Go With the Flow

[originally published in The Canadian Architect, August 1999]

The World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall is a vast steel and glass-vaulted tropical microclimate in the middle of that city’s suburbs; a Biosphere III for the age of leisure and consumption replete with beach, palm trees, wavepool and this waterslide complex. Like most of what one sees in malls and theme parks today, these slides are constructed of pre-manufactured, readily available off-the-shelf plastic components. The formidable complexity that is achieved here results not from any will to form, but simply from the intertwining of these standardized, repetitive components into a dense assemblage. The slides weave in and out of one another around a central service tower that supports a heroic plumbing system together with stairs and bridges, effectively comprising a Gordian knot on the scale of one of Piranesi’s carceri. From the gently curved novice run to the steep and straight double-diamond schuss, a tumble in one of these tubes is analogous to the now clichéd, early computer-animated scenes of helpless, lightning-fast voyages through something resembling a black hole in outer space or the intestinal tract of a monster.

The World Waterpark illustrates not only how, in this era of entertainment, form simply follows fun, but also how, urbanistically, the very idea of the theme park is premised precisely upon a dense environmental experience that is idealized and that is designed to compensate for sprawling, empty surroundings. It is interiorized excitement that matters here, not exterior expression. Accordingly, the architecture of the waterslides subscribes to a paradigm that is markedly different from that of the classical tectonic object. Here, any discussion of beauty dependent upon whether the addition or subtraction of an element might spoil its perfection is pre-empted: in a situation where density is everything, more and more is more. Nor do these slides subscribe to the notion of an ‘architecture of resistance’ that imposes austerity measures designed to induce reflection on one’s position in the world: on the contrary, the motto here is clearly “go with the flow.”


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