Urban Waterscape: Guildford Aquatic Centre, Surrey, British Columbia
PROJECT Guildford Aquatic Centre, Surrey, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Bing Thom Architects (Architect of Record) with Shape Architecture (Associate Architect)
TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTOS Ema Peter, unless otherwise noted
A city’s physical image is defined and codified through periods of rapid growth—think 18th-century London, 19th-century Paris or 20th-century New York. Metro Vancouver is still in the process of becoming, and the City of Surrey, 40 kilometres south of downtown, has emerged as the region’s harbinger of high-minded 21st-century development. If 19th century Parisians witnessed the emergence of a city shaped by Haussman, Surrey’s residents are in the midst of a city being shaped by Bing Thom Architects (BTA).
Surrey is the fastest-growing city in B.C., poised to surpass Vancouver’s population by 2040. It is also full of new Canadians, by age and by country of birth. With over 100,000 children in the province’s largest school district and 43 percent of residents speaking a mother tongue other than English, Surrey earns its slogan: “The Future Lives Here.”
But what form will this future take? Bing Thom began working on this question twenty years ago, when Surrey was more suburban sprawl than city. At Surrey Central City, BTA conjured a civic core out of a low-slung shopping mall by placing a university on top. Central City infused Surrey with such newfound pride that they adopted its profile as their civic logo.
This confidence soon spilled over into a massive capital projects campaign to prepare the city for its future growth. Over the past eight years, Surrey has built new libraries (including the Surrey Central Library by BTA), youth and senior centres, residential developments, police and fire stations, athletic and park facilities, a modern city hall, per-forming and community art venues, a museum, hospital and university expansions, as well as transit infrastructure. In the end, over $5 billion will be spent in Surrey by various levels of government and developers. One of the latest installments in this architectural cavalcade is the 10,400- square-metre Guildford Aquatic Centre, by the ever-present BTA in partnership with Shape Architects.
The Guildford Aquatic Centre is a short six kilometres due east of Surrey Central City. The $38.6-million addition to an existing recreation centre houses a 50-metre Olympic pool, leisure pool, water slides, change rooms, sauna and spectator seating. The design team dealt with the programmatic requirements in a straightforward manner in order to focus their energies on transcending mere function—creating what Thom described as “ a magic box.” As BTA partner Venelin Kokolov notes, “magic is not extra to the program.”
The exterior form of Guildford stands in stark contrast to much of BTA’s recent work, such as the virtuosic swooping volumes of Arena Stage and the Xiqu Opera House. Here, an unassuming rectilinear concrete parcel is sunk into the landscape. It’s tucked into the northeast corner of a mega-block site at Guildford Town Centre, where sprawling big box stores sit amid acres of surface parking.
The design team’s early decision to orient the building volume toward the street creates the area’s first urban edge. This simple planning move projects an optimistic attitude toward a future city that, according to Kokolov, “starts with people first.” It invites small-er-scale, pedestrian-friendly and ecologically sensitive developments to accompany it.
Today, most visitors arrive to the Aquatic Centre by car: they cross a new west-facing plaza and enter directly into the lobby control point, a knuckle of space between the existing recreation centre and the new pool. But Kokolov believes that the “duty of architecture is to plant the seeds for the future now.” It’s a sentiment that echoes the conviction of his mentor, Bing Thom, that the client is more than the person who pays the bills—but also society and the public at large.
Following from this way of thinking, the building is designed to work not only for the car culture of today, but also for a more urban Surrey of the future. BTA and Shape create the possibility for residents to walk up 152 Street and traverse a tree-lined hillscape, entering the building on an elevated catwalk that bisects the volume and passes right over the pool—almost as if the street morphed seamlessly into a high-dive platform.
Then and now, a whimsical procession delivers patrons to the reception desk, down a grand stair, through a porous universal change area and straight out into the zero-entry leisure pool. From there, swimmers are whisked through a supercharged swirling river and emerge floating under a waterfall, across from meticulously detailed sauna rooms. Gliding along the 50-metre lap pool, progress is marked by looking up at the ceiling, where 22 sculptural wood trusses glow white.
The ingenious truss structure does much more than hold up the roof: it also addresses the operational shut-downs that usually plague indoor pools. Each truss doubles as a maintenance catwalk, allowing staff to service lights and fans without hauling in lifts and draining the pool. The 30-metre-long V-shaped trusses are made from CNC-cut laminated strand lumber, and were assembled off-site—complete with all attendant mechanical ducts, sprinkler pipes, light fixtures and acoustic panels attached. Truss by truss, the assemblies were craned into place.
When lit, the trusses transcend practicality to become poetic light diffusers. On sunny days, the structure draws long lines of sunlight across the walls, from the skylights down to the tiled landscape below. At pool level, the designers expertly employ water in all its forms to reflect, mist, and flow over sinewy white and grey custom-tiled contours. Precisely placed sections of glazing at deck level provide glimpses of lush terraced gardens outside, without causing excessive glare at the water’s surface.
These subtle interplays between nature and building (and between building and pool) set Guildford apart from other aquatic centres in the region—and are especially impressive considering the modest budget and tight timeline. It’s easy to come away from this project wishing there had been just a bit more money. (What more magic might have been made of the roof or the bridge, given a larger purse?)
But overall, the project excels in its restrained and carefully detailed simplicity. The aquatic elements—more typically rendered as cartoon-coloured bolt-on solutions—are seamlessly integrated into a calm all-white space, reigning in the chaos often encountered in a community pool. Exterior surfaces employ four different aggregate mixes, selective sandblasting and an abstract joint pattern to imbue the otherwise utilitarian precast panels with subtle, stone-like qualities.
On an ideal day, last night’s rainwater filters down through Guildford’s terraced gardens and trees cast shadows on its muted gray façade. Inside, the space is streaming with daylight and punctuated by the brightly coloured swimsuits and joyful shrieks of children. Both inside and out, the building is designed to recede from view. What’s left is elemental—light, water, shadow—a place ready to receive the future city. In Surrey, that future looks bright.
Courtney Healey is an architect at PUBLIC in Vancouver.