Dive right in

For some people, swimming can be almost a religion. But religion itself?

“People don’t go to churches any more,” says Maxime-Alexis Frappier, associate architect with ACDF* Architecture. “They go to public spaces.” 

Thus, his firm’s rationale behind the design of the new Aquatic and Recreational Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, which stresses the “angular, sculptural proceedings” of the cathedral ceiling in the centre’s dual-pooled interior. “We wanted something different, a space where people don’t feel that they’re in a gymnasium, sort of another world. In churches, you were confronted with a nice space – a high ceiling, beautiful windows, quality workmanship. New civic buildings should be as inspiring as in the old days.”

Admittedly, the building’s exterior, which is rather reminiscent of a 1980s high school, lacks that same sort of visual impact. This was a deliberate choice, forced by the project’s tight time constraints and limited budget: the city, in need of a new pool, decided at the last minute to take advantage of the federal government’s 2008 Building Canada Fund. ACDF* Architecture’s Saint-Hyacinthe office won the bid for the project but had only a year and a half for everything, from coming up with the drawings to working through the various levels of the approval process to opening up the centre. 

The architects started with a simple image: an angled slab for the building’s roof, cracked like a chunk of ice at one end, very quick and easy to construct. Inside is where the real action – literally and figuratively – takes place. 

Kids cavort in the large recreational basin filled with imaginative sprinklers and a big, bright-yellow water slide; athletes of all levels train in the adjacent eight-lane, 25-metre competition pool complete with one- and three-metre diving platforms. Over in a secluded corner, the elderly and handicapped exercise in the wheelchair-accessible therapeutic basin. Kinetic activity abounds, and this energy is mirrored, apparently frozen, in the huge ceiling overhead – a ceiling made up of multiple fragments of white, oblique shapes floating in space. Bringing to mind a shelter within an imaginary iceberg, the setting appears glacially cool, majestically calm, cathedral-ish yet secular. 

Practical, too. The Barrisol stretch cloth used for the ceiling’s fractal effect acts as a sound baffle, minimizing normally noisy pool echoes while improving overall acoustics; it also works as a light reflector and amplifier. The centre’s two pools each have their own skylight, angled with the roof and deeply set to ensure overhead light entering the space does not hit the pools directly, which would affect both water temperature and visual safety. 

Safety concerns, particularly for young users of the splash basin, led to the upper level’s glassed-in public and administrative areas being positioned where all eyes can be focused on the pools, as well as the entire space’s open design, with only clear glass barriers separating the two pools from each other and from the front lobby. 

Seeing and being seen makes physical activity a communal event. Competitive swimmers and divers become role models to the younger children; adults there to watch from the overhead café or the 450-seat bleacher section may get inspired to try aquatic fitness on their own; elderly exercisers enjoy being around the kids.

As Frappier says, “You don’t just go there to swim, you go there to exercise, to relate to other people.” 

And relate they do. More than 50,000 people made use of the facilities within the centre’s first month of operation. Only 53,236 people actually live in Saint-Hyacinthe, which means that many of these visitors were from surrounding towns.

Perhaps Frappier is right, and carefully thought-out community centres such as this one have become “the new church of the city.”   cI