In early 2009, the U.S. Forest Service engaged LGA to work on the project planning phase of the Middle Kyle Canyon Visitor Complex, now known as the Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway. This project would serve both as an attraction and visitor center for travelers passing through, as well as a destination for families and the local Southern Nevada community.
One of our primary challenges involved the vast amount of research data the Forest Service had already compiled. In synthesizing the results of previous surveys, studies and analysis, our goal was to always keep the client’s big picture goals in mind.
By examining and extracting the vital core data, we were able to identify a number of guiding concepts that would ultimately make up the design solution:
• Orienting visitors to the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (SMNRA) by providing settings where they would feel welcome, safe and comfortable
• Engaging visitors by offering a wide range of physical, social and emotional experiences while encouraging healthy lifestyles and a sense of well-being
• Deepening connections by fostering awareness that the SMNRA is part of a larger landscape and is integral to the quality of life in the Vegas Valley and beyond
• Fostering stewardship of the SMNRA by promoting understanding of and care for the diverse cultural and natural resources
• Promoting sustainability by educating visitors about and encouraging the practice of sustainable behavior, both in the SMNRA and at home
• Reflecting the Forest Service’s identity by ensuring that visitors are able to identify the agency as the one that manages the SMNRA
The site for the Visitor Gateway would be 90 acres purchased by the Forest Service as part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The site’s former incarnation as a golf course had been short-lived; the Forest Service saw it as an ideal location to welcome and educate visitors to the area.
A primary consideration was to maintain a positive connection with the seven nations of Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) in the area. Encouraging tribal input and close cooperation throughout the design process was essential from the outset, as Mt. Charleston is considered the sacred birthplace of the Paiute people.
The site consists of 30 acres in the upper plateau and 60 lower in the valley. The vision for the project included a visitor center and educational building along with trails, picnic areas, indigenous landscaping, and an amphitheater and interpretation area. The project also had to be more site-based than building-based, and it was essential to restore and revitalize the land.
For design inspiration, we turned toward Zion and Yosemite National Parks, among others, as examples that provide the visitor a clear orientation to area activities.
As one of our first tasks, we assembled a team of consulting professionals whose experience brought specific expertise and unique knowledge to the project. The team consisted of structural engineers, mechanical engineers, even lighting designers who know more about how the eye perceives light than most doctors.
The Regenesis Group from Santa Fe, New Mexico studied Kyle Canyon in the larger context of the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas region to develop a meta-story for this place; a unifying concept and source of inspiration for developing place-sourced economic, design, interpretive and community engagement concepts.
We also called upon the proficiency of the Biomimicry Guild. This group studies the native animal and vegetative wildlife to understand how they thrive and survive under local conditions. This understanding helps us design in a way that mimics these survival mechanisms. For example, big horn sheep persevere because their horns and ears act as natural cooling devices. This natural adaptation inspires ideas for incorporating similar elements into the design process; our plans would focus on heating and cooling the buildings through structural elements rather than mechanical means.
The design team developed a series of draft concepts that explored a range of visitor experiences and different magnitudes of development. The final plan creates a village with a recognizable core of buildings and plazas to provide visitor orientation, services and social gathering. The village is dynamic and encourages repeat visitation. This village complex also has potential to integrate with the community which can be accomplished through several means, such as ensuring physical visibility and incorporating resources from within the area rather than bringing them in from the outside. For example, with two popular lodges already in the area, additional lodging as part of our project would be redundant. Secondly, the concept incorporates a strong connection between the village and valley of the site, through intentional land sculpting to offer a seamless visitor experience orienting guests to the mountain.
To satisfy the varying needs of the project’s constituents, we looked at the most prevalent focus groups:
• Casual: Visitors driving through who may not even leave their cars
• Recreationalists: Skiers, bikers and hikers who come to the area mostly for solitude
• Latinos: Using the area as a destination for family gatherings
• Native Tribes: Honoring the history of the site, and passing that history on to their families
We then worked to incorporate design elements that would address the needs of all these groups:
Spring Mountain Visitors Gateway complex will span an area right off the existing highway, starting with two roundabouts to slow traffic down and create a buffer area. The village site will be sculpted to create three plateaus, operating as transition zones toward the forest. The closest to the highway will function almost like a rest stop, offering highway travelers a safe spot for a quick picnic or restroom break and can orient guests to various destinations in the Spring Mountains. The next level is set up for a longer visit; perhaps an hour or two for exploration including the interpretive gallery in the Visitor Center, open large field areas for group gatherings, and orientation loop trails. The third level will be the area for destination visitors to the Gateway, including the education facility, the open plaza, group picnic area, and trails to the Valley. The site sculpting includes creation of an ephemeral riparian stream which traverses the site in the west to east direction and becomes the anchor for activities, landscape and built elements.
Guests leave their cars and decompress through the finger trails that lead to the aspen-lined welcoming plaza. The emphasis on natural growth rather than artistic interpretation will give visitors a new experience with each season. Beyond the Welcoming Plaza is the Orientation Plaza to familiarize visitors with the site, amenities and activities. The visitor center itself contains an interpretive gallery. Both the visitor center and education building will deliver an inside-outside experience, combining both elements for a holistic, natural feel.
At the Seven Stones Plaza, the focus will be the Paiute story. Seven different stones will be used to represent the seven different nations, with the center stone representing their birthplace, Mt. Charleston. Etched images surround the large center stone, subtly telling the creation story. At the appropriate time of year, tribal families will be invited to harvest pine nuts in pinion-juniper habitats, maintaining their traditions of sharing stories and passing their history on to the next generation.
The project is now going out to bid, with construction scheduled to begin April 2013. The construction timeline is approximately two years, with the opening currently projected for the end of 2014. LGA will administer the construction contract, keeping the Forest Service’s mission at the forefront as it seeks to orient, educate, and deepen personal connections, with the ultimate goal that visitors become stewards of this place.
While other firms may lead with design, LGA leads with need. The collected data explains the need, and the building design evolves to meet those needs. For the Spring Mountains Visitors Gateway, not all the needs of the project would be best met by physical structures; the focus was not just on building, but on integration with the area.
This is how we approach all of our projects: putting design into its proper context. Seeing the bigger picture in this case meant immersing designers in the culture, history and environment of the Spring Mountains to ensure that development honored the uniqueness of this place and responded to the needs of the client.
As project manager Deb Bergin explains, “It’s exciting to move into the building phase where the project becomes tangible. But the discovery and design aspects are just as gratifying. Helping the right ideas take shape is what we bring to the table.”