through any specific environmental measures. Its chief environmental virtue is its compactness and variety of uses: it provides the amenity of a public space for a lot of people without consuming a lot of land.
This is very much the suit-and-tie end of town, which explains the luxury goods (Alessi teapots and Wallpaper* magazine) in the shops that border the park. But the park itself is not exclusive. You could pay for a moderately upmarket lunch at Café Astoria, or sit wherever you like and eat your sandwiches. Children are well catered for, with a fountain to clamber over and enough grass to run around on. It's a popular meeting spot and encourages social interaction.
reviewed by Tom Beard, 11/04/2004