Stephen F. Milioti -- Interior Design, 7/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
You take a victory lap when the client hands you a blockbuster project budget. But few architects look proudly on being handed just a concrete block. In fact, a piece of "mid-seventies brutalism in the form of a big undistinguished concrete box" is how architect Peter Johnston recalls the gymnasium and pool areas inside the Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, New Jersey, before the school asked him to renovate it.
The 23,580-square-foot physical education building had unfinished concrete walls and ceilings and dim lighting—which should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers gym class.
"It was so dark," Johnston says, "that the first time I walked through, I asked the facilities director to turn on the lights. He told me they were already on."
Rather than lament the unremarkable state of things, Johnston saw "unrealized potential for the space itself to work as an architectural element."
Using the ceiling's grid of concrete T-beams as a framework, he installed a series of bowed acoustical panels, wrapping their curved fiberglass forms in sailcloth over the gym and moisture-resistant PVC above the pool. Seen together, the panels gave the boxy form some interest—a fluid ripple over sports scenes.
Glass pendant fixtures gave the gym ambient illumination. For even more theatricality, the architect installed accent lights inside wall recesses, turning them into light wells.
For the pool, in addition to pendants, Johnston lined the walkway with lamps and the walls behind the bleachers with sconces. In an innovative flourish, he illuminated the pool itself using so-called light pipes hung from the ceiling. Inside the translucent tubing, light is projected along an internal reflector to provide an even glow.
Of course, this is a sports facility, so the rest of the renovation deferred to context, practicality, and safety. Floors, for example, are clad in a standard poured rubber ideal for basketball games; bleachers by the pool are epoxy-coated to keep swim-meet spectators from slipping.
But Johnston helped the client recapture a missed opportunity to define and enhance its spaces with the school colors—forest green and gold. Now green sailcloth wraps acoustical panels, and gold paint covers the light wells and recesses. For contrast, the walls and original ceiling were painted cream.
Who could have guessed that something as drab and utilitarian looking as a factory could become this vibrant, textured space? Score one for the home team.