Mountains & Minds Magazine:

Reimagining Yellowstone

April 25, 2011 -- by Anne Cantrell

It is a crisp fall afternoon in Yellowstone Park, at that time of the year when bull elk are lured to the heart of the park in a noisy ancient mating ritual, attracting both harems of cow elk and masses of tourists.

Outside of Mammoth Hotel, park rangers wrangle tourists with cameras who edge too close to a bull with massive antlers. One ranger calls to a man within striking distance of a bull elk and its harem. A few moments later, an elk charges toward the porch of the hotel, sending visitors scrambling.

Just a few feet away from the hormone-fueled chaos, the scene is much different. Inside the cocooned Mammoth Hotel conference room, teams of professional architects, illustrators and Montana State University graduate architecture students gather around long tables discussing design solutions to problems in the park, including ways to avert elk/human interaction. Heavy, dark curtains pulled shut across ceiling-tall windows keep out most light from outside, giving the room the look of an old, dark library. Illustrators from the American Society of Architectural Illustrators, recognized as some of the best in the business, sketch drawings in one corner, hunched over their renderings.

The teams are gathered for a week-long charrette, the architectural term for a condensed design session. In addition to the dangerous interaction of humans and elk going on in Mammoth village, the teams also consider what has become a dysfunctional north entrance to the park in Gardiner.

It is the third Yellowstone charrette held through a partnership involving the MSU School of Architecture, Yellowstone National Park, a local architecture firm headed by an MSU grad and the Yellowstone Park Foundation. One day, the fruits of the charrettes may change how future throngs of tourists see and interact with the world's first national park.

It's about time

One of the great dichotomies about Yellowstone National Park is that it is both timeless and timeworn.

While many natural attractions (such as geysers, wildlife and scenery) are nearly the same as they were long before Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, there is much about the park profoundly impacted by the sheer number of visitors--last year there were 3.6 million of them--to the fragile area.

That's what Paul Bertelli noticed more than six years ago. The 1999 MSU graduate and principal at JLF & Associates, a Bozeman-based architecture firm, observed that hundreds of small historic park structures were not being used and becoming lost to the elements due to a lack of funding.

Bertelli contacted Suzanne Lewis, Yellowstone Park's former superintendent, and learned that without a master plan there would be no way to fund preservation of the structures. After discussing ideas, they agreed to tackle some of the issues by holding charrettes.

With Bertelli suggesting adding MSU to the partnership, MSU architecture professor John Brittingham has also been closely involved with the project since its inception. Brittingham invites the professional architects and serves as professor and mentor to the architecture students who are involved. Students spend an entire semester before each charrette gathering and presenting crucial information in book form.



"Without that huge volume of preparatory fact-gathering (by the students) ... the charrettes simply couldn't happen," Bertelli said. Christa Gertiser, a JLF associate, is the liaison between MSU and Yellowstone and has been key in developing and continuing the partnership, he added.

"There's not a lot of time in the charrettes themselves, so (the teams) need to have this information quickly at their fingertips. There is no outside entity you could hire that could do this job better than these students."

The first week-long charrette held in 2007 focused on the Yellowstone Lake area. The park liked the outcome and hosted a second charrette at Old Faithful two years later. The third charrette was held last fall at Mammoth. Some of the ideas from all three charrettes may eventually be implemented in the park, if the ideas make it through extensive review procedures and public comment, Brittingham said.

In all of the charrettes, the professional architects, artists and students donate their services, resulting in between $400,000 to $700,000 of billable hours given to the park each time, Bertelli said. The rest of the charrette costs, mainly lodging, transportation and food, are paid for by the non-profit Yellowstone Park Foundation.

While the charrettes are valuable to the park, they also provide unparalleled experiences for MSU students who participate.

"These students learn so much," Brittingham said. "Plus, building a relationship with the park is great for MSU, and it supports our mission statement of service and outreach. It's also a very marketable recruiting tool for both faculty and students."

"I feel pretty lucky to be involved with the park service," said student Allison Gordy, who added that the experience affirms her decision to become an architect. "What I like about architecture is the ability to totally shape the world we live in. Architecture influences everything--how we move through cities, air quality and more. Having the ability to fix some of those things in the world is why I want to be an architect, and it makes me feel really excited and honored that I got to be part of this."



Student Ian McNairy said it is remarkable to see interesting and creative ideas developed in such a short time.

"We typically work on projects smaller in scope over longer periods of time," McNairy said. "But this project has a size and scope beyond anything I've done. Yellowstone has thousands and thousands of acres of land. It has a unique cultural heritage and natural resources. It's so much more complex, and it helps me see the value of the team approach. It's the way things happen in the real world."

The architects, including David Dowell, a principal of El Dorado Architects of Kansas City, Mo., hailed the students as valuable members of their teams. Park staff members were enthusiastic about the students' contributions, too.

"Students bring new insight into different possibilities," said Eleanor Clark, chief of comprehensive planning and design in Yellowstone. "They also bring eagerness to the project and are very diligent and incredibly hardworking."

Beyond the career benefits, Brittingham says that working in Yellowstone can be a life-changing experience.

"The whole mantra of Yellowstone is to protect and preserve assets, and being able to be part of that is a big deal," he said. "It's really something you can feel good about."

The elk and the Arch

It is the large amount of edible grass in the park-like area in Mammoth that draws elk dangerously close to tourists during the annual elk rut. In addition, roads bring RVs, delivery trucks and semitrailer traffic into the heart of the village, making navigation difficult for both vehicles and pedestrians. The problems have intensified over time, as visitation to Yellowstone has increased.

Some of the solutions suggested in the charrette include rerouting the road so that it bypasses Mammoth village, which would drastically reduce the number of vehicles in the area. Teams also suggested new lighting and boardwalks to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and to limit interactions with elk, animals that prefer grasses.

The teams also worked on problems surrounding one of the park's iconic landmarks--the Roosevelt Arch at Gardiner, so named because the arch's cornerstone was laid down by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

Originally, the arch was designed with high walls on each side so visitors entering the park in stagecoaches rode beneath the arch, symbolically entering a new world as they did so.



Over the years, the entrance changed and so did the entrance experience. The highway was reconstructed in 1929, forcing changes that included the removal of the arch's high walls. Currently, visitors are forced to make a hairpin turn just before going under the arch. Because it is too narrow to accommodate large vehicles going both ways, drivers must wait for opposing traffic, and former entrances for pedestrians and cyclists have been blocked.

In an attempt to restore grandeur of former years, one of the charrette suggestions was to limit passage under the arch to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, while creating a separate entrance for vehicles.

"We feel it's important to give visitors the option to go through the arch in an unhurried, enjoyable way," said Timothy Eddy, a founding principal of Hennebery Eddy Architects in Portland, Ore., and an MSU graduate. "We recommend re-establishing an area for gathering in front of the arch, and then giving repeat visitors and service vehicles options to bypass the arch completely.

"This is one of the most iconic park entries in the world," he added. "Passing through the arch in this way would make the experience of moving into the park more like it was when people arrived years ago."

Another idea, which came from a previous MSU design studio on the Old Faithful area, proposed an environmentally friendly train to transport visitors to and from an old road to Old Faithful Geyser, which would re-frame the current parking areas.

Park officials say such ideas allow them to stand back and look at issues in a new light, and they appreciate the fresh approach. However, any change formulated in the charrettes would need to make it through a government vetting process-- which is dictated by national law and can take several years.

"Pieces and parts of the work will be vetted through our process, and some will show up on the ground," Clark said.

Lewis, the former Yellowstone superintendent, said promising results have sprung from the unusual partnership of a national park, a university, the private sector and a non-profit foundation.

"The charrettes are very open, creative and future-looking. Lots of knowledge, history and skills are brought to the table," Lewis said.

"It's like panning for gold. We don't know what we're going to find, but we will get some nuggets. The ideas generated here absolutely will translate on the landscape."



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