Building West End Square During a Global Pandemic

West End Square opened in the heart of the West End Historic District in March 2021. This public park was built in the midst of a global pandemic and national shut-down in 2020. In this guest blog, Isabel Castilla, a principal designer at James Corner Field Operations, reflects her experience leading the design team during this period.

When my team at Field Operations first set out to design West End Square in 2018, we aimed to create a space that appealed to all – to those that live and work in the neighborhood, as well as to those visiting the city for the first time. To that end, we designed a wide variety of spaces within the Square’s small footprint:  benches of various lengths, some for individuals and couples, others that can fit large groups; an outdoor workroom for local office workers to work outside and a game room for after work socializing. Porch swings that provide a relaxing seat underneath the shade of the trellis and a tabled water feature to cool-off while visiting the garden.

The March 2020 COVID-19 shutdown began shortly after the start of the Square’s construction, and great concern set in amongst our team. Would we be able to carry out construction as planned? Would we experience manufacturing delays, soaring costs and material shortages? Most importantly, would the pandemic change the way the design team envisioned this park and how it would be used?

Because our design team was not able to travel from New York to Dallas during the height of the pandemic, we had to get creative and come up with ways to review construction progress from across the country. We received material samples in the mail, that included a piece of concrete paving cut from the site, and reviewed them in my backyard to understand how colors and textures would look alongside the Square’s planned gardens. We had countless FaceTime walks around the construction site to review work in progress and carefully examined photos to evaluate details. While it was an unexpected process, technology greatly facilitated the review of ongoing work and made us feel like we were physically present on-site during construction.

About one year later as the pandemic subsided, I was finally able to visit the new West End Square for the first time – the day it opened to the public. While the space matched what I had anticipated given the numerous photos and videos I reviewed over the months leading to it’s opening, I was completely surprised by how it felt. At Field Operations, we design spaces that are not only visually appealing but ones that are also sensorially stimulating, encouraging visitors to interact with them. This is an aspect of the work that was simply impossible to review remotely.

Simple design strategies such as the subtle topography of the gardens, with their highest elevation at the center where all four paths come together felt so powerful as you walked across the space yet this was completely imperceptible in photos. Sitting on the porch swings overlooking the gardens as a gentle breeze brushed by felt just right. Watching people flock to the worktable immediately after opening, along with their entire WFH computer setup re-affirmed our design intentions for the space.

One of the most memorable moments happened as I experienced the water table’s changing effects for the first time, alongside a family with two young children that happened to be visiting while I was there.  I noticed the children running around the water table splashing their hands in the water as they tried to catch the water bubblers raising above the surface. Suddenly the bubblers turned-off and water mist inundated the space. Both kids stopped, and ran to their parents confused as to what was going on. Soon after, the eldest of the two realized it was safe and ran back to the water table at full speed, running in and out of the mist with the biggest smile on his face. While I knew to expect the mist given, I designed this feature, I never anticipated the sense of wonder and happiness it would bring to a young child as it radically changed the space surrounding us for just a few seconds.

West End Square has become the neighborhood park we envisioned. The pandemic may have led to a very different process than we ever anticipated, but it is reassuring to see how important parks and public spaces like this small Square are in providing a place of relief, a place to connect with nature, and with each other, within dense city centers like Downtown Dallas.