Mount Rainier provides site for landscape studio
Professor Robert Melnick challenges students to understand cultural landscapes – places where humans have used and adapted natural resources over time – when developing new designs in a national park.
Designing a landscape within a historic national park was a first for students in Professor Robert Melnick’s fall landscape architecture studio, which focused on the cultural landscape of Longmire, the historic administrative headquarters area at Mount Rainier National Park.
The studio launched with a three-day visit by students to the park, where, along with Melnick, Mount Rainier Historical Architect Sueann Brown and Pacific West Regional Office Historical Landscape Architects Cathy Gilbert and Erica Owens introduced students to the headquarters site.
Above: Left to right: Laura Bassett, Patrick McCrary, Audrey McLaughlin, Professor Robert Melnick, Andria Truax, Greg Oldson, Stephanie Woirol, Shelby Fraga, and Stassi Vieira stand on the Nisqually River Bridge in Mount Rainier National Park during their visit at the beginning of fall term. Photo by Robert Z. Melnick.
“Mount Rainier National Park is an excellent example of the NPS Rustic style in the overall plan and in the design of structures within that plan,” Brown said. “I really welcomed the chance to participate in this project. I knew that with Robert Melnick, one of the pioneers in the field of cultural landscapes, leading the studio we would end up with a benefit to the park, and I was not disappointed.”
The studio charged students with reconfiguring the area’s circulation, viewscape, public plazas and more, all within the confines of permitted changes and uses within a National Historic Landmark District.
“The main focus of the field trip was to familiarize them with the site including current conditions, historical background, and future planning,” Brown said. “Longmire is part of the Mount Rainier National Historic Landmark District, a district designated as nationally important for its significance in landscape architecture, specifically as the most significant example of national park master planning.”
Above: Pacific West Regional Office Historical Landscape Architects Erica Owens (left) and Cathy Gilbert (right) brief students about the project as they sit on the steps of the National Park Inn porch at Mount Rainier National Park. Sueann Brown, historical architect for the park, stands at the back. Photo by Robert Z. Melnick.
Melnick and NPS staff encouraged students to familiarize themselves with the site’s history and current issues as part of the design process. Many buildings in the park were built in the National Park Service (NPS) Rustic style, colloquially known as Parkitecture, a style of architecture that arose in the United States National Park System to create buildings that harmonize with their natural environment by using native wood and stone, along with intensive hand labor.
"The whole idea of the NPS Rustic style is to provide infrastructure to support visitors' needs without having that infrastructure detract from the scenery the visitors are coming to enjoy,” Brown said. “Students were encouraged to consider these basic principles, reinvented for this century, in their designs.”
Designing in parks necessitates following certain legal and values requirements that can be “game-changers” for designers, Melnick said.
Above: Historical Architect Sueann Brown walks students through the current circulation in the administrative area of Longmire at Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Robert Z. Melnick.
“Park design skills, in my view, are not that different from other design skills,” Melnick said. “Students learn to understand the context, resource, and users – and then design within the framework of NPS values and needs.”
The Park Service operates under a “dual mandate” that calls for both resource protection and visitor access, which can pose challenges for designers. The students were charged with discerning and maintaining the site’s significant historic resources in their proposals. “They responded very well to this, especially as they got more and more into the project,” Melnick said.
Graduate student Greg Oldson noted that “with the studio’s design challenge, I believe the Park Service is setting precedents for balancing history and ecology, history and current use, and what should be remembered with what will always evolve.”
Above: Greg Oldson’s final design for the Longmire administrative area. Photo by Madeline Carroll.
As a reviewer of student work, Brown said “it was fun to see people really thinking outside the box. That said, if we were going to be able to implement any of their schemes, they needed to get back in the box a little. We reminded them of the need to respect the historic character of the district, the natural resource concerns regarding both removal and introduction of vegetation, and logistical issues like the turning radius for buses and snow plows.”
Graduate student Shelby Fraga said her greatest challenge “was to respect the cultural heritage of the site while also attempting to meet 21st century needs. A lot of variables are at play in a site like this, and the designer’s role is to walk the line between preserving the character of the space and bringing it up to date, to make sure the layers of history at the site work together to create a cohesive experience for the visitor.”
Above: Shelby Fraga walks Associate Professor Liska Chan and Graduate Teaching Fellow Diana Molina through her design. Photo by Madeline Carroll.
Brown, who earned a master’s in historic preservation from UO in 2007, not only arranged for housing and expenses for the field trip but also, along with Owens, came to Eugene for both the midterm and final reviews.
“For me, it was also an opportunity to give back to the university that got me where I am today,” Brown said. “When I was a student in the HP program, some of my most valuable courses were the ones that involved ‘real world’ field work.”
The NPS hires students each summer for full-time paid internships, so Brown and Owens also view interactions with students as recruitment opportunities.
“The benefit of bringing students to the national parks for projects like these potentially goes far beyond what we might use at Longmire. Students are often inspired to do thesis or terminal projects, and sometimes even to consider careers with the NPS,” Brown said.
The NPS reviewers said the students’ work is viable for use by the park. “They have each developed designs that include phasing so that the park can use this work as time and resources permit,” Melnick said.
Brown added, “This is a complex site with more challenges than anyone is going to solve in ten weeks. Any planning at the park needs to go through a series of reviews by park subject matter experts and the public before it can actually be implemented. The intention with this studio was to get that process started. What we do in the end may not look exactly like any one student's plan, but will probably borrow some of the best ideas from each.”
Above: Students Greg Oldson, Shelby Fraga, Andria Truax, and Stephanie Woirol listen to NPS staff during their Longmire tour. Photo by Robert Z. Melnick.
Above: Stassi Viera describes her design to Anne Godfrey, adjunct instructor, and Sueann Brown, historical architect, during final review. Photo by Madeline Carroll.
Above: At the final review in Eugene, Laura Bassett explains her design to a fellow student. Photo by Madeline Carroll.