Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens have been evolving ever since they threw open their iron gates in June 1816 under the “tasteful direction of Mrs Macquarie”. As early as the 1860s, areas of the tidal flat at Farm Cove were being filled in to enlarge and improve the gardens. Then there was James Barnet’s gargantuan Garden Palace (some 400 metres long and boasting the sixth-largest dome in the world) that resulted in a major levelling of the landscape, before burning to the ground in a flaming wreck in 1892.

But one doubts that any of the changes over the past 198 years have raised so much ire as the draft masterplan for the area announced earlier this week. Former PM and self-appointed aesthete Paul Keating didn’t hold back, referring to the plan as an “atrocity”, saving most of his criticism for the proposed viewing platform at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the $80m five-star “garden hotel” planned for above the existing car park in Sir John Young Crescent.

Devised by Cox Richardson and with a price tag of more than $130m, other major elements of the masterplan include a ferry terminal near Boy Charlton Pool and a train station behind the Art Gallery of New South Wales; an orientation centre at the QEII Gate (near the Opera House); a permanent acoustic sound shell in the Domain; children’s gardens and trails; a garden plaza defining the cultural hub of the Art Gallery; and a tidal walk around Mrs Macquarie’s Point.

The Guardian asked several prominent architects what they thought of the plans.

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Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney & Domain Master Plan animation.

“There are a couple of things about the plan that are fantastic; both the train station and ferry wharf are tremendous public initiatives that are well overdue. Both of these should really be brought forward. And the permanent shell in the Domain is long overdue; Melbourne’s had the Myer Music Bowl since the 50s. I don’t have any problem with the viewing platform on Mrs Macquaries Chair, nor with the lower level walkway, but it will be subject to the details.

“The only element of the plan that I feel strongly about questioning is the hotel; I hope it doesn’t end up like that appalling apartment building at Woolloomooloo wharf with the inaccessible roof garden; there’s such a tendency for green fudge over buildings that really shouldn’t be there. ‘Buildings are intrinsically bad, greenery is intrinsically good’ – I think that is a bit of a simplistic take on things. And I do worry that the hotel is the thin end of the wedge as to the privatisation of public land.”

Jane Irwin, principal at Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture

love that you can currently just roam and explore the gardens without
having to be directed. There’s too much information in our lives.
Everything is interpreted. We get paintings of fish beside the water,
and dolphin sculptures beside the beach, just in case we can’t make a
free mental association. We need to be able to wander freely and explore
and use our own imaginations. In a way the Botanic Gardens is in itself
an interpretation. It doesn’t need any more.

“The garden is one
of those places in the city that has a certain amount of visual quiet;
it’s a landscape sacred space. The talk about so much theming makes it
sound a little like a family fun park, whereas its principal meaning and
function is as a botanic gardens. But I do like the idea of having some
more children’s spaces because I think it’s really important to cater
for children in the city.

“The thing that worries me most is just
the drive to commercialise public spaces and parks. It’s happening here
and it’s happening at Centennial Park. We need to be very careful
because what can happen in the end is the requirement for event
management can overtake the free day-to-day enjoyment of those public
places. That’s a very concerning trend.

“As for the plans for Mrs Macquarie’s
Chair, it’s fine the way it is. It’s one of those spaces in the city
that is for exploring; it’s a little bit wild. And I’d love them to
leave some wild spaces in the city. Also the idea of putting in a
permanent catering place there is worrying as well. It’s an empty
headland that shouldn’t be cluttered with things. If it ain’t broke,
don’t fix it. The spirit of the gardens needs to be treasured.”

Glenn Murcutt, Pritzker prize-winning architect

“I haven’t seen the plans, but frankly there are very few places that are perfect and every place has to be thought about afresh. In saying that, I think the Botanic Gardens are pretty nice as they are.”

Sydney skyline
The Royal Botanic Gardens with Sydney’s CBD behind. Photograph: Richard Fairless/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Adam Haddow, director SJB Architects

“There have been lots of amendments to the gardens over the years and I think they should evolve with the people and the city and change to meet our needs.

“There are some really great things in the masterplan. Putting a permanent sound shell in the Domain is a fantastic idea – why wasn’t it done 10 years ago? The extension of the land–bridge that cuts the road from the Botanic Gardens is also a fantastic idea, but maybe we should be going further and covering it all. I also love the proposal to improve Shakespeare Place outside the State Library and also the forecourt to the gallery; at the moment they both feel marooned by roads. And as for the redevelopment of the Domain car park for a hotel … why not? It’s a defining edge of the Domain and at the moment it’s hideous. Why not create a really good public place on top of it and around it?”

Philip Drew, architecture critic and author

“Initially I thought the plan for a five-star hotel sounded pretty awful, but I got out my street directory and looked at where they were putting the hotel, because that’s the thing that had most people reacting emotionally. I thought, well really, the hotel could probably improve the whole area. I think having the ferry wharf on the western side is a good idea too.

“The thing that I would criticise is the proposed changes to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. The main objective should be to keep it as natural and undeveloped as possible.”

“I’ve long had an interest in the area, having designed two buildings for the gardens (the Kiosk Gardens Restaurant and the arc glasshouses). The other reason for my interest is that I’ve proposed two new schemes which impinge on the gardens, and happen to be on two of the sites affected by the new masterplan. One is for a new 2,000-seat opera and ballet theatre for the Opera House, situated precisely where the proposal is for an interpretative centre at the QEII gates.

“The other vision is less known in public circles; it’s for a covered music shell in the Domain, but in a different position to [Philip] Cox. He believes that any permanent structure should be where they do the temporary one. And my idea was to completely reverse it so that the audience faces downhill instead of uphill and to use the natural bowl of the land, with a music shell with the lawn folded over the top. It would seat at least 1,600 people under cover.

“I think it’s an excellent idea to put a hotel where Cox is proposing. And you put the lawn on top, making it sustainable and efficient and giving you a valuable public space on top of a building.

“As to the proposals for Mrs Macquarie’s Chair; I would tend to be very cautious about that. But look, this is a plan put up for public discussion. Run it up the flagpole and see if they salute.”

The northern tip of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The northern tip of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photograph: Robin Smith/Getty Images

Caroline Pidcock, founder of Pidcock and former president of the RAIA NSW

“I like the plans, but with the great big proviso that it all depends on the details; in saying that I didn’t see anything in the masterplan that was as disastrous as the Barangaroo development. The fact that Keating is defending Barangaroo while slamming this minor intervention is just phenomenal.

“Personally I think the gardens do need a masterplan. I understand they have never really had one in place, which is astounding. The concern about the hotel seems to be a bit overblown. I just see an improvement of a particularly ugly building in a particularly good location. I think a hotel could be a really positive contribution to that, as would the proposed train station and the ferry wharf. These would make that place more accessible without needing to jump in a car, and would have big benefits for Woolloomooloo [the suburb in which the gardens are situated], the gallery and the pool.

“When it comes to the proposals for Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the gates, I absolutely think you’d have to see the details before you could make any comment. It could be a total disaster or it could be completely brilliant. As for putting up a more permanent structure in the Domain for concerts, I think that makes sense … it’s not like they’re putting a casino in the middle of it.”