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Sturgess Architecture | Glacier Discovery Walk

Concept & Competition FROM ABOVE

The Glacier Discovery Walk is envisioned as an extension of the fractal landscape that defines the Columbia Icefields in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Located along the edge of this dramatic escarpment, the project weaves a continuous thread of experience through united geometric and material forms. This sinuous experience defines the Discovery Walk not only as a singular destination, but as a catalyst and gateway that empowers guests to immerse themselves in the untouched natural environment.


The site’s complex cultural and physical landscape is the inspiration for the project’s design and materiality. The historical and ecological narrative of Canada’s National Parks necessitates innovation in materials and a sustainable approach to building. Weathering steel is used on all exposed non-horizontal surfaces to match the colouration of adjacent rock, while providing a maintenance and VOC-free material. Geologically, the thrust-fault movement in the area has created a fractal landscape that informs the larger formal gestures of the architecture. The angular forms, rusted hues and warm texture of Corten steel finish relate to the rocky outcroppings of the surrounding mountains, while the glazing mimics the glacial flow.


The theme of rugged architecture is evident throughout the voyage of discovery, providing contrast between the subtle gesture and monumental idea that defines the Glacier Discovery Walk experience. The intent of the walk is not to be a destination, but a journey. The competition brief asked that there be no hierarchy of design, to allow a unifying experience between the Receiving Area, the Discovery Trail and the Discovery Vista. The structures along the Discovery Trail are restrained in their design and appear as ‘landscape’ objects, deferring to the beauty and grandeur of their natural surroundings. Articulated as crystalline interventions, the interpretive stations project from and recess into the rock face in response to the program and climactic conditions present at each specific location. This infrastructure is defined by angular forms of Corten steel plate providing shade and shelter while echoing the forms of the Receiving Area and the Discovery Vista.


In contrast, the Discovery Vista projects from the shear face of the mountainside to allow visitors to experience the grandeur and scale of the glacier below. Architecturally, the broken geometry of the viewing platform is further accented by the eccentric horizontal suspended cable structure supporting the glass walkway. By stepping out onto the glass surface, one is able to physically experience the depth of the surrounding glacial field. The distance from the viewing platform to the base of the Sunwapta Valley floor below is directly proportional to the thickness of the Icefield. It is at this point the visitors are able to grasp the scale of the glacial landscape and the visceral nature of the surrounding ecology, glaciology, history and geology that defines this historic site.

An Experience to Remember

The exploration begins once disembarking from the tour bus and under the canopy that defines the Receiving Area. This large protective canopy is incorporated into an existing stone wall bordering the escarpment that hearkens back to the National Parks infrastructure of the 1940s. Venturing out from under the canopy and into the Free Viewing Area, visitors are given a first glimpse of the gorge far below and a hint of the Outlook that awaits their exploration.

The trail, which initially slopes gently downwards providing separation from the adjacent highway, is cut into native bedrock. Along the way, the path widens and narrows, allowing visitors to stop at several interpretive stations and learn about the history of the area without impeding the pedestrian flow. The design and location of these stations has been carefully orchestrated to alternately hide and expose the Outlook so that it is ‘discovered’ bit-by-bit along the path. At the halfway point along the trail, and having ventured into the ‘depths’ of the valley, the path starts to slope upward. As the ascent continues, excitement builds as the Outlook becomes increasingly visible.

Finally, the visitor arrives at the Discovery Vista. Initially, the view of the platform and the nature of the experience that awaits is obscured by the boulder-like geometry of the platform. One moment of discovery remains before the drama of the Vista is revealed. Just past the Corten outcropping is the glass walkway – a transparent pathway soaring above the valley below. Here, visitors can venture out 30 meters beyond the face of the cliff and claim one of the finest and most exhilarating viewing experiences in the world.

The Glacier Discovery Walk is expected to open in May 2014.

Location: Jasper National Park, Canada
Architect: Sturgess Architecture, Calgary, Canada
Award: World Architecture Festival 2011 – Category Winner
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