Leisure ice facilities promise to transform the world of rectangular rinks, much as leisure pools have redefined recreational swimming.

Geologists have long known that the earth's climate has continuously shifted between periods of warm tropical environments and the inevitable ice ages. Sometimes the movement between these two extremes is long and drawn out, while at other times it is quick and dramatic.

Architects involved in the planning and design of recreation facilities have found themselves confronted in recent years with the latter circumstance-a rapidly emerging modern ice age, driven by a new generation of patrons and urged on by a quick-to-react private sector.

The past two decades have seen the ongoing development of warm-environment recreation facilities, exemplified by the constantly evolving leisure aquatic facility. Twenty years ago, water was typically packaged in rectangular shapes, 25 yards or meters long by four or six lanes wide. These pools were easy to build, even easier to design and, compared to outdoor beaches, the easiest water environment to supervise. Amenities, usually rectangular in shape, could be added; these included diving tanks, tot pools and whirlpools. The designers of these facilities assumed that programming would typically involve swimming lessons, competitions and open swims.

What was good for the competitionoriented user, went the theory, could also accommodate the casual user. However, few recent examples exist of aquatic facilities that have, as their main attraction, a rectangular pool. While some communities have made the commitment to developing a competitive natatorium, more aquatic facilities have as their prime attraction a leisure pool, the fundamental elements of which are an abandonment of the rigid structure and programming of the older tank-type pool, and a move toward a free-form, dynamic, interactive and non-threatening venue. It is hardly surprising that, of all the recreation facilities being designed and used nowadays, the leisure aquatic center is the most popular across every age group.

As we enter a new millennium, we are discovering a new and virtually unprecedented alternative to this tropically themed environment-the indoor winter wonderland.

In the late '80s and early '90s, the conception of ice facilities as rectangular sheets of ice began to be challenged in the United Kingdom. It was perhaps the lack of developed hockey or figure skating programs there that led to designers' ability to see beyond the 200-foot-long hockey rink (complete with the mandatory wall of white plastic around it). This, coupled with the popularity and profitability of public or open skating sessions, led a handful of facility owners to abandon the traditional ice-rink model.

Three related developments-a general need for major multipurpose facilities, significant funding opportunities through national lotteries and specific clients who were open to looking at alternative designs-helped jump-start the creation of spectacular nontraditional skating venues in the U.K. Working with FaulknerBrowns, an architectural firm located in northern England, the communities of Doncaster (also in northern England) and Motherwell (in the Glasgow region of Scotland) capitalized on this opportunity. In both instances, the recreation facility included an aquatic center and a leisure ice facility.

The Aquatec in Motherwell is a compact facility with a small aquatic center and a similarly sized leisure ice pad. It opened in October 1989, at a cost of $6 million. The most surprising aspect of the ice pad is that the majority of space is dedicated to skating corridors, rather than a large programmable ice surface. Skaters enter via a large lobby where they rent skates (the majority of skaters in the U.K. rent rather than own skates), lace up and proceed to the ice surface. Skaters are immediately given the option of skating in a large loop or skating down ice ramps to the only large skating surface. These ramps have a very gentle slope, and take the skater down a vertical drop of approximately 3 feet.

Visually, the Motherwell leisure ice surface has a number of notable features that will surprise and excite the first-time user. The space has an architecturally sophisticated ambience that is enhanced than a large programmable ice surface. Skaters enter via a large lobby where they rent skates (the majority of skaters in the U.K. rent rather than own skates), lace up and proceed to the ice surface. Skaters are immediately given the option of skating in a large loop or skating down ice ramps to the only large skating surface. These ramps have a very gentle slope, and take the skater down a vertical drop of approximately 3 feet.

Visually, the Motherwell leisure ice surface has a number of notable features that will surprise and excite the first-time user. The space has an architecturally sophisticated ambience that is enhanced by large, living coniferous trees; a fireplace accessible only by skaters and located directly off one of the skating corridors; and originally, a large series of skylights above. Unfortunately, these were blocked out a few years later with the installation of a low-emissivity ceiling. Electronic and theme enhancements that complete the overall effect include snowfall machines, a mirror ball and a dynamic theater/disco lighting system.

