Architectural review Byram Pool is a design triumph
There is something special about swimming pools. Their origins predate both Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire and, in fact, can be traced back 5,000 years to the “Great Bath” at the site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern-day Pakistan.
Francisco Asensio Cerver, in his book “Spectacular Pools,” described them as “symbolic sites of freedom,” and the image of a swimming pool is universally associated with summer days spent shuffling between the hot sun and the pool’s cooling waters.
As the warmth of summer slowly dissipates, it is a good time to commemorate the first season of the Byram Pool, one of Greenwich’s biggest public projects in recent history, and review the overall effectiveness of its design.
The pool instantly became a destination this summer as residents came to check out the town’s newest “celebrity” amenity. And like any rising star, the pool received widespread coverage.
I have spent considerable time viewing it from the perspective of both an architect and a town resident who has used it to quench my thirst for a refreshing swim.
I’ve talked with its designers and users, as well as those who championed this project from conception to completion, and it is clear that overall, the design of the pool is highly successful.
So, what are some of the features that make this design work?
One of its greatest triumphs is the way the pool complex has been integrated into one of Greenwich’s oldest parks, completely revitalizing it in the process.
The preliminary conceptual design was the brainchild of John Conte, of Conte and Conte, and architect John Halper.
Adopting a “holistic” approach, Conte explained they viewed the project as a “blank slate,” which gave them the freedom to “redesign many features of the park.” As a result, from a land use perspective, the pool complex feels “built in” rather than “added on.”
Early on, town officials, designers and the Junior League completed a needs assessment and concluded the pool had to serve many different functions.
It needed to be a lap pool, have a casual “bathing and dipping” area, a section for swimming lessons and exercise classes, and offer “zero entry,” meaning a way to walk into the pool that is gradual and safe, like walking into the water at the beach.
It also had to have a kiddie pool and a “splash pad” with interactive water features.
In short, it had to be all things to all people.
Since multipurpose use required a shape that could accommodate all of these different activities, the standard rectangular pool would not be appropriate. But how to serve so many different users?
The designers, Weston & Sampson Engineers, Aquatics Division, solved this functional issue by using elements of a rectangle, circle and a tapered polygon with a softened edge to create organic boundaries that separate and house each area.
The use of “negative space” (think of it as a peninsula) positioned between the zero entry on one side and the steps that lead to the classroom/casual swim section on the other side, creates a large barrier between the two sections.
The peninsula also provides people an area to sit and sun in close proximity to the pool’s cooling waters.
The kiddie pool and splash pad, although near the pool, are each self-contained areas, since they are designed for different age groups.
The job of a designer is to create a plan that satisfies the clients’ needs. This requires asking questions, probing responses and actively listening as the project unfolds.
Large projects like the Byram Pool add a layer of complexity by having multiple stakeholders — residents, regulatory agencies, politicians, Junior League members, patrons, contributors and even “naysayers,” all of whom have competing and contradictory needs and requirements.
This was best illustrated by responses to one of the design features of the pool — the lack of comfortable sitting space and protection from the sun.
For many users, this was clearly a source of frustration; as someone put it: “How could they have forgotten such an important feature?”
But to assure everyone gets to enjoy the pool’s cooling waters, the design achieves its intended purpose — a way to manage a situation where demand exceeds capacity.
However, not all design “flaws” can be attributed to conflicting needs and requirements. Some are the result of a design that is not aligned with an intended purpose.
Architectural design is built on the premise that a physical structure directly impacts how people think, feel and respond to their environment. It promotes an intended human response or outcome.
In that sense, architecture is both purposeful and psychological. For example, if a client asks me to design a walking path, I can’t come up with an effective design until I know its purpose.
If its aim is to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest amount of time, then a straight line is the appropriate design.
But if the purpose of the walkway is to promote a sense of reverie and calm, a meandering path with resting pools and lots of vegetation is what’s needed.
The notion that “form ever follows function” is credited to American architect Louis Sullivan.
How is this related to the Byram Pool? Timur Slipyi, pool supervisor, explained that the pool’s filtering system was challenged by heavy first-year use compounded by the detrimental effects of users not always showering before entering the pool.
As a result, substances like sand, hair and oil (often from suntan lotions) became embedded in the pool’s filtering system and compromised the integrity of the system.
Indoor heated showers, housed in separate changing areas for men and women, are located in the facility’s 3,160-square-foot concession building adjacent to the entrance to the pool.
One reason many skipped the showers is clearly related to the design. On a busy day, people waited in line to gain entry to the pool. But the shower facilities were built so there is no easy way to use them without the risk of losing one’s place in line (possibly resulting in the potentially uncomfortable accusation of cutting in line).
Effective design is supposed to solve a problem posed by a particular situation. In this case, the design failed to create easy “flow and access” between the entrance area, where people wait in line, and changing areas, where the showers are located.
This lack of organic accessibility can be easily fixed by placing several outdoor showers (similar to the ones near the entry gate building) that people use after (rather than before) they are given their wrist bands that allow them direct access to the pool.
What about the aesthetic aspects of the pool design?
Functional considerations tend to be easy to satisfy because they represent more objective aspects of design — either you want to have an area for swim classes or you don’t.
However, the aesthetics of design tend to be more subjective: Some may prefer a red car over a blue one. Who’s to say one color is better?
Still, architectural designers place a premium on aesthetics, using shapes, spaces, colors and textures to create a sense of order, balance and beauty.
The pool employs many of these elements to create a comfortable and soothing experience, using curved lines to soften the space throughout the complex.
For example, a sitting wall serpentines around the pool terrace, providing a sense of gentle embrace.
Another subtle, but pleasing aesthetic feature is found in the complex’s two buildings. It is related to what architects call “vernacular,” a term that refers to the degree to which a structure reflects local traditions and styles.
Architect Jon Halper said the buildings are grounded in the style of “those found at Greenwich Point,” characterized by “swooping eaves, fieldstone walls and stone piers.”
The design highlights the natural beauty found at Byram Park, an example of what Frank Lloyd Wright termed “organic design.”
The pool and surrounding terrace are bordered by 50-foot-high sheered granite walls (remnants of a rock quarry that once operated on the site) on one side, juxtaposed with panoramic views of Long Island Sound on the other.
The contrast is dramatic. Mature trees and scrubs (pines, maples, oaks and black walnuts) can be seen in the distance behind the pool filtering building.
Adding to the drama of the site is a shifting elevation where the towering quarry cliffs, the pool complex, a grassy field (which is a tidal wetland) and a pocket beach are arranged in step-like fashion that slowly cascades down to the open water with views of surrounding islands, including Long Island.
One way the project serves as what Wright called a “bridge to nature” is by minimizing the visual impact of the state-mandated pool safety fence. Pool fences, although a necessary evil, tend to obstruct views and contribute to a sense of feeling “caged in.”
To solve this, the pool was elevated (for a variety of land use reasons) and is several feet higher than the fence. This allows the user views of Long Island Sound unencumbered by a fenced enclosure.
Additionally, the fence’s dark color helps it blend in with the sheered granite walls that frame the southwest side of the pool.
There is one more aspect of the pool’s design that needs to be mentioned. The large complex requires separate lifeguards for the kiddie pool and splash pad. Greenwich resident Anne Blackburn said her son loved the splash pad and would, “hang out there as long as I would let him.” However, she lamented that because of the lack of lifeguards on duty it was not open the last few times they visited.
Although not a design issue, per se, I hope next season all the amenities in this wonderful complex remain open until its official close on Labor Day weekend.
Laura Kaehler is an award-winning Greenwich architect. Her husband, John Motay, contributed to this article. She may be reached at email@example.com. Her website is kaehlerarchitects.com