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Aquatic centre by Paisajes Emergentes, Medellín, Colombia

Metal angles create surface relief - niches and grooves that catch the light. Photography by Iwan Baan

Most swimming pools, for recreation or competition, are enclosed so that they can be used year-round, and the changing rooms and services are tucked under the bleachers. Medellín bills itself as the city of eternal spring, and decided to exploit its equable climate when it hosted the 2010 South American Games. Paisajes Emergentes, a small firm established by Luis Callejas with two of his contemporaries, won the competition for the Aquatic Centre with a complex of four outdoor pools that flank the existing Olympic pool and that are embedded in an angular landscaped labyrinth.

The site, on the west side of the city, was formerly a go-cart track and it is framed by the encircling mountains. To exploit that panorama, Callejas extended the project to the boundaries and layered the spaces. A broad pedestrian concourse provides access for spectators, while swimmers descend ramps to the sky-lit changing rooms 3m below the green roofs, and ascend other ramps to the pools. The pool for synchronized swimming is raised so that contestants can be viewed through windows set in the sides.

The tight budget mandated coarse wooden forms for the poured concrete retaining walls. Callejas added metal angles to create surface relief — niches and grooves that catch the light and compensate for the irregularities of the pour. He wanted to create a water garden to achieve continuity between the pools and landscaping, but that would have required more maintenance than the client could guarantee. ‘We don’t see landscaping as a secondary stage of design,’ says Callejas.

‘We try not to approach our projects as voids to be filled later with plants by someone else.’ Denied the opportunity to use water across the entire site, the architects decided to simulate a natural landscape by throwing a mix of aquatic plant seeds into the raised containers between the circulation paths and allowing them to grow freely. As these plantings mature they will soften the sharp angles of walls and paths.

‘We are not interested in poetic, pictorial or nostalgic relationships with locations,’ observes Callejas. ‘We look for their emerging qualities to make visible what lies unseen to the public.’ Here he has turned a simple plan into a multi-level experience of shifting perspectives and complex geometries. A looped ramp that links two public levels complements the layering of the walls. The triangular skylights in the ceilings of the changing areas provide a dramatic chiaroscuro and sense of enclosure, in contrast to the open expanse above. The Aquatic Centre bustles with life, as a family recreational facility and a resource for schools, as well as for more serious training and competition.

Architect Paisages Emergentes
Design team Luis Callejas, Edgar Mazo, Sebastian Mejia
Landscaping Andres Ospina and Paisajes Emergentes

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