A Blue Oasis on Bancroft Way: Designing UC Berkeley’s Legends Aquatic Center

by: Clarence D. Mamuyac, Jr. FAIA, LEED AP BD+C
TOPICS DISCUSSED:
Architecture
Aquatics
Athletics
Despite having produced top Olympic swimmers for decades, the swim teams at the University of California, Berkeley had it tough when it came to getting pool time
We designed the entry as a large glass opening that grants views of the pool and the dive tower beyond.

The only aquatic facility on campus with a 50M pool was Spieker Aquatic Center, which had to accommodate both men’s and women’s swimming, diving, and water polo teams — six teams in all — as well as providing recreational swimming for the general campus population. As a result, athletes had to show up early in the morning to be able to get their workouts in. That made balancing sports and academic studies much more challenging than it should have been. On top of that, to practice dives, they had to go all the way to Palo Alto to borrow rival Stanford’s platform diving tower.

Building an additional pool was the answer. But space was tight on campus, especially near the athletics precinct. Fortunately, the university owned a parking lot across Bancroft Way from the historic Edwards Stadium, the university’s soccer and track & field venue, where the new aquatic center could be built. Through the donor development delivery model (described in Kim-Van Truong’s blog), the project went ahead. The challenge for us, in designing the facility, was to make the new swim center feel like part of the campus despite its location across from the main campus on Bancroft Way, which is five lanes wide.

But we noticed that directly across the street from the site stood a pair of pylons with obelisks, part of the historic wall surrounding Edwards Stadium. These pylons flank a concrete panel that honors George Cunningham Edwards, the stadium’s namesake. We centered the new swim facility’s entryway directly across the midline between the obelisks and centered the 50M pool and the 10M platform dive tower on that same axis. The result is a string of tall markers that all align; visually linking the new building to one of the oldest parts of campus.

Other design decisions followed from this. Bancroft Way has a pretty urban feel, so we wanted to make sure to buffer the swimmers from the busy street. At the same time, downtown Berkeley has a lot of concrete, so we felt that pedestrians should be able to glimpse the pool, a soft oasis amid the hardscape. We designed the entry as a large glass opening that grants views of the pool and the dive tower beyond.

The result is a string of tall markers that all align; visually linking the new building to one of the oldest parts of campus.

We placed an open-plan multipurpose and training building on Bancroft Way as a simple box, holding the street edge on Bancroft. When deciding what materials to use on the exterior, we thought of the Cal Aquatics team motto, “Adapt and Prevail,” and considered the ways that students transform during their years in college. So we thought we would embody those ideas metaphorically with three distinct building materials representing the phase transitions of three states of matter: solid stacked bond concrete masonry, clear and translucent blue glass, and a corrugated perforated metal skin. Essentially, they represent a solid (concrete) attempting to contain a liquid (metal) that transforms into a gas (glass).

Along the east edge of the site, an existing passageway runs north-south, connecting south Berkeley to the campus. We wanted pedestrians walking this route to be able to hear the splashing and watch the swimmers through the fencing, so we placed the locker room building and all the storage areas on the west side so as not to block views from the passageway.

During the day, the facility activates what was once a gap along a busy street. At night, Legends Aquatic Center is lit from within, the glow from its blue-tinted glass helping illuminate what had been a dark corner of campus.