The Dome in Doncaster was built at roughly the same time as the Aquatec but is significantly larger, with a total area of 162,500 square feet. It is one of the U.K.'s top-five leisure attractions, and includes, in addition to the leisure ice facility, a six-pool aquatic center, a weight and fitness area, squash courts, a 2,000-seat auditorium/events hall and a major conference/exhibition space. The configuration of the leisure ice in the Dome is more straightforward than the facility in Motherwell, appearing less interesting but providing for a more wide-open or unstructured experience for the skater. The layout is simply two ovals that almost touch, except that they are at different elevations. Ice ramps similar to those in the Motherwell design connect the two levels of skating surfaces.

It also features snowfall machines, fog machines, a disc-jockey station between the two ice surfaces, mirror balls, strip lighting imbedded into the ice at strategic locations and a video wall. While the architectural ambience of the Dome is (in this writer's opinion) less appealing than the Aquatec, the quality of experience for the skater is more exciting and less congested. In comparing the Dome with the Aquatec, one appreciates the Dome's wider range of programming options. The Dome, with its two ice surfaces, allows for separate programs for the upper and lower surfaces. While each of these "ponds" is relatively small, they can successfully be used for entry-level hockey (peewee-style hockey that does not require dashers) and figure skating programs. This type of programming is currently not offered at these facilities, but would certainly be part of the operating philosophy had they been built in North America.

The most recent U.K. leisure ice facility is the Riverside Centre in Greenock, Scotland (again, just outside Glasgow). This facility, which was completed in the fall of 1997, combines two extremes in ice facility design. One portion of the rink area is a swirling maze of ramping skate paths, with very little flat surface for freeskating. Directly adjacent to the leisure ice area is a curling rink with four sheets of ice. Skaters are able to skate from the "energetic" leisure side to the curling side through two openings in the dividing wall.

What is surprising about this combination is that curling ice and skating ice are quite different-indeed, curling ice is pebbled through a special spray process and thus would not offer a smooth ride to a skater-and most curlers would rebel against the notion of skaters on "their" playing surface. This is particularly true in Scotland, the birthplace of curling and a continual world power in the sport. The design rationale for including curling sheets in a skater's environment, while undoubtedly a questionable call from curlers' perspective, does provide a large surface of ice that can be programmed for a number of activities. In spite of the inclusion of four curling sheets, curling will undoubtedly be the least successful program offered in the facility, and it will not be surprising if, in a few years, curling is deleted from the schedule of events at the Riverside Centre. The concept of leisure ice crossed the English Channel in 1998 with the opening of the Sportiom in ës-Hertogenbosch in Holland, also designed by FaulknerBrowns. As with its U.K. forebears, the Sportiom combines leisure water and leisure ice. It also includes an Olympic ice hockey sheet adjacent to the leisure pad.

Unlike its British predecessors, though, the Sportiom lacks the animation of dynamic theater lighting, fireplaces, snowfall machines and other enhancements. In their place are static theme elements (rock walls and tunnels), incorporated by its operator, that are so extensive that they overwhelm the facility's simple, elegant and refined architecture. Unfortunately, the public has seemed disappointed in this unrestrained treatment, cutting into the facility's success as a destination venue.

Meanwhile, North America has remained almost totally unaware of the kind of leisure ice facilities described here. The versions in the New World have tended to be mall rinks or other undersized ice sheets, and as a whole have continued the tradition of a rectangular form with the mandatory rink boards. At about the same time that the Dome and Aquatec were being designed, architects in North America were beginning to experiment with some small steps away from the traditional hockey rink. However, the traditional NHL rink was always the major ice component, with the attached leisure ice pad playing a purely secondary role.

But now, a true community leisure ice facility is taking shape in North America. Located in Calgary, the Westside Recreation Complex will include a leisure pool, running track, gymnasium, rock climbing area, NHL rink and leisure ice pad. When it opens in early 2001, Westside will be the first facility on the continent that incorporates the sloped ice found in European models, but does so with the intent of maximizing the programming potential.

There are three distinct ice surfaces making up the leisure component, including a lower pond, an upper pond (connected to the lower one with ramped ice), and a third pond simulating an oldfashioned backyard rink. The lower pond is geared mostly to young skaters, and is equipped with snowfall machines, a fireplace and fog machines. The upper pond is more electronic in character, and is designed to attract energetic teenagers - acting, in effect, as a youth center. This zone includes a large video screen, animated theatrical lighting, a disc-jockey station and its own fireplace. The third pond, in the spirit of the backyard rink, will be edged with low snowbanks, rather than dasherboards (none of the three areas include dashers, in fact).

