Zion National Park
Alexander C. Kafka/Flickr via Creative Commons license Zion National Park

It is the season to see things bigger than buildings. Summertime is when Americans, despite their ability to go anywhere at any time virtually, hit the road to get some real experiences: mountains, forests, lakes, deserts, and wetlands beckon us away from the grid and the boxes where we live, work, and play, to see structures and spaces at the very edge of human imagination, in both senses of the word.

What draws us above all else is spectacle, and that—no offense to you East Coasters—you’ll find mainly in the West. The canyons, from the Grand one to Bryce, the ranges and valleys around the Tetons, Rockies, and the Coastals are where we can feel most removed from the human scale or our usual sense of purpose. To get to the best views, to feel truly overwhelmed, you have to leave much of your technology behind and hike beyond the crowds. It is a reminder of the limits of both the beauty and the blight that normally surrounds us in our (sub)urban settings, and its very difference should inspire our work as architects.

Tourists in Yellowstone National Park
Powhusku/Flickr via Creative Commons license Tourists in Yellowstone National Park

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park

This last month, I had the pleasure of spending a day in Zion National Park. It was not nearly enough, and I never did get away from those crowds, but still the experience of feeling so small in the face of such grandeur was exhilarating. It was a much needed antidote to my obsession with both architecture and politics.

I will not try to describe the peaks that rise out of the gorge that the Virgin River has cut through the rocks of southern Utah. I took no selfies. I just let the grandeur of it all whisk me away. In truth, I was just as much taken by the sheer violence of the place. Which makes sense: When Edward Burke first defined the notion of the sublime to describe a passage he took through the Alps in the 1750s, his fear of falling off a cliff or being overwhelmed by a storm made him feel just as removed from himself as the beauty of the peaks themselves.

Photos of Zion by the author
Aaron Betsky Photos of Zion by the author
Aaron Betsky

That sense of ecstasy, or standing outside yourself, is what we seek in nature. It is a sensibility that we try to replicate through art or, these days, through chemical or virtual means. Yet there is another sense in which the sublime operates: as something that reminds you not only of your own fragility, but also of the instability of the supposed bedrock of our country. The Virgin River carved its way through something solid over the millennia and, as you survey what the water laid bare, you can see the opposing lines of rocks that were long before lifted up or thrust down in cataclysms of a scale few humans in recorded history have ever experienced.

That movement of plates, those eruptions of volcanoes, those floes of icebergs as tall as skyscrapers, and the floods that must have inspired the tales of global inundation so many cultures tell, have shaped our continent, and give us the America we know today. Our history is violent and profound. That “deep” history, taking place in “geological time,” as the writer John McPhee referred to it in his 1981 book Basin and Range, is usually only visible in less geologically dramatic areas to trained eyes. What makes national parks such as Zion so amazing is that we are confronted with a history of the places that we think we have shaped to our wants and needs, but that reach far beyond us in scale and time.

We should not just build, as Antoine Predock, FAIA, used to be fond of pointing out, on the thin layer of human detritus and loam, but on and with all the layers of our earth.

It should inspire us to rethink our role as architects. Good architects try to respond to a project’s context, shaping their buildings to accept and shed rain and snow, water and heat. They might use materials found on site, transforming them from rough rocks into sheets of veneer or from mud into bricks. But do we ever respond to what lies below and before us, to our larger context? We should not just build, as Antoine Predock, FAIA, used to be fond of pointing out, on the thin layer of human detritus and loam, but on and with all the layers of our Earth. Is there some way to express the instability of the land, its depths, its deep materiality?

The pilgrimages we take to national parks are part of what has made us a community; our family trips to these preserves and the moments of great beauty we have experienced there together have united us. On my hikes, I saw people of all ages and all colors, and I felt I was part of that community—not a political or religious one, not some sort of clan or affinity group, but rather a community of seekers in thrall of the profoundly real and yet also something much bigger than us.

When I bought my annual National Parks pass at the entrance to Zion, the ranger reminded me that it was good anywhere, including the Statue of Liberty (“though you have to pay for the boat,” she added). Which made me realize something: These are not just places where we go to be tourists. They are where we go to see the structures and forms, the images and symbols, that make us American. Together they define us as much as our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.