• Visitors to the Eastside Regional Recreation Center are greeted by the public artwork “Oasis Sombrío” and a shaded entry plaza. - photo by James Steinkamp

El Paso’s Eastside Regional Recreation Center promotes multigenerational well-being and community connection.

Client City of El Paso
Architect Perkins&Will in association with In*Situ Architecture
Contractor Sundt Construction
Civil Engineer Quantum Engineering
Structural Engineer HKN Engineers
MEP Engineer Bath Engineering
Concessions Profitable Food Facilities
Commissioning Parkhill, Smith & Cooper
Aquatics Aquatic Design Consultants
Landscape Architect Greenway Studio

Forty miles east of central El Paso is a Chihuahuan Desert sanctuary known as the Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, an area of clustered rock formations home to hollows known as “huecos” that capture precious water in periods of heavy rain in the late summer months. In search of inspiration for a new recreation center and natatorium, Perkins&Will ventured into the rock shelters of Hueco Tanks, where the spiritual importance of water is reflected in the ancient illustrations on the walls. Rock shelters offer safety and protection from rain and extreme temperatures, while the rock crevices, seasonal ponds, wetlands, and man-made catchments dating from prehistoric times store water, attributes that have made the place a haven for people and wildlife for thousands of years.

Only 20 miles from this archaeological site, the largest city-operated park in El Paso, named The Beast for its size, is home to the new Eastside Regional Recreation Center. The first completed phase of a 92-acre master plan includes an indoor 50m natatorium with a diving well, a multigenerational community center, a gymnasium and fitness center, an indoor running track, and an outdoor waterpark. Far east El Paso is home to the city’s fastest growing population and the least developed area in terms of community resources, making the project, which was funded by the city’s 2012 Quality of Life Bond Program, an important community initiative. The city of El Paso engaged Perkins&Will’s Dallas studio to spearhead the design, alongside local firm In*Situ Architecture, with the aim of addressing the underserved community’s need to create swimming areas as both a temporary escape from the weather and an activity that promotes well-being and connectivity.

Moved by the colors, forms, and light at Hueco Tanks, the architects conceived of the recreation center as a similar cluster of three different outcroppings, or program components — the natatorium, gymnasium, and community center — separated by a central fissure providing circulation space. Each form is unique and constructed of “humble” materials, like tilt-up concrete panels and masonry. “This particular scheme seemed to resonate most in the community meetings because we spoke to the connection back to Hueco Tanks and the idea of water and oasis, as well as cultural and historical ties, anchoring the building to its region in a very specific way,” says Ron Stelmarski, FAIA, design director of Perkins&Will Dallas. 

On approach to the building’s main entry from the parking lot, “Oasis Sombrío,” a public installation by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, greets visitors. Similarly influenced by its environment, the artwork is composed of nine curvilinear granite sculptural seating elements placed upon a triangular-shaped ground plane of decomposed granite. Eight Mexican palo verde trees are strategically positioned around the stones to create a shaded oasis. Just beyond this small seating area is a large entry plaza serving as community civic space, a gateway to other areas of the center as well as an important transition between indoors and out. A large horizontal steel shade structure protects the open space from the desert sun with tensile fabric stretched rhythmically across its roof members, creating playful scalloped shadows on the ground and facade. In the lobby, translucent clerestory panels bring diffused light in from above, and perforated metal stairs and guardrails further filter the light and enhance the experience of seeing people in motion. Offset tilt-wall panels at the gymnasium allow for vertical slivers of fenestration bringing light and mountain views into the two-story volume. 

Controlling and filtering light is an important theme throughout the project, especially in the natatorium, where serrated concrete panels allow natural light into the gaps without creating hazardous reflections that might affect a lifeguard’s ability to monitor underwater conditions. In support of a city-led regional colored-lighting initiative for municipal projects, the south facade of the natatorium is illuminated at night, transforming the facility into a beacon for the neighborhood. On the west side of the building is the entrance to the multigenerational community center, a low one-story volume built with long format brick that provides a much-needed breakdown in scale to complement the adjacent residential neighborhood. The obtuse angles of the volume and the rich colors and stack bond of the brick pattern subconsciously recall geological strata without being overtly derivative. Sightlines and connectedness also helped drive the design — those walking through the building can see almost every area of the center simultaneously. “When you talk about these important public facilities that serve families and specifically kids, the building must perform on so many levels,” says Stelmarski. “It must feel energized and super inviting, while at the same time be very durable, protected, and safe — it is a social sanctuary.” 

The project also leverages several sustainability strategies. Throughout the landscape, a wide selection of local species helps conserve irrigation water with grading designed to accommodate periods of intense rainfall. Arroyos surround the building as a clear reminder of the desert environment. The LEED Silver recreation center opened in 2021, and design for phase two of this important piece of social infrastructure is in the works. The Eastside Regional Recreation Center, a modern oasis, will be available for tour during the TxA Annual Conference this fall.

Paulina Lagos, AIA, is an architect at Exigo Architecture in El Paso.

Leave a Comment