A Bench is a Bench

All too often, our search for authenticity and honesty in architecture finds us misunderstanding these terms. It’s easy to overcomplicate, in our efforts to rethink what is “authentic” or “honest.” And, while these two sought-after qualities are important in building, they are rarely achieved. “It is what it is,” is a much more powerful statement than, “What is it?”

The Kidd Springs Park Pavilion by Mark Wellen, FAIA, of Midland-based Rhotenberry Wellen Architects is refreshing because it doesn’t try to be anything but a park pavilion. The project’s “it” factor lies in its modesty and politeness. Here, nothing has been rethought, over-speculated, or misused. For Wellen, “The pavilion is a place to pause from the walk around the lake, take a seat, and reflect on the surrounding environment.” It does little more, and nothing less, and because of its straightforward simplicity, Kidd Springs Park Pavilion is rather beautiful.

Completed in the fall of 2014 and located in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, the pavilion was commissioned as part of “A Renaissance Plan,” a long-range strategic plan completed in 2002 by the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department. This was immediately followed, in 2003, by a successful bond referendum that provided over $100 million for park capital development, the largest single sum dedicated to such development in Dallas’ history. As part of this award-winning program, 23 new pavilions were commissioned to architects with records of excellence in design.

For Willis Winters, FAIA, Dallas Park and Recreation director, it was Rhotenberry Wellen’s reputation for good design — Winters is particularly fond of Wellen’s Cinco Camp project — as well as its hefty portfolio that inspired him to give the Kidd Springs Park Pavilion commission to the firm. Winters selected mutual friend and colleague Dan Shipley, FAIA, as the associate architect to manage the approval process and construction administration. “Dan’s execution of the design is exactly what I communicated to him in my sketches,” Wellen stated. “His approach to the detailing through our shared pragmatic architectural lens demonstrated that he really understood what we were trying to achieve. I’m truly thankful for having the opportunity to work with Dan.

Kidd Springs Park Pavilion is nestled into the shallow knoll west of the lake, rooted to the earth by a cast-in-place concrete base that serves three functions: It is a retaining wall, a foundation for four steel columns, and a bench for passersby. Initially, the site chosen for the pavilion was further west in the park, but after spending some time at the site, Wellen and Shipley decided that it would be best to locate it along the pathway in order to take advantage of the view of the water and the gardens beyond. Six square concrete bollards, also suitable for sitting or standing on, transition the pathway surrounding the lake into the adjacent covered space of the pavilion.

The cable-stay roof, held up by steel posts, is made of galvanized steel bar-grate, which allows its open span to face the lake. In order to shade the seated area in the late morning and through the afternoon hours, solid corrugated metal decks are supported above the grated ceiling plane on steel purlins. Two steel channel flumes direct rainfall from the corrugated decks to the north and south corners of the pavilion.

“The budget for this was fairly modest, around $150,000,” noted Wellen. “It made sense that the pavilion would explain itself — how it functions, how the roof is supported, and how water flows on and away from it. Most of all, it was fun. It was quick and simple, and I’m just grateful for being able to take part in the program.”

Wellen doesn’t promote a complicated architectural agenda. You can hear it in his voice, in his calm West-Texas drawl. You can see it in his work: Simple and clear projects like Kidd Springs Park Pavilion speak for themselves. The pavilion requires no instruction manual to use it, no white paper to understand its concepts, and little or no construction knowledge to understand how its systems work together to meet the basic needs of a park shelter. In its execution, it is undoubtedly honest, and through its expression of basic architectural principles, considerably authentic. 

Ryan Flener, Assoc. AIA, is an intern architect at Good Fulton & Farrell in Dallas. 

Originally published in January/February 2015 issue of Texas Architect.