A Departure From The Norm
By Lauren Woodward Stanley
Parks are open opportunities—whether small or large, they host a range of human experiences. Park programs can be specific or open-ended or a combination of both. It then falls to the design team to realize these goals, giving them material, shape, and form. The designer’s highest purpose is to bring value to a community-shared landscape. Sometimes that may take a minimal hand—the preservation of natural areas and open space—and sometimes it involves more complexity and intervention. What are different ways to build up value in a park project, particularly in an urban setting, so that it has more meaning to more people for a long time?
In John Gaines Park in central Austin, Texas, Stanley Studio and its team of collaborators found an opportunity to build layers of value by designing a project whose parts serve multiple purposes, actively and passively. A new, 3.6-acre neighborhood amenity completed in 2016, forged from the turf of an old airport runway field, the park provides general and specific programs—open greens, swim center, community garden, playground, and picnic groves—for residents of the Mueller development and surrounding Austin population.
With initial program requirements met, architects Lars Stanley and I worked along with Pharis Design (Landscape Architect) to select special sub-consultants for custom concrete work, photovoltaics, green roof design, and rainwater-system design; incorporating additional elements to the project effectively added “stealth” programming. Stanley Studio looked to a variety of precedents to inform the design, from the site’s urban history as the city’s original municipal airport to the sustainability zeitgeist of Austin’s modern age. The final result showcases deep-green strategies, echoes of its land use past, and a high level of building craft and materiality, all of which produce a unique park aesthetic and experience. It achieved a 4-star rating from the Austin Energy Green Building program and almost net-zero energy capacity.
The Swim Center
The paths of water and energy trace visibly through the Swim Center, at the heart of the park. The pool house, composed of two building blocks, employs two, blue, concrete rainwater cisterns to close off the bathhouse courtyards. These long cisterns collect runoff from two metal roofs to distribute to two adjacent green roofs as irrigation (a 3,000-gallon storage capacity). The green roofs, planted with a hardy succulent plant mix, including Prickly pear, Red yucca, and Texas Bluebonnets in the spring, give a bright show of seasonal color and wildlife habitat. The steel entrance and breezeway trellis structures between the two pool house blocks support a 6-kilowatt solar array and cabled vines, both of which provide dappled shade for the procession to the bathhouses and pools.
These features and systems are made highly legible in the use of, and movement through, the facility. Translucent photovoltaic panels, deep-blue concrete stain, custom-poured and detailed concrete, local limestone, and the integration of plantings throughout the built fabric contribute to a lively experience of pattern, color, cadence, and building craft that highlight the sustainable strategies used throughout the project. The semi-open spaces of the interior courtyards and trellises are suffused with vegetation, creating modulated degrees of shade and shelter and a biophilic character. The architecture of the Swim Center becomes an educational tool and demonstration opportunity.
Green Roofs And Gardens
Green infrastructure and food production bring another measure of value in the park design. Using a suite of techniques to capture and sequester stormwater runoff is a key component of Austin’s sustainability efforts as a green city, and the park design team implemented many. Designed in conjunction with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Ecosystems Design Group, the green roofs absorb heat and water, softening hard surfaces and helping create a microclimate in an exposed area. They lengthen the life of the roofs, moderate high temperatures for occupants below (with only ceiling fans and cross ventilation), and create wildlife habitat. They shed to two rain gardens directly below, which in turn capture and infiltrate stormwater and temper the ambient air. One of the rain gardens doubles as a backwash discharge area for the pool, keeping large volumes of water out of the wastewater system. Large tree transplants, specimen trees, and grove plantings throughout the park will augment the urban canopy over time, which is perhaps the single-biggest strategic method to stabilize and improve the health of the urban environment.
Coupled with the taller shade trees, fruit trees are planted throughout the park. Native drought-tolerant plants and wide bands of landscaping reduce inputs (water, maintenance) and offer food and shelter of varying heights for critters. Cultivated food for humans is hosted in the long-awaited first community garden in the Mueller development. It was designed in stout and durable materials with a variety of spaces in which to work and gather, making it a social and recreational space as well as a functioning productive garden space. Curved community picnic tables, across the lawn, host more social gatherings in groves of Mexican Sycamores.
Other parts of John Gaines Park harken back to the site’s history as an airport. The park itself is in the long shadow of the landmark flight tower a few blocks away. At the hub of the community garden stands a pavilion, tool shed, and work table fashioned from salvaged and repurposed bus shelters that stood outside the old terminal building. The heavy steel-trussed structures of the shelters were kept offsite for several years, slated for eventual transformation into usable elements for the community garden. Complemented by a limited palette of cedar plank and translucent fiberglass sheet, painted to echo the alternating blue colors of the flight tower in its backdrop, these infrastructural relics find new life in the urban community.
In lieu of conventional proprietary play structures, the playground takes its shape from the layout of the old airfield. Aerial maps of the runways inspired the basic concept of simple linear elements of varying vertical conditions. Long, four-foot high berms intersect with a concrete culvert and over-arching net climber, creating a free-play zone for kids and ad-hoc games. Synthetic turf was used over the clean-cut profile of the berms to ensure their long-term durability. Generous shading comes from large transplanted Cedar Elms in the mulched field of the playground, and large rough-hewn, Leuders limestone boulders offer continuous seating and low climbing around the perimeter. Located adjacent to the pool and sharing the entrance plaza and bike rack is a particularly popular place for families at all hours.
Building craft and detail figure prominently in the designer’s efforts and the project’s vocabulary. Stanley Studio designed and fabricated the custom steel gates and screens that provide enclosure and privacy through the pool house, using colored polycarbonate panels to enliven their function. Architectural concrete work is subtly crafted and detailed to telegraph the process of its making. Limestone-cladded walls have a carefully patterned coursing, and high clerestory openings in the masonry walls bring indirect natural light into interior spaces. The building is meant to be tactile and easily read.
How does the design of John Gaines Park invest value and aim to stand the test of time? It looks to the influences of culture and nature that are uniquely relevant to the project. Once the basic program needs were met to ensure durability, functionality, and appeal, designers ventured on, seeking out the support of an engaged owner and team of consultants to take on additional agendas and alternative ideas. Mining ideas from other projects, we looked for relevance to the wider community, and aligned with the long-range vision of the surrounding city. The value of the park is consequently layered and diversified, with specific recreational amenities, passive interpretive components, and open unstructured play, all within a carefully considered built fabric.
Lauren Woodward Stanley, AIA, is co-owner of Stanley Studio, an integrated architecture and metalwork design practice in Austin, Texas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.