They say there is no smarter businessman than one that can sell you something you can already get for free. If this is the case, that must put Michael Hannan – President of Brewster Travel Canada – up there with the CEOs of most major bottled water companies of the world. However, rather than offering you a refreshing dose of H2O wrapped in plastic, Hannan is selling you something substantially less tangible but infinitely more inspiring: The View.
This time last year, The Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park was officially opened, allowing visitors to step out onto a sweeping glass-floored observation deck that cantilevers 100 feet out over the Sunwapta Valley.
The setting, near the Columbia Icefield in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, is nothing short of breathtaking – soaring, snow capped mountains surround the rocky canyon floor, with the waters of the Sunwapta being fed by several waterfalls as it weaves its way along the valley towards the Athabasca River.
Far above, slabs of structural glass now separate a steady stream of tourists’ feet from this remarkable landscape 900 feet below: a sanitized environment has been created to give visitors a quick thrill, akin to the glass floor in the CN Tower, a couple of thousand miles east in Toronto. The key difference between the two, of course, is that the CN Tower exists within a purely urban environment, while the vista of the Sunwapta Valley was gloriously untouched by this invasive species of tourism architecture … until now.
In fairness to the architects and engineers behind this precarious structure, the design and delivery of the walkway has some merit. Lead consultants RJC buried steel rods – each possessing enough strength to hang 80 pickup trucks –50 feet down into the cliff face, using the solidity of the rock itself to create the dramatic cantilever in a similar manner to the branches of a huge tree. Sturgess Architecture selected Corten steel as the primary external material, its weathering characteristics meaning that no paints or protective sprays would be necessary for future maintenance.
However, this cursory nod to "low-impact" design cannot hide the fact that the Skywalk is an undeniably belligerent architectural stunt. The design was supposedly imagined as "an extension to the site’s natural surroundings rather than an obtrusion," but the result belies these wishful words. This stunning, panoramic outlook was previously uninterrupted and completely free to people pulling over at the side of the highway, so where is the logic in creating such an obstructive structure, providing the very same view just a few feet further into the valley? The answer is simple: a $24.95 entry ticket.
Brewster has predicted that 230,000 visitors will choose to traverse their skywalk within the first year, and at full price, this would equate to a cool $5.75 million. The total construction cost of the Skywalk came to $21 million, so the attraction should comfortably pay for itself within four years. After this, the private company will possess a healthy cash cow in the midst of a public National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site: suddenly, the implications of this steel and glass arc are brought into sharp focus.
This is not the first time that capitalist design has invaded North America’s most spectacular vistas: Brewster’s price for a view is surpassed by a ticket for the Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona, which will set you back a ludicrous $70. Furthermore, photographs are prohibited … although Skywalk staff will be glad to take one for you, charging $30 for each image. That’s right: a grand total of $100, to take home a picture of a panorama that is entirely free from manmade interventions if you travel just a little further along the Canyon’s rim.
The enormous orange hoop of steel – hoping in vain to blend in with the famous hues of the rock it has been bolted onto – is a veritable monstrosity in architectural terms, and has reduced the aesthetic appeal of this particular section of the Canyon rim beyond recognition. Despite this, the crowds have poured in, as has their money: this is the perverse power of tourism architecture, combining the beauty of the natural landscape with an ostentatious chunk of structural engineering.
Back in the Rockies, the Glacier Skywalk was opposed by a number of environmentalists and local residents, concerned about its ecological impact and the issues of privatization within a public national park site. Jill Seaton, of the Jasper Environmental Association, is particularly concerned that the Skywalk sets a precedent, noting that another developer wants to build a hotel at Jasper’s Maligne Lake (below) – one of the most stunning locations on the continent.
Given comparable examples in the region – the mountain views around Lake Louise would surely be all the more special without the looming presence of the Fairmont Chateaux Hotel – one can appreciate Seaton’s fears. In the end though, the truth is this: money talks, and if a developer is wealthy enough to lobby National Park Services and Federal Governments for exceptions, manmade attractions will continue to encroach on the wild regions of North America. As architects, our job must be to minimise the negative impact of such attractions, and produce designs of a quality demanded by the beauty of these incredible sites.
To that end, RJC and Sturgess Architecture’s actions can be forgiven, applauded even – they did not choose to implement architecture in this location, but were simply given a brief to follow. Those ultimately responsible are the developers, and they will not be unduly concerned by the architectural trail they are blazing: as long as people will buy what they can get for free, Brewster and their counterparts will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The Angry Architect
Images via Architizer