Contextual Design and Theming

Building exterior

Contextual Design and Theming

A Series of Life Changing Design pt. 4

Most Park and Recreation Professionals have a deep understanding of the transformative power recreation has in the communities it serves. The benefits of family cohesion, better health, socialization, community pride, sports enhancement and good sportsmanship all reach deep into the core of better quality life for all. To assure the best customer service possible occurs amidst rising expectation, and dwindling resources, professionals must use every means at their disposal to implement increasingly better programs at the right price, location, and times with the best instructors, staff, and equipment available. The same holds true of facilities that are expected to be clean, well maintained, and spectacular in the amenities they offer.  Providing the very best, well designed facilities is at the core of creating a great guest experience.

Beyond the brick and mortar of a Community Center, and often times hidden from the naked eye lay elements the building when designed properly; make the difference between having an experience of confusion and monotony, to one of pure joy and invigoration. This ongoing blog uncovers the fundamentals of several make or break principles of facility design that when implemented by an expert will provide your users with an incredible experience for decades to come.

4.      Contextual Design and Theming

The last time, we talked about Spatial Adjacency and Great View CorridorsThis discussion will take a look at the role that Contextual Design and Theming play in creating a unique sense of place and reinforcement of community identity.  Several months ago, I had the opportunity to tour a new recreation facility that had recently been the recipient of several high profile design awards. It was truly a magnificent center that was well-appointed, and featured all the latest technology. It was in the heart of a major metropolitan area with a rich turn-of-the-century history of boom, bust and re-building. As I walked through this contemporary wonder, I noticed no reference to this past–nothing that alluded to it visually, nor any attempt to educate or entertain about this history. Furthermore, the facility design did not seem to make a nod to the future of the resurgent neighborhood in which it was situated.  As I walked out of the building and stepped back into the diverse and vibrant neighborhood it was in, I thought to myself, “What a missed opportunity.”

Every site has a story to tell. Every building is an opportunity to tell that story in new and creative ways. For an architect or designer, next to being part of the design team of these transformative facilities, inserting a unique story into the design is a close second on the professional satisfaction scale. That “story” may allude to the history that surrounds the community or building site, the flora and fauna of the region, or the geology or geography of the local landscape. There is ample opportunity to explore a design that helps instill a deep sense of pride in the community. The design team should be challenged to uncover these influences and use them to weave a tapestry that engages end-users with a new experience each and every time they walk in the door.

Located along the original ‘Starvation Trail’–a rumored shortcut to the dreamed-of gold fields of Colorado–The Trails Recreation Center presented the facility designers with an opportunity to reference Colorado’s history of the period. Supposedly a hundred miles shorter than the established roads for miners traveling to Denver, the ‘Starvation Trail’ quickly gained a gruesome reputation for its lack of water, markers, and a defined road. Many became lost and perished seeking their fortunes along this ‘quicker way’. The Trails Recreation Center design pays homage to the grit and determination of these early pioneers who gave rise to the burgeoning metropolis of Denver. Walk around this landmark facility and you will find references to the myriad history and unique characteristics of its site.

In a modern variation from historic wagon wheel light fixtures that simply have hanging lanterns from the spokes, these stylized reinterpretations grace the lobby upon entry

In a modern variation from historic wagon wheel light fixtures that simply have hanging lanterns from the spokes, these stylized reinterpretations grace the lobby upon entry.

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The floor of the large Group Exercise Room is painted with a graphic inspired by Native American rugs.

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The Kid Watch area is adorned with animal footprints, hitching posts, and plant life from the surrounding prairie.

Another example of Contextual Design and Theming is The Campbell County Recreation Center in Gillette, Wyoming. The sweeping landscape and complex geology of Campbell County, Wyoming—with its long-sloping ridge lines, and plateaus, and proximity to the iconic Devils Tower—serves as a backdrop and inspiration for this facility’s sleek soaring angles. The tipped roof forms recall the vistas on the horizon, while the sleek metal cladding speaks to the bright hopes for the future of this energy-rich region. The School District joined hands with the County’s Recreation Department to create this one-of-a-kind facility.

Long sloping forms are reminiscent of the landscape of the region.

Landscape features in Campbell County, Wyoming

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The imposing climbing wall located near the entry and visible from the exterior, is a tribute to the nearby Devils Tower.

Another example that incorporates context is the Estes Valley Recreation Center in Estes Park, Colorado. It sits at the entrance to one of the most visited national parks in the country. Rich in rustic mountain architecture and history, the picturesque town is home to cabins, lodges and, the famous Stanley Hotel. The national park abounds with wildlife and mountain flora in a dizzying array of color.

This Design Inspiration Board was created early on by the design team to communicate the contextual themes. It includes references to local history, architecture, wildlife, and regional materials. This board was the starting point for creating a unique identity for the facility.

The facility exterior borrows cues from nearby mountain lodges and residences.

The activity pool is themed with ‘Rocky Mountain-esque’ outcroppings and stylized park animal water features.

Mountain ‘critters’ are also at home in the Kid Watch area.

Facility guests may not always aware of the specific history, economic drivers, and influences from nature that abound in the very communities in which they live. Every public building, including Community Centers, can take advantage of its contextual uniqueness and explore how to reflect that context in its design. The potential to educate, entertain and create a strong sense of identity should be a key driver of facility design and be included from the start as part of the project goals alongside other drivers, such as budget, schedule and functional needs of community centers.