Diving Right In
Originally published in Athletic Business
The University of Southern California Trojans have won 11 national championships in football. Pretty impressive. But you might not know that the school’s swimming and diving program has won 10 national championships, and its water polo teams have won 13 — this year’s win marked the sixth in a row for the men’s team.
For the athletes, coaches and fans of non-revenue sports, such relative obscurity comes with the territory. You probably know that USC football’s home field is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which hosted the city’s two Summer Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984. Less well known is the fact that USC’s aquatics programs compete in facilities built for the 1984 Olympics. But unlike the grand Memorial Coliseum, the Olympic Swim Stadium that surrounded the dotted “i” configuration of 50-meter pool and dive tank was intended as a temporary facility. It is only this season that the USC swimming, diving and water polo programs are debuting a state-of-the-art competition venue — named for Fred Uytengsu, the former Trojan walk-on and swim captain whose donation was the largest to date by a USC student-athlete — befitting the school’s dominance in these sports.
As the designers of Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, which opened in 2000, as well as the new Uytengsu Aquatics Center and the forthcoming California Aquatics Center at UC Berkeley, we at ELS Architecture and Urban Design have seen the expectations of student-athletes and program administrators rise over the years. It is no longer enough to have the fastest pool or the biggest facility. These days, it’s vital that the building do for aquatics what arenas and stadiums do for the basketball and football programs — impress recruits, inspire student-athletes, and meet the varying needs of spectators and the campus community.
The path to USC’s new aquatics venue was fairly convoluted. In 1988, the university constructed the Kennedy Family Aquatics Building along the pools’ southern edge to solidify the former Olympic site as the future home of USC intercollegiate aquatic sports. Unfortunately, the building encroached on the pools’ original Olympic footprint, as it was shoehorned between the pools and the football practice field. At about the same time, the university constructed the Lyon Recreation Center to the immediate north of the pools, which included spectator seating for the pools on its south face for use during intercollegiate events. As a result of this hemmed-in location, the aquatics facility barely registered as a presence on McClintock Avenue, the campus athletics corridor that borders the facility’s eastern edge.
Both the existing pool basins and the Lyon Center seating represented opportunities to save money on construction of a new aquatics venue, but they also constrained the layout’s potential. Another restriction was the university’s architectural vocabulary, known as Collegiate Romanesque, which called for brick, precast concrete and, possibly, arches in the final structure. It was clear from the start that the existing seating would have to be mirrored on the other side of the pools. Thankfully, the Kennedy Building was demolished to make room for the larger aquatic center footprint.
Through the process of designing and completing the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, we came to understand how vital it is that competition venues for non-revenue sports resemble their revenue-sports cousins in a number of areas:
Presence — With exposed steel, shade canopies, event lighting and, of course, the highly visible dive tower, the Uytengsu Center announces its presence as a spectator facility to visitors from either the north entry (the parking garage) or McClintock Avenue to the south. At street level, the arched entry pavilion and the dryland training facility’s arched glazed windows — hewing to the campus architectural style — offer views inside, and to the pool deck and water beyond. With an external appearance composed of elements and materials from the Collegiate Romanesque pallet, the university was supportive of a more contemporary aesthetic inside the stadium, which allowed designers to express the basic structure of the canopy system. The result was a pleasing reinforcement of the project’s formal symmetry via a series of tapered, white steel columns that line opposite sides of the 50-meter pool and add to the sense of stadium enclosure.
Student-athletes shared design ideas throughout the process and were quick to gravitate toward whichever plans looked and felt most like stadia — fully enclosed plans with grandstands relatively close to the pools and topped with some sort of covered spectator seating. This configuration is more intimate and focuses attention (and noise) toward the athletes, who commented that they wanted the venue to feel like “a coliseum.” In contrast, note that Stanford’s competition pool, completed 14 years earlier, features grandstands on either side but opens toward two large training pools on one end, slightly altering the feel and broadening the spectators’ focus.
Team facilities and technology — The Uytengsu Aquatics Center is designed for training as well as competition; as such, it’s outfitted with cameras linked to multiple video displays within the venue, giving the athletes immediate visual feedback on their effort and form. The dryland training facility inside the McClintock Avenue arcade serves the diving team with trampolines, foam pits and gymnastics apparatuses. A common room between the men’s and women’s locker rooms serves as a lounge and meeting room dedicated to student-athletes.
For competition events, screens built into the dive tower link to three camera setups — low, high and head-on. The LED video display is curved for easy viewing from either grandstand and is readable in sunlight.
Spectator amenities — Swimming events typically don’t attract large crowds, so a facility like Uytengsu, whose uses range from training to dual meets to national competitions, has to appear as the right size whether there are 500 spectators or 2,500. Permanent seating in the two second-floor grandstands accommodates up to 1,500 spectators, while temporary stands on the pool deck put 1,000 more spectators even closer to the action. The deck, storage rooms and locker room access were designed around these temporary seating locations so that the larger-capacity facility is seamless in appearance and function.
The permanent spectator zone is accessed via the Lyon Center, as well as by stairs located in each of the center’s four corners, and the entire upper level rings the facility like a large, open-air concourse. With a goal of bringing the competition venue within reach of the larger community, the concourse “observation deck” was outfitted with tables and umbrellas along McClintock Avenue, offering striking views of the adjacent dive tower and tank, as well as the Downtown Los Angeles skyline. The observation deck has fast become not only a student magnet during events, but also a prime location for Wi-Fi-enabled school work and play, sunning and socializing (the pool is open for recreational swimming when not in use by athletic teams).
The multipurpose room on the first floor of the coaches’ building serves as a second team meeting room, a student-athlete lounge and a party room during meets. Glass doors along the length of the space accordion out, adding to the room’s appeal by opening it to the pool deck.
Architects serve many users when designing competition venues. Student-athletes experience the building as a place where they train, compete, study and enjoy student life. This must be at the top of the list, particularly in a program like USC’s that has produced scores of champions and Olympians. But others have a stake in such facilities, too. These venues need a presence that can be transmitted to donors, guests, the larger student body and even television viewers — and they must knock the socks off of every 17-year-old potential recruit who comes to see them.
This is as true for aquatics as it is for football — and USC’s commitment to its aquatics program dictates that its new competition venue replicates as best it can the gravitas and drama of the L.A. Coliseum.