The striking folded roof of the Singing Hills Recreation and Senior Center creates a horizontal landmark within the sprawl of south Dallas.
Client City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department
Contractors JC Commercial, Mart, 3i Contracting
MEP Engineer Basharkhah Engineering
Structural Engineer JQ
Civil Engineering Pacheco Koch
Landscape Architect Kevin Sloan Studio
Architecture is a service industry. Projects are not the dictums of aesthetic czars, nor are they magically spoken into being. Most projects must find their way through contradicting realities of differing goals and budgets, navigating the vital concerns of owners and users, as well as bureaucratic thickets. An architect’s power is one of influence, of creating beautiful arguments of form and experience that coerce larger goals and higher callings. These ideas must be simple and solid and must resonate through latent and active discord, finding a harmonic balance that retains a singular vision. Singing Hills Recreation and Senior Center is an example of this striving and provides something vital to the community it serves. The center is an investment not only in the health and wellness of its users, but in their dignity and spirit as well.
The structure’s signature roof line floats above the crest of a hill that falls away to the north. As one approaches the building, the enclosing roof appears embedded in the hill. Borrowing from Frank Lloyd Wright, it appears “of the hill, belonging to it.”
There was a conscious decision to choreograph this drastic approach to the site. The most direct route would have been over the DART Rail tracks to the south, an approach level with the building and parking lot. Instead, visitors are brought to the north of the site, under the elevated rail line, and far below the building itself. As one ascends the hill, the roof plane is revealed first. This approach imparts a sense of importance to the building.
“The people that live in this area do not always have easy access to jobs,” said Ron Stelmarski, AIA, a principal and design director at the Dallas office of Perkins&Will. “They come here to use the gym or attend community meetings with the added benefit of easy access to downtown via public transportation. The social infrastructure and the health-and-wellness piece all gets bound together here in a genuine story.” The adjacency and connectivity to the DART station is central to the development of the design. The circulation spine runs the length of the building, with the main movement always directly toward or away from the tracks. The modulation of the facade’s dark metal panels and glazing separate it visually from the wood soffit and dark fascia set against the sky. From the south, the building largely feels transparent — an enclosure under a single canopy leading to the rail station.
The dominant roof plane is a line that could have been delineated with one pass of the pen, a steady hand with a brief flourish and a return to stability. Dropping the gym level into the hill allows for the continuity of the canopy line and humanizes the scale of the building, reinforcing the pedestrian flow along the south wall and the connection to the rail.
Inside, the fitness, dance, multipurpose room, sound studio, and offices are stacked along the main circulation path connecting the senior center on the west end of the building with the gymnasium on the east. Glazing on the north opens the gym up from its recessed position in the hill. To the east and south, alternating solid and transparent panels filter light and allow views to nature, providing connectivity from outside areas to inside. Beyond the gym is an outdoor space that steps down from the elevation of the DART station. This amphitheater form reveals activity outside while accommodating views back toward the interior.
Kevin Sloan conceived of a landscape design that would magnify the power of the site. The double pattern of trees in the parking lot finds delightful harmony with the building: The layered pattern of lightly colored vertical trunks plays with the staccato rhythm of the dark facade panels. The hillside to the north, envisioned as a light cultivated meadow, delightfully frames views of interior activities. The native vegetation rises just enough to erase the ascending road while still allowing glimpses of the towers of downtown Dallas. And to the east is the DART line: a bright path cut straight from the north, stark against the green tree canopy.
Perkins&Will originally conceived of a project that was fully integrated with the DART station. They saw the potential for the two public projects to exist as one unified statement. That vision would have seen the canopy line of the building dramatically zagging, turning to the south to unite the station and recreation/senior center into one movement of form, one architectural thought. Had this idea been realized, the whole would have vastly exceeded the sum of its parts, making a magnificent project transcendent. It would have given the community not only a wonderful building, but an iconic place of arrival and departure: an important landmark within the city.
Of course, this would have required the full cooperation of DART, as well as their consent to a unique station and design leadership with an alternate vision. It was, ultimately, a vision that could not be fully realized; however, the station did adapt its canopies to create some dimensional and color similarities with the Singing Hills Recreation and Senior Center. Squinting provides a tantalizing glimpse of what the impact of the fully implemented idea could have been.
Bart Shaw, FAIA, is a principal at Ibañez Shaw Architecture in Fort Worth.
The photographs of Singing Hills Recreation Center are an outstanding representation of an architecturally superior building. However, they fundamentally fail to properly communicate the project. This rec center was designed for a predominantly African-American community in southern Dallas, yet the images (as far as I can tell) are totally absent of African-Americans. I encourage the architects to re-photograph this project with the real users prominent in all the images.