“We start each of these projects by engaging the community,” says Alan Reed, president and director of GWWO Architects. “It usually starts as a prototype program, but then each community has different needs. For example, Cahill’s successful youth theater program operated out of an old school gymnasium. One of the things that came out of that process was the desire to create a state-of-the-art theater for them to continue that program.
The nearly $18 million center is surrounded by the lush forest of the city’s Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, visible in all directions through its glass and reclaimed wood facade. GWWO organized the service and private areas into clusters of wooded volumes and placed the exercise areas, pool, and public spaces in glass-walled volumes that feel immersed in the woods. “It’s set in this huge urban forest, so conceptually we were drawn to that when we engaged with the community and talked about nature’s impact on well-being,” says Reed.
This shift to the language of wellness shouldn’t be such a surprise in a public recreational facility. Many recreation centers emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social reformers advocated public baths and playgrounds as means of improving the hygiene and development of poor and of the general population. Hundreds of parks and recreation services created during this time continue to operate, as well as school sports facilities. But the defunding of the public sector over the past half-century has tended to leave these facilities feeling outdated and a bit depressing.
Funded by a public bond for social service projects throughout El Paso, the Eastside Regional Recreation Center, designed by Perkins and WillDallas office with local company In*Situ includes a senior center, serving the multi-generational needs of the nearby community, as well as a gym, natatorium, outdoor water park and public art program . It will eventually include lighted ball diamonds, a skate park, a dog park, outdoor playgrounds and an amphitheater.
“This area didn’t have a lot of social spaces and there aren’t a lot of park spaces, because you’re in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert,” says Ron Stelmarski, design director, Perkins&Will. “Shade or any respite is hard to find.”
Since the center was designed as a play oasis in the desert, swimming has taken on central importance, both in the outdoor water park – to escape the heat – and in an indoor natatorium, for exercise. . When the ball diamonds are built, under a master plan designed by Halff Associates, they will be fitted with shade structures to prevent players from overheating.
In addition to the heat, the blazing sun was a central concern: the interior natatorium features a wall made of staggered concrete panels that allow sunlight to fill the room without dazzling the water; elsewhere, perforated metal screens and wooden slats diffuse the light. Outside, native plantings and landscaping features retain rainwater and restore the desert habitat of what had been an abandoned golf course and country club. In El Paso’s post-pandemic society, the building’s expansive outdoor fabric canopy has become a high-demand space for outdoor events.
Dallas-based sculptor Brad Goldberg contributed Sombrio Oasis, a landscape of granite boulders and paloverde trees inspired by the nearby Hueco Reservoirs, high-altitude rock formations that collect water in the desert. The multi-colored lighting installation on the concrete panels owes a debt to the El Paso Public Art Program, which offers incentives to light up the city at night with works of art.
Recreation centers in Baltimore and El Paso are designed to reduce energy consumption through passive methods. In Baltimore, Cahill’s strategic solar focus and high performance HVAC system provide substantial energy savings over the facility it replaces. In El Paso, the sloped concrete walls and exterior canopy use sun protection and thermal mass to reduce heat gain.
“There was a clear history of recreation and recreation at the site, but it was generally not in the public interest and generally not the smartest environmental response,” Stelmarski said. “Our project’s water park, natatorium and gymnasium are all very important elements that serve the community.”
It’s a welcome revival of a civic spirit that doesn’t rely on the multibillion-dollar fitness industry to sell memberships only to those who can afford them.