Project John Gaines Park and Swim Center
Architects Stanley Studio
Design Team Lauren Woodward Stanley, AIA; Lars Stanley, FAIA;
Chelsea Scharbach; Sarah Wigfield; Jessie Temple
Photographer Paul Bardagjy
Designed by local practice Stanley Studio, the John Gaines Park and Swim Center is the second such amenity in Austin’s Mueller development — a “mixed-use urban village” that has been rising on the site of Austin’s former airport since 2002. The first was the Ella Wooten Park and Pool, designed by Studio 8 Architects and opened in 2008.
Gaines opened in June 2016, after a long delay caused by the Great Recession. During the economic downturn, Mueller developer Catellus suspended all construction east of the flight tower — one of the few bits of airport infrastructure that has been retained. Dampening as the recession may have been (not as bad in Austin as in the rest of the country, everybody says), it benefited the finished building. The architects were able to refine their design and re-pitch some of its key elements. The result is a project of considerable sensitivity that pays homage to the site’s former use while making visible the movement of water across the land.
Stanley is the studio of married couple Lars Stanley, FAIA, and Lauren Stanley, AIA. They do their business out of a live-work compound in East Austin, just down the street from Mueller. In addition to architecture, Lars Stanley does ornamental ironwork in a blacksmithing shop on their property; in fact, he got his start in the 1980s by doing metalwork for local architects, and the link between architecture and craft remains fundamental to the practice’s work. It’s also behind how they got the commission to design Gaines: “We did some work for Studio 8 at the other pool project — some architectural details with the entry gates and metalwork,” Lars Stanley says. “After we did that, we met Carl Paulson, the project manager at Catellus. He said he was happy with that work. We said, ‘We do architecture, too. How do we get involved in a project for you?’ He said, ‘You ask me.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m asking you.’”
Stanley told Paulson about one of their recently completed projects — the Daniel Ruiz Branch of the Austin Public Library — and also gave him a tour of their compound, whose collection of small structures functions as a laboratory testing ground as well as a design studio. Both projects highlight Stanley’s roots in craft and commitment to sustainable design, as well as their feel for the experiential qualities of light, space, and material. It was enough to impress Paulson, who hired the architects.
For Gaines, Catellus asked that Stanley follow certain guidelines established at the Ella Wooten Pool, such as the use of Leuders limestone and board-formed concrete. They also asked that the project emulate the examples set by Austin’s much-loved bathhouses at Barton Springs and Deep Eddy. Beyond that, the architects were given a long leash to indulge their own interests in sustainability, craft, and in acknowledging the site’s history.
Water in particular became a motivating impulse of the architecture, not just because the project includes a swimming pool, but because Stanley wanted John Gaines to serve as an example of good stormwater management. Generally, in the Mueller neighborhood, stormwater is treated fairly conventionally — shed into drains that feed the lake and pond anchoring the development’s large park and greenway. At Gaines, Catellus let Stanley do something different. Water shedding off the bathhouses’ roofs is collected in cisterns and used to irrigate two green roofs, which are planted with a mix of succulents and re-seeding wildflowers. Overflow pours into rain gardens, where it is absorbed and released slowly into the ground.
The cisterns themselves (there are two, one per bathhouse) are concrete, stained a deep blue color to indicate their function.
Stanley laid out the functional spaces asymmetrically, with the two bathhouses and support spaces perpendicular to each other. A trellised breezeway separates them. Supported on painted steel pipe columns, the breezeway is outfitted with photovoltaic panels that connect to the city grid and power the pump equipment. The density of the solar panels increases where the breezeway covers the kiddie pool, providing more shade for the youngsters. Vines planted around the base of the trellis will one day make for a shadier experience throughout.
While the walls of the support spaces are composed of architectural finish CMU block with gray leuders limestone veneer, the bathhouses are made of reinforced architectural concrete, poured in lifts to give the surface a striated quality. The concrete pours took place in the spring and summer. On days when the temperature changed drastically, distinct variations between layers resulted from the pouring and curing process. A charcoal powdered colorant was sprinkled over each lift to accent the linear profile of the striations. “You can see in the layers changes in temperature and environmental conditions,” Lars Stanley says. “What happened at each moment is recorded in the material, and that’s something we’re really interested in the architecture doing.”
As they had done at Ella Wooten, Stanley designed and fabricated the ornamental metalwork for the project — gates, privacy screens, hardware and window grills whose swooping forms bring to mind water currents and evoke the golden era of jet-airline travel. The architects also referenced the old airport more explicitly in the park’s playground and community garden. “I thought the airport history was worth preserving,” Lauren Stanley says. “This project is so close to the flight tower that it was easy to convince Catellus to look at a playground that was not a proprietary system, but landforms in the shape of the old runways, where children could create their own games.” Stanley covered the playground’s crossed berms in synthetic turf — a fast surface for getting to liftoff speed, but forgiving enough for hard landings — and punctuated them with concrete culverts, underpasses where the baggage cars and fuel tankers can carry on with their business while the jetliners take off and touch down above.
The most direct link in the project to the old Mueller Airport is found in the community garden. With the permission of Catellus, Stanley salvaged the airport’s old metal bus shelters. The subcontractor who came out to collect them turned out to be the same craftsman who had built them in the 1980s. He cut the steel posts with a torch and used a backhoe to lift the trussed roof structures onto a trailer. Stanley hauled them off and stored them in their backyard for the long years of the project’s limbo. When things moved ahead again, the architects dusted off the old metal structures and repurposed them for the garden’s shade pavilion and tool shed.
The beds of the garden are well defined with heavy 4-in.-by-4-in. timbers and large limestone blocks, carefully selected from a local quarry. The regimented rows are crisp and neat, in answer to the development team’s worry that a community garden would appear messy. Such a fear can certainly be put to bed now, and not just in regards to the garden beds. Gaines’ neatness, in fact its neighborliness, extends to how it controls runoff in a way that protects communities downstream. “We’re historically connected to Mueller by water,” Lauren Stanley says.
“We were once in the same watershed. Today it’s more indirect, but any stormwater runoff that reaches the overflow of the southeast lake in epic events winds up in the stream behind our property. Water is more than just a site-specific concern, because it’s how all sites are connected to the surrounding world.”
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect