How can we get the most out of the Matchbox? A commentary on functionality and aesthetics

Photo by Angelina Abitino
Photo by Angelina Abitino

CVMNEXT was hired to contract the “Matchbox” gym and multipurpose facility which opens its doors to the community next week. It’s fashionable. The art of the building itself, the skeleton, is not, however, quite as interesting as the motivations behind the insides.

Stepping onto any stationary bicycle in Swarthmore’s Matchbox, the miraculous masterpiece of a touchscreen, like the space itself, awaits an input: Bluetooth, Courses, Workouts, Videos, TV, Mobile, Apps and Internet; TV options include “Best of Youtube,” Buzzfeed, ESPN Sportscenter; a simulation mode offers the stationary cyclist the option of cycling on French roads. There is even a “Hybrid mode,” a button which you can even press.

“By exercising at a high enough speed and level,” responds the screen, “you significantly reduce the amount of electricity required to power this equipment.”

Zoom out. Makes sense.

“Yeah,” agreed a Life Fitness treadmill repairman, who was laying down next to the treadmill like a car mechanic when I spoke to him, “this model is definitely the best, highest quality, because, you know, the screens.”

He shifted his weight to his other leg in order to fasten the covering back onto the belt wheel.

“Yeah, the first things to give way are generally the belt wheels, or the screens, you know, usually, at least from what I’ve seen, because they’re constantly being updated; so they’ll bug out sometimes as a result of that; but they’re pretty awesome.”

Zoom out.

“Yeah, so everything here is Hammer Strength/Life Fitness,” stated Eric Hoffman, Swarthmore College’s Strength and Conditioning Coach, the individual responsible for a large part of what the Swarthmore community will or will not experience in the Matchbox over the course of this school year. “That’s one company, which is really nice since it makes servicing and repairs that much easier. Everything is five-year warrantied, unlimited.”

Zoom out.

“Of course,” continued Hoffman, who has a master’s degree in administration and sport management and is a certified USA weightlifting coach, “the technology that they offer is so much better than anybody else’s.”

“I can sit here and from a manager’s standpoint, I have access to every machine upstairs. So I can see exactly how many miles are on every treadmill, which are being used more, which are being used less. I can jump the machine around the facility so that it gets equal use, equal wear and tear. Maybe, for example, the one gets used every day, or the third one never gets used; so I can on here— ”

Zoom out as he points at the bar graphs of data being projected into his laptop from the screens on top of the cardio machines.

“— and just swap them around. I know exactly what’s happening. I can customize the screens, send messages. If you have Thanksgiving coming up, I can put the schedule up for everyone. You know, instead of asking everyone in the dark, they can do that. Everything that goes up on those screens I can manage on my computer, which is something that is really unique.”

Zoom out. Or in.

“It started out,” reminisced Hoffman in his consistently intense tone, “with meetings with the architect. We knew what the footprint would be, but not what the layout of the machines would be. We went back and forth with the architect concerning what we need, why we need it, how we need it to be done. Ultimately they agreed with me on the main floor, specifically: that a wide open plan is best. No walls. If you go upstairs, there’s nothing up there. Pillars, and that’s it. We have unlimited layout options based on that. We were able to max out the square footage, which was really important.”

Zoom out.

“It was a question of functionality: how can we get the most function, the most fitness equipment, the most everything in this building.”

Zoom in.

“And so the layout we settled on, was because of that. Once we had a layout, I went to the sales guy and said, ‘Let’s talk equipment selection, let’s talk about layouts. I talked with all the big strength-training companies. Lifestyle was the one which made the most sense for us. Basically it was the salesman and myself, and we worked through — I don’t think dozens of layouts is an understatement.”

“That went through. I even put together kind of a ‘dream’ facility. Obviously it got shot down. We had budget restraints, but finally we settled on what you see here.”

Speaking in his office on the basement level, we began discussing the rationale of the main floor’s composition as an artist and a critic might discuss a painting.

“What we did upstairs flows very naturally. You have cardio, you have a free weight area, and you have a circuit training area. There are gyms that are crazy, you know, for one exercise I’m over here, and now, I’m going to go over here and do another. So everything is grouped by keeping in mind how a program is supposed to be designed.”

Zoom out.

“Everything has a flow to it.”

“So I said, ‘How can I get the most PURPOSE out of this space?’ We want to set it up there so that when you walk in on the main floor, you know what you want. You know: you can say, ‘Hey, I want to do Selectorize; so here’s a roller selectorize; you know, ‘Hey I want to do some basic strength training, so that back corner has all the essentials I need.’ Say: ‘I want to do a circuit, you know, so that Synergy 360 piece in the corner has everything I need. I want to olympic/power-lifting: downstairs.”

“Here,” reiterated Hoffman, pointing at the weight-lifting set-ups on the lower level which are visible from the sidewalk to the old gym and stand intimidatingly before Swarthmore College logos printed onto the rubber floor, “everything is dynamic, deliberate and accessible.”

I couldn’t tell if he was talking about the College or the Matchbox.

“That was a thing that we talked about when we struggled with equipment choices and lay-outs. I was talking with the salesman: ‘You know, I’m going to have big nineteen year old athletes who want to ‘bang’ and ‘clang’ and make lots of noise and they should be able to do that. But on the same side, I’m going to have a seventy-five year old professor emeritus who’s going to want to casually the recumbent bike; and we need to make it equally comfortable for both.”

“The third floor is what we call: Multipurpose Programmable Space. It’s a hardwood floor essentially, recycled wood from the squash courts, so they were able to repurpose the flooring, which is really neat. The idea with that is: there’s nothing up there. And that’s on purpose. It’s a wide open ‘hardwood.’ And there’s a giant storage closet, full of tables and chairs for two-hundred people. We can go from a group-exercise class, speed and agility training, a seminar of some sort; and then because it’s a hard wood we can roll-out tables and do a dinner. The whole idea was that we had to have variety, we had to have a lot of moving parts. In the planning process, it caused a lot of headaches. I can’t think of a Health or Wellness activity you couldn’t do here.”

“Again,” emphasized Hoffman, “how can we get the most out of this building?”

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