The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center offers an authentic experience of nature in the pristine, iconic Grand Teton National Parka unique Western landscape. The strategic siting of paths, courtyard, and building and terrace structure the sequence of visitor experience for a visceral immersion in the landscape. A strong design framework and team collaboration created a site that remains as wild as its surroundings, and captivates visitors with the wonder and ecological complexity of the Teton wilderness.
CONTEXT AND VISION
Located near Moose, Wyoming on the parks southern entry, the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center is poised between two dramatic and powerful forces: the Snake River and Teton Mountains. The 12-acre site lies at the edge of a sagebrush meadow within a riparian forest of aspen, cottonwood, and spruce. Former flooding created subtle, undulating landforms that fan out through the site. Native vegetation reveals, frames, or blocks views of the Teton Range. Bands of aspen, cottonwood and spruce trees create zones with distinct character, sensory quality, and ecological function.
The layered characteristics of the sites topography, views, vegetation and dynamic seasonal changes are critical issues for site design, with sequence of movement, methodologies for site interventions, snow management, and amenities for human comfort through the seasons. The sites ecological context and dramatic climatic variation is the basis for design and the landscape architects intent to galvanize the visitors experience of place.
The landscape architects, architects, and the client group established design principles early in the process. Each proposed action was tested against these principles:
The wildness of this landscape will be central to the experience: the experience will not be domesticated.
The sequence of experiences will stimulate the reptile and cerebral brain of the visitor.
Sustainability will be applied at a fundamental level– everything which is here will be used.
The client and design teams mission of conservation, preservation, and stewardship critically shaped the design process. The design employs site improvements that are light on the land and strategic in their execution. Every gesture is minimal, graceful, and intended to amplify the power of the landscape. The site design integrates local ecological systems and seasonal variations. The design invites visitors to leave the mundane and fully immerse themselves in the power of the surroundings. The existing site structure, scale, sensory quality, and indigenous materials are preserved and amplified so visitors can fully appreciate the power and wonder of this particular place.
The landscape architects role was pivotal in the success of the project, from site selection through construction. The landscape architects intention was to create an emotionally evocative experience for a family staying for 45 minutes as well as mountaineers traveling deep into the park.
The site plan formalizes the ritual of arrival and travel, transporting people from the mundane to an experience that is primal, intimate, and of the moment. The carefully considered sequence moves visitors through multiple ecosystems with a progression of stunning views from different vantage points. The existing topography and vegetation are the organizing framework for the circulation system. After arriving at the parking lot, the visitor moves away from views of the Tetons, through a thick spruce and cottonwood forest. The distance between the parking lots and the Visitor Center is intentional, giving visitors the opportunity to engage in the landscape before entering the building. The level paths are chip-and-seal asphalt in a color similar to the site soils, so they visually recede. Snowmelt heating in the pavement allows a clear path from the drop-off and parking. Long and short views from the path reveal regional landmarks, and orient the visitor to the Jackson Hole valley.
As visitors approach the building, a courtyard is revealed. The courtyard is minimal and serene, an intimate respite in the vast landscape. The space is embraced on three sides by seating stairs and a covered portico that accommodate gatherings and park orientations. The fourth side opens to a sage meadow framed by large spruce trees. The Visitor Centers roof lifts upward and away from the courtyard, its jagged peaks referencing the Tetons. Entrance through the wood portico reveals a soaring view across the meadow to the moraines and the ever-changing mountain range beyond. Site development occurs outside of the direct view of the prominent peaks from the Visitor Center. A terrace invites visitors to view the mountains from the edge of the aromatic sagebrush. The sequence of courtyard, building, and terrace binds the visitor with the place, and prepares them for the powerful experience of the valley and Teton Range.
Minimal interventions allow the wilderness to predominate and the human world to recede. Human trappings such as signage are intentionally limited. Lighting creates intermittent pools of soft ground light under the profoundly dark sky. Curbs are eliminated. Stormwater and snowmelt feed the groundwater through micro-drainages. The improvements in the landscape are placed with a light and quiet signature to bring the visceral, untamed quality of the park into the built environment. A genuine experience of place is immediately accessible to each visitor.
SUSTAINABLE SITE APPROACHES
The environmentally sustainable site design enhances the inherent character of the place, takes advantage of all site resources, lessens maintenance and operations costs, and improves the landscape function.
All landscape improvements came from the site. The site itself yielded all of the soil, mulch and plant material used in the project. Wood debris was reused as mulch. Duff and topsoil with their native seed bank were salvaged and reused. Plants were grown from site seeds, cuttings, or transplants to maintain the genetic purity of this pristine landscape, and to assure survival in the harsh climate.
The existing site was preserved through strictly controlled construction access. Topography directs surface water flow to existing drainages for water quality treatment and groundwater recharge. The comprehensive coordination of utilities mediates site impact to render them imperceptible. The healthy landscape is shaped to the natural conditions of the site, and will be self-sustaining once established. The project goals of conservation and stewardship are achieved. The project has become a model of landscape regeneration, ecological immersion, and careful human use.