Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Welland International Flatwater Centre, Welland, Ontario
PROJECT Welland International Flatwater Centre, Welland, Ontario
ARCHITECTS VJAA Inc. (Design Architect) with RDH Architects Inc. (Architect of Record)
TEXT Chloe Town
PHOTOS Paul Crosby
The drive from Toronto, along the perimeter of Lake Ontario towards Welland, is marked by a steady progression of nondescript buildings. It is difficult to see much evidence of site-specific sensitivity, let alone architecture crafted with great care. Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni may have found cinematic beauty in shipping ports and polluted estuaries, but the steel plants near the Hamilton Skyway today are far from sublime.
Closer to St. Catharines, just before the Welland Shipping Canal cuts across the land to Lake Erie, the built landscape changes tone. Manufacturing sheds give way to neat acres of clipped grape vines. Real plants. These fields are tangible evidence that the region’s effort to rebrand itself as “Niagara wine country” has been a planning success. But can vineyards alone replace the economic importance that manufacturing once played in this part of Southern Ontario?
This question can be answered in part by the recently completed Welland International Flatwater Centre (WIFC). Conceived to promote a “healthy, active lifestyle” and attract “sports tourists” to the area, the project was largely conceived with the 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games in mind. The facility will host all of the Games’ sprint canoe and kayak races. Yet the boosterism of the facility’s name (indicated by the word “International”) demonstrates a further commitment to the idea that a highly specialized program can bring many more people to the region for years to come.
The Centre owes its existence to the shipping industry’s physical legacy in the city of Welland. Built on the low banks of the former shipping canal, the WIFC seems the perfect program for a site that for decades was highly undesirable. In 1973, the original shipping route through Welland was abandoned in favour of a straighter and wider new canal to the east. Years passed before anyone could figure out what to do with the remains. Factories closed and were torn down, and the shores of the 12-kilometre-long old canal were essentially left fallow. It took until 1997 to turn the area into a recreational waterway and close to a decade more to take it a step further.
Key elements of the design are the result of functional standards required to host Pan and Parapan Am events. The finish-line tower, for example, has three identical floor plans, each with its own kitchenette and barrier-free washroom. This ensures that scorekeepers, officials and judges do not influence one another during meets. Yet other important moves, such as the clever programmatic flexibility within the main building, are due to a close and thoughtful collaboration between the project’s two architects—Toronto-based Rounthwaite Dick & Hadley Architects (RDH) and VJAA from Minnesota.
RDH proposed the partnership based on the fact that VJAA has built two similar facilities in the United States: the Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse (2001) and the Porter Boat House (2005) at the University of Wisconsin. VJAA’s familiarity with the equipment needs and storage specificities of the program, matched with RDH’s well-deserved reputation for smartly detailed buildings, made for a solid collaboration. It helped too that both offices share a design sensibility that favours simple forms and materials.
There is no public transportation to the building, so the majority of visitors arrive by car. From the parking lot, one can see the three-storey timing tower to the right and a long, shed-like building to the left. These two forms are separated by an open concourse but relate to one another through a shared cladding palette, largely comprised of metal siding and glass. Inside both buildings, the steel structure is exposed and painted white, and most rooms have poured and polished concrete floors. The materials readily suggest that, architecturally speaking at least, manufacturing and athletic facilities have a certain equivalence.
But there is a lot more floor-to-ceiling glass than an industrial facility. The tower looks like a very elegant but oddly undersized condo, and from the concourse one can see that the lower building is mostly curtain wall too. This latter volume only looks like a shed from the rear: circling around, the metal-clad wall cants out slightly and then folds over into the roof plane, not unlike a covered grandstand. Keep your eyes on the canal, it suggests. Your attention should be on the water.
Inside, the floor plan is essentially divided into three parts. First there is a shallow entrance bay with a long reception desk that faces the central plaza. Behind it is an exercise room, equipped with a line of stationary rowing machines. Beyond, separated by a glass interior wall, is yet another training room. This one has a sunken tank of water at its centre.
This last room isn’t large and it is conceptually marred by exposed HVAC and electrical conduits, but it is nevertheless spectacular. It is full of light and reflection, both from the water in the tank and the surrounding glass. The airiness of the room is further amplified by the fact that the tank has a guard with mirrors facing the water on all sides. The effect is less Hall of Mirrors than Dan Graham. The still water lends a tranquil and somewhat indulgent quality to the space, also bringing to mind Paul Rudolph’s Beekman Place apartment in New York with its all-white surfaces, glass and mirrors. It is clean, utilitarian and modern.
Architectural musings are abated, however, once athletes begin their practice. They sit at either the edge or centre of the tank in what look like animal feeding troughs but are in fact replicas of canoes, kayaks or dragonboats in their simplest form, truncated at each end but exact in width.
The pool includes two tanks, allowing for two different currents operating at the same time. Athletes place their oars or paddles in the water, a trainer adjusts the variable speeds, and away they go. Yet they stay put. Their bodies simply glide forward and back, multiplied through a reflective corridor.
The mirrors, it turns out, are there so that the athletes can observe themselves from several angles. It is an ingenious aid and mesmerizing to watch. Something about their metronomic pace and synchronized movement is deeply satisfying. When Frank Underwood uses a rowing machine in House of Cards, his strenuous effort symbolizes his relentless struggle to move forward. Yet here, where there is actual water, the movement doesn’t seem futile or illusory. This tank is as close to the real thing as possible, and in Canada’s cold winter months, it is an invaluable resource to athletes.
By mid-April, the building’s relationship to the surrounding site expands as athletes abandon indoor simulacra in favour of the canal. The storage room cuts into the bank, putting vessels a few short metres away from the waterway. The WIFC becomes less of a central attraction, and more like an auxiliary space. Eyes on the water, remember. The interior tank is drained, covered over, and suddenly there is a lot more inside space with unobstructed views to the outdoors.
The storage room, empty of buoys and boats, becomes a shaded preparation and gathering area. The adjacent plaza becomes a viewing platform. With permanent outdoor seating for 500 and standing room for at least twice as many more, it is impressive to see the old canal recl
aim its relevance as a destination.
The whole concourse feels open and inclusive, even civic-minded. To this end, one hopes that the WIFC will attract more than just professional athletes and tag-along tourists. The local public should feel welcome too, for days walking or resting by the water. The building might also become a destination for cyclists riding along the banks of the recreational waterway. In all cases, it stands as an extraordinary addition to the region.
Chloe Town has practiced architecture in New York and Toronto and has taught at universities in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Galt, Ontario. She is currently a sessional instructor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.
Client TO2015 and City of Welland | Architect Team VJAA—Vincent James, Jennifer Yoos, Nathan Knutson, Paul Yaggie, Nat Madson, Tim Ogren, Nate Steuerwald. RDH—Bob Goyeche, Sanjoy Pal, Carlos Tavares, Graham Gavine, Mike Faric, Bryan Chesniak. | Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Exp Services Inc. | Landscape VJAA Inc. (Travis Van Liere) | Interiors VJAA Inc. and RDH Architects Inc. | Contractor Elite Construction Inc. | Sustainability OECI | Commissioning CFMS West | Cost Marshall & Murray Inc. | Accessibility Paula Bowley Architect Inc. | Code LRI | Area 17,000 ft2 | Budget $8 M | Completion July 2014