Guest Column - September 2012
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Design Corner

Build Pride and Performance
A Dynamic Formula for Successful Recreational Facilities

By Dan Zeller, AIA

The ideal community recreation facility is a civic landmark and a point of hometown pride. It's alive from early morning through late evening as early rising retirees and the before-work crowd are followed by preschoolers and their stay-at-home parents, then the after-school kids, after-fivers and, finally, the late-night crowd. It's hopping seven days a week, as parties on weekends draw friends and families from other communities. It merits its own web page, and it creates a buzz: It's one more amenity that draws people in to the community and makes them want to stay. There's one more thing: It's a high-performance building that doesn't drain the parks and recreation department's operating budget. Pride and performance: It's a dynamic formula for success.

Build Pride Through Civic Architecture

Say "high-quality civic architecture," and most people will picture an imposing city hall or dignified county courthouse, not a community recreation facility. Unfortunately, many recreation facilities are little more than four walls and a roof to house a few basketball courts, meeting rooms and some fitness equipment; they lack the characteristics of high-quality civic architecture.

However, like any other civic building, a well-designed recreation center can and should build community pride and cohesiveness—enhancing quality of life, increasing the community's attractiveness to newcomers, and creating a "town square" where neighbors of all ages meet and play.

What defines high-quality civic architecture?

  • Timelessness: The architecture is classic, not trendy. It won't make passersby say, "That is so ____ (1980s or '90s or '00s—fill in the blank)".
  • Grandeur: A "grand" recreation center? Yes! Grandeur is not only communicated through Corinthian columns and Italian marble. A civic building achieves grandeur when passersby recognize it as a "landmark building" and users experience inviting entrances, large, light-filled spaces and broad staircases.
  • Substance: The architecture looks, feels and is solid and durable—and will be for decades. The facility doesn't look like a big-box store, but instead is built with quality materials in a thoughtful way.
  • Of its time and place: The facility looks like it was designed for here and now. So it fits into the architectural context of the community without imitating period buildings.
  • Forward-thinking: The architecture is progressive, dynamic and innovative. It says, "This community is growing and planning for the future."

There's one more thing: High-quality civic architecture doesn't have to break the bank. Citizens are more likely to support a sales tax or bond issue to finance a project that is a good value for the dollar. Residents are also more likely to support the project when a broad cross-section of the community—not just a few special-interest user groups—have participated in setting goals for the program.

For example, the Matt Ross Community Center is located on a 5.6-acre site at the southern edge of downtown Overland Park, Kan. Grand and substantial, the landmark 80,000-square-foot community center is the largest building in the area. Gould Evans placed the single-story façade along the direct route into downtown to welcome visitors to the area while respecting the scale of the existing streetscape. Like its neighbors, the recreation center has a brick facade, but architects used this material in an innovative way: Gradations of color, rather than a solid color, make the 35-foot-tall gymnasium facade more artful and interesting. Architects included multiple building levels, a canopied entrance and spacious patios—without imitating a period building. They carefully used glass to admit natural light and permit views of all levels and activity spaces without increasing cooling costs.