Decoding Design

Glacier Walk wins the cultural category for future projects at WAF

Posting in Architecture

The Glacier Discovery Walk juts from the natural landscape of the Columbia Icefields at Canada's Jasper National Park, acting as a gateway to the surrounding environment.

The best design for Future Projects in the Cultural category at this year's World Architecture Festival wasn't a building at all-- it was an experience.

The Glacier Discovery Walk, designed by Sturgess Architecture in Calgary is an extension from the natural landscape of the Columbia Icefields at Canada's Jasper National Park. Located along an impressive cliff that looks over the glacier, the project's geometric and material drama are meant to act as a gateway to the surrounding environment.

According to the WAF, the inspiration for the Discovery Walk was the complex nature of the site's cultural and physical landscape, and the ecological setting motivated the designers to take a sustainable approach to construction.

All exposed, non-horizontal surfaces are made of weathering steel, to match the color of nearby rock. The thrust-fault movement in the area has created a natural geometric and fractal landscape that the architects emulate in their design.

Visitors to the Discovery Walk will not find a destination, but instead a journey, says the firm.

The journey will begin under a canopy that is built into a stone wall near the gorge, defined under the competition guidelines as the Receiving Area.

The trail cuts into native bedrock as it weaves closer to the Outlook area, with interactive stations where visitors can learn about the natural and cultural history of the area.

According to the designers, these stations have been placed specifically to hide and expose the escarpment so that the guests can catch glimpses of their destination along the way. About halfway down the path, the trail slopes upward.

The Discovery Vista, the destination, projects from the mountainside to allow the visitors to "experience the grandeur" of the glacier below.

The broken geometry of the platform is highlighted by a cable structure that holds up the 30 meter-long glass walkway. Potentially terrifying, the glass surface allows the visitor to actually, physically, experience the depth and scale of the glacier field.

If the view is not enough to grasp the scale of the glacier or put its massiveness into perspective, the distance from the platform to the valley floor it overlooks is directly proportional to the thickness of the Columbia Icefield.

The judges were clearly impressed. According to the WAF, the judges said "'The jury was unanimous. This is a simple, elegant yet hignly emotional project. It is a project that bridges to the natural in a way that is apart yet within nature"

The also commented on the design's wider importance: "It is a critical object presenting the drama of global warming from an ethereal perch - watching as the glacier vanishes. It uses Corten steel cutting into the flank of the mountain and slowly bleeding."

The Glacier Discovery Walk is expected to open in the summer of 2012.

Images: WAF

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure