The Grand Canyon (it’s all about the architecture)

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The Grand Canyon is the Champion of One-Liner National Parks:  It’s the biggest canyon you can imagine, and it’s the biggest single thing you will see in any National Park (oceans don’t count).  When you first see it, you can’t really comprehend how big it is, until you spot some scale element at the bottom, such as a cabin, or a group of hikers.  (I’ve always thought they should build a replica of the Empire State Building in it.)   For the average visitor, this is why it is also the most boring National Park.

The Grand Canyon raises exactly the same tourist problem that became clear to us at Canyonlands. There are two distinct modes for visiting:  either you do the easy tourist daytrip, or else you commit to a multiple-day backcountry trip.  We would have loved to take a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, but we realized that would have to be planned years in advance, and that was not our modus operandi this year.  We really didn’t want to commit to hiking down to the bottom, since our earlier altitude-related incidents made us leary of a 5000-foot climb back up with decreasing oxygen levels.  So we were stuck in the South Rim tourist world, which was not so bad since it was April and not the high tourist season of summer.

We decided to hike as much as we could, instead of driving or taking the shuttle bus along the rim, but even though it was beautiful, it got pretty boring.  The problem is the scale of the place related to the observer.  In Antelope Canyon, you walk ten yards and the view changes completely.  In Zion Canyon, you walk a mile and the view transforms slowly but appreciably, constantly revealing new aspects.  At the Grand Canyon, you walk two miles along the rim and nothing changes at all.  It’s like looking out the window of a space ship.  This explains the density of tourist-oriented alternative activities (such as shopping and eating) at the Grand Canyon, to give people something to do after they’ve looked at the view for half an hour.

I’ve been taking landscape photographs for almost fifty years, and the main thing I’ve learned is that the most overwhelming, giant landscapes make the worst photos.  Your eye is different from a camera, and the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon is very different from looking at photos of it.  But going to see it was on the checklist:  we knew that Greta had to see it, but we didn’t have to spend much time there.  Check.  Here is another picture to prove we were there.  DSCF8568

We had reserved a campground spot for a couple of nights, so how were we going to fill the time?  We fell back on our old standards of taking photos of tourists taking selfies, and looking at architecture.  Luckily, the Grand Canyon has some of the best and most important National Park rustic architecture that exists.  Mary Colter was the head architect for the Fred Harvey Company, the concessionaire for the Santa Fe RR and the Grand Canyon.  She designed the buildings on the South Rim from 1908 through 1937, and her work helped to set the style of “Parkitecture” that is seen throughout the system.

Her first commission was the Hopi House, which is a shop that sells authentic native craftwork.  It was also built by Hopi craftsmen – the quality of the masonry is exquisite.DSCF8472

Colter didn’t just make conventional buildings that imitated motifs of historic Puebloan edifices or cliff dwellings – she actually incorporated traditional construction techniques.  But in the best way of complementing the historic structures, she also didn’t slavishly copy them.  Rather, she studied the formal language which underlay them, and produced her own innovative designs using that language.DSCF8513

Her smaller buildings were destinations on the rim drive for tourists – places where they could rest and have refreshments. The Lookout is perched on the rim itself, growing out of the cliff in a way similar to that of the Hopi mesa villages.  (The interior is a gift shop at this point, which obscures the quality of both the spaces and the finishes.)  DSCF8454

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The Hermit’s Rest is at the west end of the Rim Drive.  The plan and its volumetric expression are incredible: a lower porch zone, a higher wide & shallow nave, and a huge apse / inglenook. The spatial invention is amazing – taking traditional elements as a jumping-off point for explorations in space, structure, light and materials.

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The outside is not very visible nor emphasized – it’s mostly just the skin surrounding the interior volumes – but if you climb up the rise behind you can see the fun she had with the chimney.DSCF8574

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The Bright Angel Lodge is straightforward in its use of structure, and (once again) amazingly detailed stonework.  DSCF8469


I have never seen stones of this size used in a fireplace.  DSCF8519

The cabin area of the Lodge uses a kit-of-parts of a few cabin types, articulated in a a few different material types, combined in a site plan with small entry spaces and carefully-considered landscaping.   I had stayed in one of these small cabins over 20 years ago, in January, and still remember the pleasure of seeing the snow-clad Canyon in the moonlight, before heading across the icy walkways into my cozy cabin with a fireplace.  Taking a closer look at the architecture this year I was even more impressed. DSCF8557


The most spectacular of Colter’s buildings is the Watchtower, at the east end of the South Rim.  The form refers to an element sometimes seen in cliff dwellings, though there the towers are always part of an ensemble tucked beneath the cliff.  Colter had the audacity to put this right on the edge, where it affords tremendous views and becomes that small scale element needed to understand the size of the canyon, without being obtrusive.  DSCF8403

The texture, craftsmanship, balance between rhythm and disruption, evocation of ruins without being too coy.  93B.Grand Canyon02193.Grand Canyon136DSCF8617


The tower has a series of viewing levels, all decorated by native craftsmen.  93B.Grand Canyon01993.Grand Canyon134DSCF8389

There is a large round room adjacent to the tower base, which plays with kiva-like elements.  The use of wood framing actually shows how pre-historic rooms would have been roofed.  DSCF8619


Just as seeing a broad range of Donald Judd’s sculpture in one place leads to a deeper understanding of it than seeing one isolated piece in a museum every once in a while, seeing this collection of Mary Colter’s astounding talent in one location allows you to appreciate the themes, subtleties, variations and development throughout her career.  She was lucky to have the opportunity to work on one of the most astounding sites in the world, and we’re lucky that she was one of the few architects around who probably wouldn’t have screwed it up.  For me, there is just the right balance of being respectful of the site and local vernacular traditions with a tremendous personal vision and design integrity.  For Greta, it was just the latest example that no matter where we went, I’d find some architecture to look at.

1 thought on “The Grand Canyon (it’s all about the architecture)

  1. Pingback: Glacial architecture | Peregrine nation

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