Beautiful & Functional

White Water Center’s Design Inspired by the Kayak

“The architecture at the White Water Center is inspired by the kayak. Similarly, the other buildings in the Boathouse District are inspired by the rowing shell and the art of human propulsion. The kayak is different in its smaller size and agility. Able to be submerged and turned quickly, the kayak embodies water sport acrobatics. When you study the landmark Kayak Building along I-35, you see a kayak abstracted and turning in mid-air. It is the symbol of the Boathouse District.” – Rand Elliott, FAIA, President of Elliott + Associates Architects

A part of Oklahoma City’s ambitious MAPS 3 project, which was approved by the voters in in 2009 and continues through 2021, the Oklahoma River Whitewater Facility was made possible through the vision of an Oklahoma architect, a former Olympic athlete, MAPS leaders, and many others, and was carried out through the collective work of a team of more than 50 representing several professions.

“The original MAPS project, in 1993, marked the reinvigoration of the river, with more water, dams, etc., and created incredible opportunities,” recalled Rand Elliott, president of Elliott + Associates Architects.

Elliott later met with several key players, including Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, and Chesapeake Energy CEO and Chairman Aubrey McClendon, who served on the board of directors of the OKC Boathouse District and OKC Boathouse Foundation, to talk about the proposed Chesapeake Boathouse.

In 2012, Elliott and his architecture firm were selected to design the Riversport Rapids Whitewater Center, a MAPS 3 project within the larger OKC Boathouse District. Calling it a “world-class, world-renowned and world-recognized boathouse district,” Elliott explains that this facility features the first pumped-park design in the world that offers a recreational channel, a competition channel and a combined-flow freestyle channel in the same whitewater venue.

Aiding Elliott in the design of Riversport Rapids were Elliott + Associates architects Mike Mays, Cody Pistulka and Miho Kolliopoulos, along with Scott Shipley, a noted American kayaker and president of S20 Design, a company that specializes in whitewater and engineering design. Shipley, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, is veteran of three Olympic Games (1992, 1996 and 2000) and holder of four world titles.

To complete the water courses, buildings and other structures, expertise in numerous specialties was required, and so a 50-plus-member team was created that included a general contractor; hydrologists; civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers; and landscape architects.

The project, completed in April, included a more than 16,300-square-foot Main Building, housing offices, the ticketing office, retail space, and a bar and dining facilities; an over 2,000-square-foot Raft Building, housing rafts and equipment (such as life jackets and paddles); the almost 1,350-foot landmark Kayak Building–and 16 acres of water courses.

The Main Building features a sloping roof and three large overhead doors that may be opened as desired. The open-shell interior features fans for warm days and open bars facing north, so that patrons can “just hang out and enjoy refreshments,” Elliott said.

The Kayak Building, visible from both I-35-I-40, “is the landmark that draws visitors,” Elliott said, noting that this is where the Olympic-trained kayakers come to train. It also is home of the Oklahoma State University Swift Water Training Facility, where classes are offered for first responders to help prepare them for situations such as rescues during floods.

Elliott notes that in designing the $45.2 million whitewater rafting and kayaking center, they worked to create beautiful and functional spaces to accommodate spectators (one in four visitors never go into the water, he says) as well as serious athletes, weekend warriors and amateurs of all ages seeking thrills and adventure. A brief training session/orientation is provided to those wishing to participate in either the beginners’ or expert whitewater rapids offerings; training sessions also are available for those interested in learning the more difficult techniques required in kayaking.

Architect Mike Mays says in designing the center, they always kept the spectators in mind as well as water sports enthusiasts. They used the earth displayed in constructing the water channels to build a mound, on which they created a terrace that is ideal for viewing the water courses, as well as for relaxing, picnicking and listening to concerts on the adjacent Rotary Point Pavilion.

Both Elliott and Mays invite members of the public who have not yet visited to come out and see for themselves all the district has to offer.