Planned programming for Westside was central to the design of the leisure ice. The "backyard" pond will be used primarily for entry-level hockey and figure skating programs. The upper and lower ponds can be programmed separately or as a unit, and will be used primarily for public skating sessions. For special public skating events, all three zones can be programmed as a single unit, and for very special events, the leisure components and NHL pad can be used as a single zone. All ice surfaces in this project are connected, and a skater does not have to leave the ice to move throughout the facility. This major initiative toward leisure ice is the result of the community's determination to create a leisure and active-wellness center, rather than a traditional sports and recreation facility. The complex was designed by Ken Hutchinson Architects, with the arena and leisure ice designed by PBK Architects.

The new generation of leisure ice facilities is but the tip of the iceberg in recreation and leisure experiences. A number of new North American facilities are under construction, or being designed, that will alter forever the way we look at, experience and market traditional winter- style activities. These are megastructures, and their development illustrates the attractiveness of leisure-oriented winter sports and the confidence of the private sector in investing significant funds to bring these experiences to urban locations (usually with no outdoor winter facilities within a reasonable traveling distance). It needs to be noted that, as with leisure ice facilities, these larger structures are oriented around broadbased programming that also includes leisure aquatic components. Due to open this month, XSCAPE (also designed by FaulknerBrowns) is the largest European example. Located in Milton Keynes (a "new city" created in Buckinghamshire, England) and costing in excess of $160 million, this commercial leisure development will contain more than 550,000 square feet of space devoted to an indoor snow sports center, a 16-screen cinema, a bowling and family entertainment center, a health and fitness club, and an extensive range of restaurants, bars and life-style shopping. The snow-sports center will provide facilities for skiers, snowboarders and tobogganers. The indoor ski surface runs 560 feet long by 200 feet wide, utilizing 1,500 tons of snow. The development of specially designed snow guns will allow the operators to select and vary the characteristics of the snow for each slope.

The most spectacular indoor winter facility planned for North America is the Gotcha Glacier, located at Sportstown in Anaheim, Calif.

The facility, designed by The Glacier of Anaheim LLC (its for-profit developer), totals 435,000 square feet and is expected to cost $100 million when it opens in the spring of 2002. Although smaller than XSCAPE, Gotcha Glacier will have a higher percentage of area dedicated to sports and activity programming. Its features will include the largest indoor rock climbing surface in North America; a 3.5-acre snow run with a 300-foot-long competition halfpipe, sanctioned for professional snowboarding competitions; an NHL-size (85-by-200-foot) ice rink; a snow play and tobogganing area; an indoor surf and wave-pool waterpark accommodating surfing and bodyboarding; a skateboard, inline and BMX freestyle park; and a skydiving chamber.

The Gotcha Glacier's largest space will be the snow room, which runs 550 feet long by 250 feet wide. The central portion will be a 300-foot-long snowboarding halfpipe, with full-length ski runs on either side. The steeper of the ski runs will have a slope of 17 percent, while the shallower beginner's run will vary from a 12 percent slope at the top to 4 percent at the bottom.

The facility's California location is resulting in particular attention paid to snowboarding and the provision for a world-class halfpipe. Approximately 80 percent of ski facilities in the state are also used by snowboarders, a preference that stems from the popularity of surfing as a traditional summertime activity. Gotcha Glacier has capitalized on this with the inclusion of an indoor surf and wave pool in addition to the winter-oriented snowboard area.

The development of nontraditional ice venues represents a significant departure from the way skating has tended to be serviced in the North American market. Facilities developed with both leisure and traditional ice components will expand the diversity of programs, and deliver these to a larger portion of the general public. The emergence in both North America and Europe of indoor winter sports venues will undoubtedly change forever the notion of recreation, and do it in a way that is more exciting for users and more profitable for operators.

A decade ago no one could have possibly imagined the types of winter-oriented indoor facilities that are currently on the drawing boards or under construction. It is particularly exciting to note that the locations of these megafacilities are not in traditional winter destinations. In particular, the development of XSCAPE in central England is a clear demonstration that a tradition or heritage of winter sports is not a factor in attracting new users. We are, it seems, at the threshold of a new ice age, and the reception is anything but chilly.