Urban Parks: From Industrial Wasteland to Palaces and Pavilions

Explore parks from around the world, their urban location and architectural structures.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

Ashburnham Place, East Sussex (1940) by Photographer: Dell & WainwrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

The rise of the public park

The benefits of public parks – especially within the development of industrial cities – was observed in the early 19th century. Paris, New York and London were some of the first cities in the western world to designate areas to these democratic spaces, creating sublime and immersive environments.

The idea that you could lose yourself amongst tall trees and winding paths, discovering architectural features, draws on the ideals of the ‘Picturesque’. The Picturesque originated as a highly choreographed garden design, intended to look completely natural for country estates. But the ideas and designs for rural parks were later appropriated to urban environments. 

Mossley Hill Drive Bridge, Sefton Park, Liverpool (1887) by Architects: Edouard Andre, Lewis HornblowerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Sefton Park in Liverpool, north of England, is an early example of a municipal park situated in one of the largest industrial cities at the time. Designed in 1867 by Edouard André and the Liverpudlian architect Lewis Hornblower, it aimed to form a greenbelt around the expanding city. André had previously worked with the esteemed engineer Jean Charles-Adolphe Alphand on notable Parisian parks that influenced the design of Sefton. The overall layout today is largely unchanged from its original plan.

Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London (1854) by Artist: R CarrickRoyal Institute of British Architects

Fit for a palace

Crystal Palace Park, then called Penge Place, was created to accommodate the large glass and iron palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851, previously constructed in Hyde Park, London. The Palace was a platform to demonstrate the successes of the industrial revolution, presenting the innovations in British engineering and manufacturing.

Plan of Crystal Palace and Park, Sydenham, London (1854) by Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Palace and park offered a wealth of entertainment both inside and around the grounds. It attracted 2 million visitors a year, providing culture, education and other attractions, including model dinosaurs, which can still be found in the park today.

Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London: south transept and water tower (1867) by Artist: Horatio Nelson KingRoyal Institute of British Architects

Situated in South London, the palace was 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide, including two huge towers and many fountains with over 11,000 jets rising into the air. Its scale of success was large too, but due to its size it proved financially difficult to maintain and was declared bankrupt in 1911.

Alexandra Palace Park, London (1875) by Photographer: Horatio Nelson King (1830-1905)Royal Institute of British Architects

North of London, Alexandra Park was created in 1863 to offer a space to escape from the industrial bustle of London city life. A palace was later built in 1873 as an entertainment venue, however, it was destroyed by a fire only 16 days after it opened to the public.

A park around a palace, Parque Maria Luisa was originally the grounds of Palacio San Telmo. It was donated to the city of Seville by the Palace’s late occupant, the Infanta Maria Luisa Fernanda, the Duchess of Montpensier. The large green space to the south of the city centre, runs alongside the River Guadalquivir. The  French architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier converted it into a public park with Moorish fountains and pools, exotic trees and features with colourful tiled benches. 

One of the tiled alcoves: Plaza de Espana, Maria Luisa Park, Seville (1989) by Photographer: Tim BentonRoyal Institute of British Architects

In the early 1900’s the government designated Parque Maria Luisa as the site for the universal exhibition Expo 29. The centrepiece of the park is the Plaza de España designed by architect Anibal Gonzalez. 

Guatemala Pavilion, Maria Luisa Park, Seville (1989) by Photographer: Tim BentonRoyal Institute of British Architects

Expo 29 was arranged to boost morale and tourism after the loss of Spain’s colonies in South America in the late 19th century. The exhibition was also an opportunity to showcase and promote the industrial skill of the area of Andalucia. 23 countries took part, building a pavilion to represent cultural heritage and demonstrate technical innovations.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Hyde Park, London (2010) by Photographer: Christopher Hope-FitchRoyal Institute of British Architects

Park Pavilions

Pavilions vary in design and function. Some are recreational, some provide shelter whilst others resemble mini palaces. Here are a few from RIBA's Collection, ranging from pavilions built as entertainment venues to temporary constructions demonstrating architectural ingenuity.

Pavilion in Wingfield Park, Lucknow (1860)Royal Institute of British Architects

Historic pavilions

Wingfield Park in Lucknow, India was originally called Banarsee Bagh and rebuilt as a memorial to Sir Charles Wingfield, Chief Commissioner of Awadh (1859-1866). 

The pavilion located amidst the landscaped grounds in the centre originates from the Kaisarbagh Palace. A dazzling feature within the park, the pavilion was made from marble and originally inlaid with precious stones.

Ekaterininsky Palace, Pushkin (Tsarkoe Selo): the Chinese (Creaking) Pavilion in Alexander Park (1990) by Photographer: Dennis HanceRoyal Institute of British Architects

Spanning 200 hectares within the Tsarskoe Selo estate, one of St Petersburg's most charming suburbs, lies Alexander Park in Pushkin, Russia. The park features various gardens and architectural structures in different styles, including this elaborate pavilion resembling a Chinese pagoda. 

