Darling Square – a public space for all

Darling Square

Darling Square embodies a new urban typology, fusing landscape, architecture, art, food and culture. It is home to 4,200 residents, 2,500 workers, and more than 60 retail and food stores, attracting visitors and locals alike.

Darling Square
Darling Square
Darling Square

Darling Square sits on the site of the former Entertainment Centre and car park, south of the revitalised Darling Harbour Live precinct. With a renewed sense of place and position, urban connections are forged, realigning and reconverging the city with its prior landscape and landmarks. Straddling Tumbalong Boulevard, Darling Square provides both destination and reconnection of Darling Harbour to its surrounding urban context of Central Station, Ultimo and Chinatown. The precinct includes a strong, pedestrian-focused network of city streets, laneways and the 20-metre-wide pedestrian boulevard bisecting the ground plane, with the public square as the focal point.

Darling Square
Darling Square
Darling Square

The removal of the Entertainment Centre and Car Park created a unique opportunity for a large, undivided, central plot in a pivotal part of the city. Recognising the potential of the site, Lendlease ran a limited design ideas competition to develop new concepts for the design of the public square and adjacent laneway. ASPECT Studios won the competitive process in late 2014 and was subsequently engaged by Lendlease to develop the design for the public domain across Darling Square.

Darling Square

ASPECT Studios’ competition winning design responded to the principles of Lendlease’s brief with three primary design moves that altered the existing master plan. These were:

  1. Create a platform for the square, held by a canopy edge
  2. Give definition to the square, through the boulevard, canopy and connecting laneway spaces
  3. Create a community building in the round.

The public domain design response was in alignment with the wider site master planning by Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) and Hassell, for three new residential developments, two new student accommodation buildings and a new commercial building, each with active, retail oriented, ground planes. Darling Square’s immediate patronage has been a response to a new appreciation for the need of urban spaces and the opportunities that come with urbanisation, exemplified in this precinct.

Darling Square offers green spaces for all, as an ever-changing civic space where daily life and spectacle collide. The contextual design offers a thriving and inviting multi-use urban space for all ages, treasured by residents, workers and visitors. Everything at Darling Square has been designed with intent: from the landscape of custom grown Eucalyptus trees and endemic gardens, to interpretations of the indigenous language of the Gadigal people (Eora nation), outdoor mahjong tables that links Chinatown further east, and intricate fanned paving that symbolise the fish scales of the area’s once-present water.

Inspired by the landscape of Sydney’s leafy green suburbs, Kengo Kuma blended the energy of nature with The Exchange building sitting as a punctuation point. The organic, spiralling facade, wrapped in 20 kilometres of timber extends into the public domain both materially and functionally. The public domain integrates effortlessly with The Exchange, forming the centrepiece for the precinct, as a community building in the round and a destination in its own right.

“It is a rare but welcome event that such high-quality investment in the public space and public infrastructure of the city has occurred”

Sacha Coles, ASPECT Studios

Providing urban definition, with inflected spaces, the civic presence of Darling Square has resulted from the underlying systems of place. The constraints of spatial density have been leveraged in a design response that has delivered civic generosity.  The result is a distinctive destination and global blueprint, exemplifying regenerative public realm design.

The square was designed as smaller, discrete but still connected spaces that were flexible enough for event and community use, whilst maintaining human-scaled for day-to-day use. The spaces within the square are broadly similar in scale and comprised of:

  • The Exchange – As part of the design competition, Lendlease asked the respondents to consider how to integrate community and public uses for the building. ASPECT Studios’ proposed that the form of the building be altered to a circular ‘building in the round’. A building with no front or back door that allowed the public domain to continue freely underneath. This proposal formed the basis of the subsequent brief for the Darling Exchange, designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates, a circular building with a highly permeable ground floor façade and which is publicly accessible 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Square – a hard paved, flexible open space suitable for evening and weekend temporary market and event overlays. In order to create a true square, delineation was provided on all four sides so as to define space and hold the edges. Having lifted the square to match the levels of the adjacent buildings, a strong, square-like definition was provided to the north, east and southern edges. To the west, the new level created a ground-level definition between the boulevard and the square, however, this did not create significant enough definition to provide visual delineation from within the space.
  • The Canopy Edge – ASPECT Studios designed an intervention of a new canopy – a verandah – to occupy the western edge. The canopy creates a critical visual termination to the square, whilst also providing an opportunity for shade, shelter and amenity. The canopy provides a visual link and connection from building to square, reinforcing the generous blurring between the two. The canopy assists in visually holding the edge of the square, creating compression as pedestrians enter and exit the space, and defining an area for seating. The canopy also liberates the centre of the square, allowing formal, fixed structures such as seating to be concentrated toward the edge of the square, whilst leaving the centre relatively open and allowing for ongoing flexibility of use.
  • The Lawn – a local-scaled turf space that captures good solar access and has a strong spatial relationship with the Square. In daily use this is the community lawn – for picnics, eating lunch, walking the dog.
  • The Grove – located in the sunniest part of the square, The Grove provides critical shade in the hot summer months, whilst its deciduous canopy allows light to permeate to the ground through winter. Moveable furniture offers a space of inclusivity, a welcoming place for the community to gather and connect and converse.
  • The Northern Steps – a north-facing amphitheatre like space formed from the lifting of the square. The steps allow for flexible, informal seating and capture the excellent solar access and views toward Darling Harbour.
  • Laneways: Steam Mill Lane and Little Hay Street – ASPECT Studios collaborated with Lendlease and Leon Paroissien to develop a brief and lead the process for the public art/lighting for the lanes. Artist Peta Kruger’s proposal was selected for Steam Mill Lane and artist Brendan Van Hek’s proposal selected for Little Hay Street – two bustling, distinct laneways that draw people to the heart of Darling Square. Both their art strategies were refined and documented in consultation with ASPECT Studios, Tensile and Event Engineering. The lighting design creates a joyous public ceiling to the lanes. They contribute to the activation and human-scale of the place, and assist with wayfinding and night-time activation.
  • The Boulevard – an urban linear park with a rich palette of plants and generous seating and tables.
  • Darling Drive – a street that is characterised by the diverse, lush planting which harvests, and filters, vast amounts of water runoff. This street provides a welcome splash of green in an urban environment.
  • Macarthur Park – a restful, meticulously detailed pocket park that provides a place of quiet in a bustling city.
Plan – ASPECT Studios

Darling Square

Location: Sydney, Australia

Design Team

  • ASPECT Studios (Lead Public Realm and Revised Master Plan for Darling Square)
  • Kengo Kuma and Associates (Architects, The Exchange)
  • Arcadis (Engineers)
  • Denton Corker Marshall (Architects, South West Plot)
  • HASSELL (ICC Master Plan)
  • Woods Bagot (Architects, north west plot)
  • Alex Tzannes and Associates (Architects, North East Plot)
  • FJMT (Architects, south east plot)
  • Allen Jack+Cottier Architects (Architects, student housing)
  • Anthony Gill Architects (Retail Architects – Makers Dozen)
  • Peta Kruger (Lighting Artist for Steam Mill Lane)
  • Brendan Van Hek (Lighting Artist for Little Hay Street)

Client: Lendlease

Photography: Brett Boardman
Text: ASPECT Studios

About Damian Holmes 3274 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/