El Paso Knothole

Southwest University Park is home to the El Paso Chihuahuas, a Triple-A baseball team affiliated with the San Diego Padres. The newest and, some say, the finest ballpark in the minor leagues, it opened this April after a breakneck 11-month construction phase. In addition to designing a top-notch baseball facility, the park’s architect, the Kansas City-based Populous, as well as the city of El Paso itself, wanted the building to reach out and engage the community, both to draw fans to the game and to spur the revitalization of El Paso’s downtown. This is most notably achieved at the ballpark’s northernmost point, at the corner of West Mis-souri Avenue and North Santa Fe Street. 

Here, at the site of a children’s playground that borders the outfield, the city commissioned a public artwork and, as the process evolved, requested a fence. This gave the commission’s winner — Los Angeles–based Ball-Nogues Studio — some misgivings. “The project was a public art commission, and we were free to do whatever we wanted to do, though later on they did ask that we make it a functional fence,” said studio principal Benjamin Ball. “Function isn’t something that should enter into an art-making process. I think that is where the line is drawn between art and design. But we agreed to do it, to make a fence.” The concept centers on the idea of providing glimpses of the action on the field to passersby on the street.

In developing an aesthetic for the project, Ball-Nogues looked to the rich history of ballparks and their traditional interurban environs. “We tried to riff on the idea of a knothole in a fence and this mythic image of kids looking through fences into ballparks,” said Ball. “We changed the scale of the fence, making it one colossal picket turned on its side and wrapped around the stadium, with knotholes that are big enough for many people to view the game.” 

Working in Rhino and Grasshopper, the designers developed a pattern derived from wood grain and the radial lines found around 

knotholes. Once they refined a pattern they liked, they laid it over 212 aluminum extrusions, which make up the structure of the fence. The extrusions that Ball-Nogues designed were manufactured by Sapa, the world’s largest aluminum extrusion manufacturer. The design of the extrusions resembles that of a heat sink. They feature vertical fins that, when milled down, allow light and views to pass through. Using digital files, Ball-Nogues milled the pattern on each individual extrusion using CNC machines at the Neal Feay Company of Goleta, Calif. After milling, the extrusions were sandblasted and anodized. 

On site, workers bolted the extrusions together with custom nesting connections designed by Ball-Nogues. Intermittently, the extrusions bolt at the base to a mounting shoe, which is welded into a custom steel channel embedded in a low masonry wall. From this sturdy base, the fence cantilevers.

Overall, Not Whole Fence, as the installation is called, stands 10 ft high, measures 126 ft across, and is a little more than 5 in deep. It tapers to a point at its western end, which, along with the very legible wood grain pattern — created with alternating opaque and transparent sections — clearly communicates the fence picket inspiration. The knotholes themselves form deep divots in the surface and do indeed function as windows into the park, the use of which is aided by a raised platform right on the sidewalk. 

Aaron Seward is managing and Southwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. 

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of the Texas Architect