Urban Art Museum

Glass Block & Water Slides At Bay Lake Tower

Glass block is a great building material; I believe that if Louis Kahn would have had the opportunity he would have made his arches out of glass block and not bricks. Don’t believe me check out his unbuilt design for the Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs. When is the last time that you asked glass block, what do you want? Has anyone ever?  Glass block is one of those materials that have only had part of its potential exploited.  Before I die, I’ll have to build a glass archway as a tribute to the deceased master architect, but until then let’s look at some glass block details.

This is the first of two articles on the newly constructed Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, located next to Magic Kingdom in Orlando Florida.  Bay Lake Tower is a newly constructed Disney Vacation Club which was designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. The tower is typical of recently completed Gwathmey & Siegel projects, which means that the experiential quality of the spaces is exceptional, but the detailing and architecture are not so much.  In a very near future post I will analyze and critique the architecture of Bay Lake Tower in greater detail as well as making comparisons to similar projects that Gwathmey & Siegel have completed, studying why their projects are capable of creating experiences and spaces that you will not soon forget, but architectural forms that you wish you could.

Photo Gallery:

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Like many hotels in Orlando, and Florida for that matter, Bay Lake Tower has a large recreational area complete with bamboo garden, plaza, shuffle board, pool and a water slide!  Yes, the water slide was fun, but upon walking the site the morning after our stay I could not help but notice that the water slide was perhaps one of the best architectural features of the hotel.  The final design of the water slide is the result of a collaborative effort between Wing Chao, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, and MSI Design, but before continuing, I must admit that I have a fetish for glass block.  I love the material and have been a believer since I saw my first Richard Meier building, but like ribbon windows and tilt wall construction it has developed a bad reputation for being made ordinary.  When most people think of glass block they think of basements and crappy stairwells. Although glass block has fallen slightly from its pedestal as a respectable building material it still survives as an architectural cult favorite, and is only manufactured in one place in the states, Pittsburgh Corning. Now may I ask you a question? Actually you have no choice in the matter.

When is the last time that you paused to examine the details of a water slide?

Now I know what you are thinking, ‘What?! A water slide, this guy is really going to analyze a water slide?’ Yes, dammit and for good reason.  Anything done poorly or well has value, value in that if you can analyze it and understand why it is successful or not. One can take those lessons learned and apply them as techniques or strategies to solving new problems, regardless of the architectural style or fashion that the project was completed in.

Mickey Mouse Architecture:
The water slide gives homage to Mickey Mouse, and some may frown upon this literal use of Disney’s star character on the facade, but given the context that the site is a baseball’s throw away from Magic Kingdom and that it is a water slide, the use of Mickey’s trademark silhouette is a given and is fully justified.  Sometimes things are so obvious that we try to steer clear from them in design, rather than seeking new techniques or treatments for reinventing what has been done before.  The designer of this slide uses Mickey’s silhouette in two places:  Mickey is patterned into the spiraling glass block at a larger than life scale, which is hardly perceptible in person, and the second place is within the frame of the stair tower lined with neon lights.  The spiral stair and slide also suggest a sense of playfulness which is reminiscent of Mickey Mouse.

The composition of the water slide is also worth discussing as its formal composition adheres nicely to the principles established between the new and existing buildings on the campus.  The formal composition of the water slide consists of a juxtaposition of orthogonal and radial geometries into an assemblage of masses that pull at one another, while at the same time forming a cohesive whole. This juxtaposition also occurs at the larger scale as the angular form of the existing Contemporary Resort designed by Welton Becket contrasts against Gwathmey & Siegel’s curving Bay Lake Tower.  The orthogonal tower ornaments the connection between the dueling spirals.  One must go up to go down and this transformation of potential energy is monumentally exclaimed with a tower element.  The tower weights the composition right at the climax of the experience. You spiral to the top, you spiral to the bottom, spiraling in this project is associated with vertical transformation of the occupant.  The point at which one would hesitate in completing their journey is where the logic and efficiency of an orthogonal tower element is used.  The spiral is an obvious choice to express movement, because a spiral, or in this case the helix  is actually a function of time and motion.

Could I be reading into this too much?  Maybe, but so what if I am.  Have you ever thought of expressing the experiential timeline of a water slide in the form of your building? Maybe you will now.  This is the reason that the analysis of built architecture is so important.

This project is full of many nice clean details, but what left a lasting impression was the detailing of the glass block.  The glass block seems to freely curve and flow like water all around the structure.  At moments there is colored glass block layered against colored glass block.  The material seems to filter the Florida sunlight in a magical way, in a way that you would only expect to be possible at Disney World.  The structure is playful in that you can walk around the slide or through it to access the spiral stair that leads to the top.  While walking through the structure I could not help but notice the beautiful quality of light and how the sky seemed to be captured by the spiraling form of the glass block.  It was then that I noticed that the apparent lightness of the structure, this is because the glass block is actually pulled away from the steel pipe structure.  The anchors are tied back to the steel pipe and add to the character of the structure.  Every detail is bolted and exposed in a manner that creates an underlying order throughout the structure.  At first glance the structure appears as a playful water slide, composed of whimsical shapes in a haphazard manner, but upon closer inspection one notices that the form is very ordered and the detailing is clean, rhythmic, and industrial.

The form and the design concepts implemented in this project would have only remained concepts if not for the execution of the details and realization of the project in its current state.  Regardless, the water slide at Bay Lake Tower is an exceptional project, and is an opportunity that could have easily been missed, but instead it was turned into architecture.  Now I don’t want to oversell the project, don’t make an architectural pilgrimage just to see this building, but if you are ever in Disney World and would like to be pleasantly surprised, you have to visit what is a rare example of an architectural water slide.