Chinese decorations include brightly painted and gilded figures of twisting dragons. Attached to the roof is a weathervane in the form of a Chinese banner that creaks as it turns in the wind, giving the pavilion its name: Chinese 'Creaking' Pavilion.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago (2004) by Photographer: Roland HalbeRoyal Institute of British Architects

Arts and Entertainment

Opened in July 2004, the Millennium Park was nearly named the ‘Garden of Arts’ as it is home to a number of key public art installations, including Cloud Gate, also known as 'The Bean', by Anish Kapoor. 

The park’s art is arranged in a series of zones or small rooms, a concept first proposed for Grant Park in 1909 by Edward Bennett. Each room or zone reflects a different design idea.

This recreation space came about after the Mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley visited his dentist on Michigan Ave and looked out to the sea of 900 cars and a railroad station. He proposed a park to hide the parking lot, making the area one of the largest green roofs in the world.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago (2004) by Photographer: Roland HalbeRoyal Institute of British Architects

This sculptural pavilion is made up of 14 distinct stainless steel forms. A focal point within the park, the pavilion was built as a music and entertainment venue. A sound system is integrated within the trellis that spans the area in which the audience can freely congregate. The trellis, shaped like a flattened dome and constructed of curved steel pipes spaced approximately 65 feet apart, is as visually striking as the main stage of the pavilion.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Hyde Park, London (2009) by Photographer: Daniel HewittRoyal Institute of British Architects

Temporary Pavilions

Commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London, the annual architectural commission invites international architects who have yet to build in the UK. The first pavilion was designed by Zaha Hadid in 2000 and since then each year has seen a new and unique temporary structure advance from the park. 

Serpentine Pavilion, Hyde Park, London (2007) by Photographer: Luke PalmerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Each structure allows visitors to experience and interact with the park in a new way. By providing unique perspectives, viewpoints and highlighting the natural qualities of the park, they transform the space.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, Hyde Park, London (2007) by Photographer: Luke PalmerRoyal Institute of British Architects

The architect Kjetil Thorsen of the Scandinavian practice Snøhetta collaborated with the artist Olafur Eliasson to create the pavilion in 2007. Resembling a spinning top, the timber-clad structure spiralled up a ramp ascending to a second level that provided the highest viewpoint across Hyde Park. 

Serpentine Pavilion by Francis Kéré, Hyde Park, London (2017) by Photographer: Joanne UnderhillRoyal Institute of British Architects

The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion was designed by Berlin-based architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. Inspired by a tree, it provides shelter and protection as well as a place to congregate. The blue colour is significant in Kéré's Burkinabè’s culture as a colour to celebrate and mark important events. 

Thames Barrier Park, North Woolwich Road, Silvertown, London (2008) by Photographer: Christopher Hope-FitchRoyal Institute of British Architects

Urban wasteland to biodiverse habitats

Today brownfield land within urban areas are being transformed into parks. A recent example, the Thames Barrier Park in England, is landscaped to visually connect to the site’s dockland heritage. An area previously industrial and neglected has now been transformed to provide a natural place for new habitats and people to meet.

Thames Barrier Park, North Woolwich Road, Silvertown, London (2008) by Photographer: Christopher Hope-FitchRoyal Institute of British Architects

Structurally landscaped using sculptured hedges, the ‘Green Dock’ provides a unique habitat for a variety of plants and wildlife on a site that was once a petrochemical and acid works on the Thames riverbank. The contaminated soil was covered with a six-foot layer of crushed concrete to protect the new fertile soil laid on top.

High Line Park, New York (2009) by Photographer: Danica O KusRoyal Institute of British Architects

New York City, home to one of the world's biggest public parks, Central Park, is also home to an unusual green space spanning 22 city blocks along an abandoned elevated railway. The High Line Park runs between and through buildings along the west side of Manhattan, originally built in the 1930s to carry freight trains. It is an example of the beauty of nature reclaiming a previously vital piece of New York City's infrastructure. 

High Line Park, New York (2009) by Photographer: Danica O KusRoyal Institute of British Architects

The balance and interplay between plant life, pedestrians and architecture creates a unique environment in which the three interact harmoniously even with the contrasting cultures. These new urban parks show how nature can supersede and transform these spaces, creating post-industrial areas of leisure, life and growth. 

This narrative is part of a series, exploring the influence and importance of Parks. Find out more about Central Park and Parks and People on RIBA Google Arts and Culture.

Also explore and understand more about the features and architects who aspired to create Picturesque landscapes.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Image: Ashburnham Place, East Sussex. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections  
Image: Tiled alcove Plaza de Espana, Maria Luisa Park, Seville. Rights: Tim Benton / RIBA Collections  
Image: Guatemala Pavilion,  Plaza de Espana, Maria Luisa Park, Seville. Rights: Tim Benton / RIBA Collections  
Image: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2010. Rights: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections Image: The Chinese (Creaking) Pavilion. Rights: Dennis Hance / RIBA Collections  
Image: Millennium Park, Chicago. Rights: Roland Halbe / RIBA Collections  
Image: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009. Rights: Daniel Hewitt / RIBA Collections  
Image: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007. Rights: Luke Palmer / RIBA Collections  
Image: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2017. Rights: Joanne Underhill / RIBA Collections  
Image: Thames Barrier Park, London. Rights: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections     


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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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