In the present day’s Recreation Heart Design Faucets Into Key Wellness Pillars

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“We start each of these projects by engaging the community,” says Alan Reed, President and Director of GWWO Architects. “It generally starts out as a prototypical program, but then each community has different needs. For example, Cahill’s successful youth theater program had operated in an old gymnasium. One of the things that came out of that process was a desire to create a state-of-the-art theater where they could continue this program.”

More of Metropolis

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 wood-lined volumes and placed the practice areas, pool and public areas in glass-walled volumes that feel immersed in the forest. “It’s in this huge urban forest area, so conceptually it drew us in as we engaged with the community and talked about nature’s impact on well-being,” says Reed.

Located in El Paso’s Eastside Regional Park, the Eastside Regional Recreation Center features a tiered facade that acts as shade and lets in light while blocking glare on the pool’s surface. Drought tolerant landscaping and plants reduce water usage and help the project achieve LEED Silver status. COURTESY OF JAMES STEINKAMP

This shift to wellness language shouldn’t come as a surprise in a public leisure setting. Many recreation centers emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social reformers advocated public bathhouses and playgrounds to improve the hygiene and development of poor children and the populace in general. Hundreds of parks and recreation departments established during this time continue to operate, as do school athletic facilities. But the defunding of the public sector over the past half-century has left these facilities looking dated and a little depressing.

Funded through a public bond for community service projects throughout El Paso, the Eastside Regional Recreation Center, designed by Dallas office Perkins&Wills with local firm In*Situ, includes a senior center—a response to the intergenerational needs of the neighboring community—along with a Gym, indoor swimming pool, outdoor water park and public arts program. It will eventually include lighted ball fields, a skate park, a dog park, outdoor playgrounds, and an amphitheater.

“This area didn’t have a lot of social areas and there wasn’t a lot of parking because you’re in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert,” says Ron Stelmarski, design director, Perkins&Will. “Shadows or quiet zones are hard to come by.”

El Paso’s Eastside Regional Recreation Center, known locally as “The Beast,” features an indoor swimming pool, gym, senior center and outdoor water park, while additional facilities such as ball courts and a skate park await in the upcoming phases of the project will. COURTESY OF JAMES STEINKAMP

As the center was designed as a play oasis in the desert, swimming took on a central role, both in the outdoor water park – as an escape from the heat – and in an indoor swimming pool to get exercise. When ball fields are built as part of a master plan designed by Halff Associates, they are fitted with shade structures to protect players from overheating.

In addition to the heat, the glare of the sun was a key concern: the pool hall features a wall of staggered concrete slabs, allowing sunlight to fill the space without glaring the water; elsewhere, perforated metal shades and wooden slats diffuse the light. Outdoors, native plants and landscape features retain rainwater and recreate the desert habitat of a former golf and country club facility. In El Paso’s post-pandemic society, the building’s expansive canvas canopy has become a sought-after venue for outdoor events.

Interior of the basketball court and weight room at the Eastside Regional Recreation CenterCOURTESY OF JAMES STEINKAMP

Dallas-based sculptor Brad Goldberg contributed Oasis Sombrío, a landscape of granite boulders and paloverde trees inspired by the nearby Hueco Tanks, high-altitude rock formations that collect water in the desert. The multicolored light installation on the concrete slabs is indebted to El Paso’s public arts program, which provides incentives to illuminate the city with artworks at night.

Both the Baltimore and El Paso recreation centers are designed to reduce energy use through passive methods. In Baltimore, Cahill’s strategic solar orientation and high-performance HVAC system offer significant energy savings compared to the facility it replaces. In El Paso, hinged concrete walls and the exterior canopy use solar shading and thermal mass to reduce heat gain.

“There was a clear history of leisure and recreation on the site, but it wasn’t typically in the public interest and typically wasn’t the wisest environmental response,” says Stelmarski. “The water park, pool and gym in our project are all really important pieces that serve the community.”

It’s a welcome renewal of a sense of citizenship that doesn’t rely on the multibillion-dollar fitness industry to sell subscriptions only to those who can afford them.

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  • Aerial view of the Eastside Regional Recreation CenterCOURTESY OF JAMES STEINKAMP
  • Exercise room at Cahill Fitness and Wellness CenterCOURTESY OF TOM HOLDSWORTH
  • Children play on outdoor equipment at Cahill Fitness and Wellness CenterCOURTESY OF TOM HOLDSWORTH
  • Children play in an outdoor fountain at Cahill Fitness and Wellness CenterCOURTESY OF TOM HOLDSWORTH