• Entry of the West Side Natatorium is through the bespoke art piece, “Marquise” by artist Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany. Rarely does an art installation become such an integral component of its host building. The carefully organized facade, with its slit windows, is an effective foil for the exuberant sculpture. PHOTO BY WILLIAM C. HELM, II, AIA

The entry to El Paso’s new West Side Natatorium by In*Situ Architecture is framed by artist Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany’s exuberant canopy “Marquise.” This powerful symbol for entry sets an overall tone for the quality of execution throughout the building — a remarkable fusion of public art and public architecture.

After Marquise, the building could have been a disappointment, but that didn’t happen. The simple entry space serves an orientation role while providing a series of visual delights. The space bridges the new natatorium building with an existing aquatic facility that was retained. It acts as a hinge between the two, and provides access to the viewing stands, restrooms, and other amenities in a neat, direct, and compact way. The quilted concrete reception desk is a particularly arresting detail.
Diagrammatically, the building is essentially one space with two functional areas strongly defined by an exceptional exploitation of the oft-clichéd butterfly roof, which is expressed in section nicely. The V shape of the roof covers both pool and spectator seating, combined in a large, open, and visually flowing space that includes windows with panoramic views to the Franklin Mountains.

Many architects rely heavily on plan as the way to design and develop a building concept, but it is in the cross-section where a building truly becomes architecture. Often ignored or underdeveloped, in strong hands a section begins to explain the spatial potential of a building, the way it will feel to inhabit, and the way light will enter and fill the volumes. The cross-section of the West Side Natatorium is its greatest strength, and the reason a visit to the building makes a powerful impression. One upward slope rises above the pool and guides the eye toward the large windows and corresponding views to the mountains. The opposite slope rises above the tiered seating, following the ascent of the seating risers. Once the viewer is seated on the risers, the ceiling gently guides his or her view back to the pool itself.

The supporting structure of the butterfly roof is elegant and refined. The trusses are made up of multiple smaller components, executed in a combination of structural steel and glulam beams. The system is knitted together with a web of structural pipe connections, all of which are celebrated and carefully executed. The soft gray of the galvanized finish of the steel pieces accents the wood beams and adds palpable warmth to the rest of the concrete material palette.
Designed for competitive swimming, the 50-by-25-meter pool is surrounded by a large deck for participants and coaches, which is separated in elevation from the 780 spectator seats. The angle of the seating provides an unobstructed field of view, even in crowded conditions. Operationally, the raised seating also separates the swimmers from the fans and keeps the pool deck clear of nonparticipants.

The facades cloak the dramatic section, but are well composed and carefully detailed. Repetitive tilt-up concrete panels frame large windows on the north elevation. On the south, the wall panels have subtle details that include vertical windows and glass fins that admit light in surprising ways. An opaque service block containing the pool equipment is clad in corrugated metal panels and metal shingles. These contrast with the tilt-up and change with the sun’s movement around the site.

The interiors are spare, uniformly white when not gray concrete block. The tilt-up panels are exposed and painted white. The floors are concrete, scored in patterns based on the glazing and reveals in the tilt-up panels. These are appropriate materials, befitting a building that houses a pool with its inherent humidity and all of the wet activities generated within. The abundant natural light renders the interior bright and cheerful.

Michael Malone, FAIA, is the founding principal of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas.

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