To Build or Not To Build

A recent cross-country road trip provided me with an amazing interaction with our natural landscape. I was awed by the Bridalveil Falls and the giant Sequoias of Yosemite; the diminutive sense at the vast depth of the Grand Canyon; and connection via the touch of an 800-year-old fingerprint in clay mortar at Mesa Verde. But more importantly, I was amazed at the staggering numbers of humans in all these places! And there I was–one of them.

The brochure I received after waiting in one short line of cars (of three) at the Grand Canyon described the North Rim as “like visiting a National Park from the 1940s.” What does this mean? – I wondered. Probably less paved pathways, guardrails, and bus stops. I imagined it to be rustic–nothing but me and nature facing off against my acute fear of heights. I am not sure what it is like–some readers may have visited. For me, I was at the South Rim. Equally amazing at the North, I am sure, but with a shuttle buses (and shaded bus stops), visitor center, gift shop, outdoor display boards, paved parking lots (with names/numbers), and trusty guard rails at each vista point.

Admittedly, part of me was disappointed. Another slight disappointment was waiting in traffic at Yosemite. Yes, that’s right, traffic INSIDE the national park. At Yosemite’s multipurpose giftshop/grocery store, I was accosted with vacationers getting souvenirs, firewood, food provisions, and the like. It was amazing! I soon realized that Yosemite, although a National Park, is more like a small city stuck in the wilderness of eastern California.

Soon the inevitable question struck an architecture student like me: should we be building buildings everywhere? Does a National Park need a gift shop? Is not the idea of getting out into nature also the idea of leaving everything else behind?

If so, we should not need gift shops and grocery stores in National Parks. I’m sure our grandparents who visited these places did not have such amenities. I know it is convenient. I know there is a need for services such as garages for that ill-fated vacationing family.

But have we gone weak? Visitors of these natural places several decades ago probably had to bring everything with them. And truly nothing stood between them and the physical connection to the natural world.

Even IF I were to agree to having these amenity buildings, what of the design? Mostly I found heavy timber details, log cabin-styling, or rustic field stone finishes existing in the parks–“parkitecture” as someone recently explained to me. While I enjoyed the open rafter fascias and steep roofs, I couldn’t help but wonder if a different design would be better suited to the surroundings.

And so I pose this question to you, dear reader: in what style should our park buildings be built?

1. Parkitecture as it currently stands,

2. A contemporary style, or

3. Something else?

As a corollary, my trip made me appreciate the parks which I have visited so far here in Colorado: I find it is the right mix of sparse population yet not too far from civilization.

One thought on “To Build or Not To Build

  1. There is a bit more variety of architecture than just “parkitecture” (for example, the Mary Coulter buildings at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the CCC structures in many national parks across the country), but yes, these are great questions. It’s very similar to the push and pull of historic imitation vs. building something “sympathetic” to the historic structures.

    If you want to know more about what the National Park System was like in its infancy and the struggle they’ve been having between human visitation and our negative impact on the park and the visitation experience, I highly recommend Ken Burn’s documentary series about the National Parks. If you can believe it, what you saw on your trips was, in some ways, better for the park and the visitors than what your grandparents would have seen.

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