Cranbrook Natatorium

Location: Cranbrook Schools, Bloomfield Hills, MI
Date of Completion: 1999
Program: Competitive Swimming Pool
Size: 22,000 SF
Awards: 2001 AIA National Honor Award, 2000 AIANY Architecture Award, 2000 Engineering Society Outstanding Achievement Award for Building Design and Construction
Photographer: Michael Moran

Over a period of twenty-five years, Eliel Saarinen designed the Cranbrook Educational Community. Now a National Historic Landmark, the school selected our studio to design an indoor competitive swimming pool that would integrate quietly with its rich architectural fabric. Set into a steeply-sloped grove of tall evergreens, the natatorium is more of an experience than a building.

Ironspot Norman-size bricks, which are slightly longer than the traditional kind, clad the exterior, allowing the building to relate to surrounding structures while asserting its own identity. Sections of mottled blue- and green-glazed brick enliven the darker blocks. The mortar is raked so the horizontal joints appear in shadow, giving the one-story building a sense of compression and density.

A wall clad in the blue brick sits at the end of a long, green quadrangle designed but not fully finished by Saarinen. The wall completes this court and is bent at the center to acknowledge the axis of green. Behind the wall, an inclined path and stairway leads to an enclosed bridge that connects to existing locker rooms and nearby playing fields.

The pool is designed for competitive meets but also as an aesthetic experience. Interior walls are formed by warm-toned, ground-face concrete blocks; thermal finish gray stone provides a non-slip surface for the pool deck. Blue- and green-glazed tile add color while mahogany, used for walls, railings, and vertical panels, lends warmth. The rich blue ceiling displays a constellation of lights, formed by linear rows interspersed with a more random placement of downlights.

Unlike conventional pools, this building is comfortable without being air-conditioned. Two oculi, both 30 feet in diameter, are equipped with roofs that slide back to reveal the sky. Swimmers like to swim with the oculi open, even in the winter. Sometimes the snow enters.

Twenty-foot-tall mahogany panels open hydraulically to reveal views of the landscape. Air that enters vents out through the oculi, providing ventilation and cooling. Generous viewing windows also visually connect the swimmers with the outdoors, offering a sense of the seasons.

The water is connected to the land and sky; the building breathes.

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