Beyond Buildings


A View of the Tetons: The Laurence Rockefeller Visitor Center

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Photo: Aaron Betsky


Welcome back. Did you have a nice vacation? Let me tell you about ours. We spent a few days hiking around the Tetons National Park. That landscape will make anything look by humans seem ridiculous, but what I noticed during my first foray into National Park-land in a few years was that the idea that everything we do try to make there has to be imitation log cabin seems finally to be receding. There actually is modern architecture in Jackson Hole, as the wide valley at the base of the Tetons is called, and some of it is quite decent, including not just private homes, but even a small library and an office building designed by Wil Bruder.


What impressed me most was the group of structures and spaces local architect John Carney, FAIA, and landscape architect Mark Hershberger carved out of what used to be the Laurence Rockefeller estate around Phelps Lake. Rockefeller gave this, the family’s last parcel of what used to be tens of thousands of acres of land holdings, to the Parks starting in 2001. In 2007, after his death, the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve opened.


Most of the work was one of un-building, which is my favorite kind of architecture. All of the family’s cabins and lodges were removed, with some of them winding up on a small parcel the family retained further up the valley. Mostly what came back was the landscape of the Teton’s foothills, a mixture of aspen and pine trees, mountain meadows and streams undulating from the picturesque crags to the flat prairie below where the elk and moose (and RVs) roam.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


Photo: Aaron Betsky


The only structures that did appear were a 7,000-square-foot Visitor Center and two bathroom buildings, one by the parking area and one a mile and half up the new trail at the base of Phelps Lake itself. The main building is a wood structure with a sloping roof, but Carney was careful to make the roof float over slats and beams, allowing the walls to slide underneath as a continuous surface that presents an apse to you as you hike up. Around the corner, the building expands into an L-shape, and you enter into the lower wing from a sheltered area.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


What particularly impressed me was the ways in which Carney articulated the primary structure as a lattice work that sketches out the basic forms, while smaller members and wood planes sliding over steel beams fill out the building in a manner that distinguishes it from either the imitation of nature or the evocation of the Alpine architecture that stands for vernacular around this part of the world.

Photo: Aaron Betsky


Photo: Aaron Betsky


The most impressive design happens further up the trail (certainly not in the Muzak-like interior interpretive exhibits), where a curved plank surfaces curves away from the trail to lead you to the side of the creek, while a steel grated surface leads to another point of contemplation. Around the far end of the lake, about four miles into our walk, we encountered a sloping and curving path of wood slats leading over a place where water trickles down into tall grasses. As we neared the bottom of the lake again, we came across a metal grate walkway that led us over wetlands, with simple wood blocks serving as perches from which we could enjoy the views.


The clarity and simplicity of all these elements were designed to maximize the ways in which we could enjoy nature, while also marking our own presence. Instead of hiding or denying the human intrusions, this design celebrated the transformation of nature into a consumable good of the highest order. That is what the best architecture that opens itself up to nature does: it is unabashedly romantic, while reducing itself to the most minimal statement of such a humanizing use of nature.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.