Cultural Approaches to Aquatics

Published: Aquatics International magazine – January 2015

By: Paul Graves and Michelle Schwartz

Culture is the byproduct of a group’s many years of continuous development and evolution. It is the collective history from their imaginations and morals shared by a common heritage.

The culture of a group finds expression in aesthetic ways through art, architecture, music, dance, cuisine and literature. The moral dimension, typically via traditional religious affiliation or shared experiences, is expressed in the group’s values, laws, beliefs and philosophy.

Because aquatics is not only a way to recreate but also a life skill, the opportunity to experience it can benefit those of all ages, genders and cultures, even though people around the world relate differently based on their cultural upbringing. So how does culture influence design, and how can design provide for cultural bridging?

Aesthetic culture

The local aesthetic culture is beautifully exploited in many American aquatics centers, such as Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif., with its rustic beauty of nature’s desert appeal, revealing the rhythm of pools and waterfalls, breathtaking mountainside spas, botanical cactus gardens, the rustling breeze through palm trees, and warm Mediterranean architecture. By contrast, the hot mineral pools of Old Town Hot Springs in the heart of Steamboat Springs, Colo., offers a poolscape in symphony with its quiet snow-covered hillsides, streams and eddies.

Cosmopolitan aquatic high style is showcased at the Joule Urban Resort, a 1927 art deco building in downtown Dallas, with a new, jaw-dropping cantilevered pool on the 10th level terrace, where swimmers plunge into this exciting glass-ended pool for a stunning underwater view of the Dallas skyline.

Another case in point is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s new aquatics center that took the idea of a lazy river and kicked it up a notch to create an exciting indoor kayak course, with boulders that can be relocated for varying flow characteristics. Located in the heart of much of eastern United State’s best whitewater rafting, the facility offers a comfortable wintertime training ground.

Moral culture

Recently, the issue of moral culture in aquatic design has emerged, especially where women are not allowed to be seen by men other than their husbands. A new waterpark opened in Afghanistan for Kabul’s growing middle class. However, the facility is only open to men, boys, and young girls (before puberty). Women are not allowed to swim due to Islamic moral culture.

Here in the United States, designers contracted by Rainier Beach, a heavily Islamic-populated Seattle neighborhood, created an aquatics center where Islamic women can swim without the threat of being observed by men. The designers simply incorporated frosting/shading on glass walls to allow women to swim in privacy. Through a program called Women of the World, Seattle Parks and Recreation offers single-gender swim lessons for women who, for cultural reasons, cannot swim in a co-ed environment. During these sessions, windows are covered for privacy and only female instructors are employed.

Facility design considerations include:

  • Separate entrances for men and women
  • Temporary window frosting/shading inside and out
  • Separate pool areas with glazing dividers
  • Female-only staffing for certain sessions

But culture is considered in other contexts, as well. For instance, aquatics is a life skill and, in some cases, a “life and death” skill, as in the cultural fishing communities of Alaska, where the Arctic Slope’s Inupiat Native Tribe relies on whaling as a means of subsistence living. Fishing in Alaskan waters can be treacherous, and drowning prevention can be the difference between life and death. At the North Slope Fishing Village Pools, aquatic designers created indoor pools for the rural fishing villages, so training exercises can be provided and drowning prevention taught to youths.

Facility design considerations include:

  • Specific water temperatures
  • Deep enough to train, but able to stand
  • Deck storage for small practice boats
  • Youth safety classes taught by schools

The Center for the Intrepid, a military rehabilitation center in San Antonio, was designed to help wounded military personnel recover from amputations, burns and other serious injuries. In spring 2005, Arnold Fisher and the board of directors of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes proffered a rehabilitation facility to provide state-of-the-art wounded care. Aquatic designers incorporated a FlowRider (a fun, boxed surfing mechanism usually found at waterparks) as a training device to develop balance, core strength — and excitement — into the rehabilitation process. The CFI’s military culture is prevalent throughout the facility. Active duty Army medical staff, Department of the Army civilians, contract providers, and nine full-time Department of Veteran’s Affairs employees work together to maximize the patients’ rehabilitative potential and facilitate reintegration, whether they remain on active duty or return to civilian life.

Facility design considerations include:

  • FlowRider therapy
  • Classes taught by Army medical staff

Moving forward

Challenges for the future include identifying key determinants among diverse populations that characterize the United States, and to use this information to design and disseminate effective programs. Diversifying patrons can be achieved by offering design considerations that meet cultural needs, and programs that accommodate expanding community groups.

By providing and considering aquatic design for many walks of life, aquatics can break cultural barriers, offer not only aesthetic but also rejuvenating designs, and swimming can be enjoyed by all.

 

Paul Graves is a project director for Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. A licensed engineer in the United States and Canada, he holds a mechanical engineering degree from Western Kentucky University. He is a former competitive swimmer and coach. Michelle Schwartz is a contract writer for Counsilman-Hunsaker. She focuses on research and writing feasibility studies, master plans, strategic plans and marketing narratives.