GATLINBURG SKY PARK DESIGN COMPETITION

The term "tourist attraction" has a bad connotation.

The underlying assumption with something that is labeled as a "tourist attraction" or "tourist trap" is that it is flashy and iconic, memorable, but without any real authenticity, depth, or complexity. It belongs on postcards and in selfies, and that's just about it. It is fun to visit...once.

But what if a tourist attraction could offer more? What if it carried with it such a depth of programmatic elements, that it would keep people coming back again and again? What if the breadth of its offerings invited people of many different ages and lifestyles to come together, intermix, and explore side-by-side?

Can a tourist attraction offer the same excitement to locals is it does to the tourists themselves?

 

STEPPING OUTSIDE THE BOX

Perched above the city of Gatlinburg, lost in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. It hangs 150 feet above the forest below and stretches nearly 700 feet from one ridge to another.

A bridge, however, is supposed to span from one destination to another. This bridge in particular starts at a beautiful visitor center on one mountain ridge but  terminates on a barren slope across the way, presenting no further options other than to turn around and go back. The impressive and majestic experience of braving one's way across the bridge feels somewhat robbed of a fitting conclusion.

 

Enter the design competition, hosted by Skylift, the operators of the existing suspension bridge, the purpose of which was to develop ideas for an "iconic tower" that would be located somewhere within a long, thin rectangular site at the top of the ridge and could serve as the bridge's terminus. It would give a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains and the city below and give tourists that much more reason to visit the park.

Our team, however, started to wonder. Is a breathtaking view enough? What will stop this from becoming another observation tower that brings people in once, for 15 or 20 minutes, to cross it off the bucket list and never return?

This is where we rewrote the prompt.

What if the tower was only part of the solution? What if, between the bridge's terminus and the tower, as well as all around the site, sat a variety of nodes that each offered a unique experience of its own? Better yet, what if this sequence of nodes which meanders through the site simply lifted itself in the vertical axis to become the tower? Then, the view would be just the icing on the cake, and the body, mind, and spirit could be stimulated in different ways at every step of the journey, not just at the end.

 

MY ROLE

Being an architectural design competition, the teams are small, the hours are long, and the work is fierce. Our team consisted of only two people - myself working under much more experienced associate Vineet Bhosle, which meant it was a great opportunity for me to learn, learn, and learn some more from one of the top design minds at our firm.

Naturally, he laid out the concept and oversaw the work I was doing at a bigger-picture level, set the schedule, and played the role of the visionary. On the other hand, my responsibilities revolved around the execution - developing the overall theme for the spatial sequence as well as setting the functional agenda for each node, conducting the topographical study of the site, designing and modeling the built form, from the tower to the rest of the site, and creating much of the graphic media.

 

AN EXPERIENCE FOR ALL

When thinking about the kind of people that would stop by to enjoy the Sky Park, one can get lost in the possibilities. Families, likely road-tripping through the area would likely be excited to stop for a few hours and explore, which means the park has to cater to adults in their 30s and 40s and children ranging anywhere from kindergarten to early high school. Young adults - couples and groups of friends, locals and visitors - would likely stop by, and of course, we wanted to make sure seniors with a calmer lifestyle would also be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

The resulting selection of spatial program offers a little bit for everybody. Places for kids to run, play, and learn about the natural environment, photo opportunities for young adults to fill their Snapchat feeds and Instagram with, niches for adults to tune out, unwind, and enjoy the view (while keeping an eye on their kids, of course!), and plenty of different environments for those entering their golden years to paint, write, and take in the various sights and sounds of the Smoky Mountains.

 

THE PIECES UNFOLDED

To unify these vastly different experiences along the path, a common thread or theme was needed, and there is no better all-engrossing theme in the magnificent Smoky Mountains than ecology. Each module was given a twist, be it educational, kinesthetic, or visual that connected it to the natural beauty of the Smokies' flora, fauna, and topography. 

Vista Point

Augmented reality and balconies provide breathtaking views of the Smokies and Gatlinburg.

Birdwatcher's Balcony

The balconies project out to provide birdwatchers a closer reach to foliage and set up cameras.

Picnic

A place for visitors to enjoy relaxing lunch in the trees.

Tower Activities ▲

Park Activities ▼

Play Station

A place to pause and play! Take the slide to The Hub!

Rolling Hill

Enjoy rolling down the hill or sledging/tubing om winter.

The Hub

Entry/exit point for the Sky Bridge, get information and orient yourself before diving into the adventure.

Cascading Exhibit

Path to help you learn about the ecology and history of the Smokies and 2016 forest fire.

Water Garden

Enjoy the Harmony of water as music!

Amphitheatre

Amphitheatre with tiered seating to take a moment to relax along the journey or to host events.

 

THE TOTAL EXPERIENCE

Originally, the nodes were conceived independently of the path itself. In other words, each had a path going in and a path coming out, but outside of that, they could go anywhere along the sequence, and the overarching path that connected them could take any shape they desired. We needed to find the most logical way to tie everything together and define the geometry of the entire experience as a whole, and for this, we let the site do the work for us.

 

Or its topography, to be exact. 

Using the sloping and undulating contours of the site, we mapped the sequence to follow the path of least resistance, seeking the gentlest slope and taking advantage of unique niches and dips in the topography to host slope-dependent nodes such as the Amphitheatre and Rolling Hill. This not only constrained the path and gave it a unique, rationalized geometry, but it also made the entire path universally accessible, allowing users of all physical abilities to explore and enjoy the park.

As the sequence approaches the tower, the path begins to slope much more dramatically, eventually turning into a spiraling stair that leads up. Since the tower is serving as the vehicle of bringing the path and nodes up into the sky, it maintains a minimalist, triple-helix structure that leaves as much of the exterior free to adapt to the programmatic needs of the nodes contained inside while supporting the floors and heroic cantilevers that shoot out of the structure on various levels, emulating the suspension-in-space character of the bridge.

A spiraling diagrid system of panels that clads the structure allows for endless combination of openness, enclosure, and materiality. The two-floor Picnic node is clad primarily with glass and wooden louvers, allowing views out but shielding the inhabitants from glare and harsh wind. The Birdwatcher's Balcony boasts growing medium mesh panels that serve as a home to vines and other vegetation, attracting birds to the delight of the visitors. Then there is the Vista Point on the top floor, which opens itself up completely, using glass railings to offer unobstructed views above, around, and even below the tower.

Having gone through this process, and having looked beyond the typical mold of the "tourist attraction", it became apparent that two things need to happen for a "tourist attraction" to lose its stigma.

First, it has to keep giving. It has to teach us, to open our minds, to let us discover - this potent experience has to transcend what one can experience in a single visit and keep us coming back for more. And second, it has to offer a special space for every single one of us. Not a one-size-fits-all, postcard-scope environment, but a different little piece of the whole that speaks to each unique visitor, a part of the whole that each person can "own"...a part that, despite the distance and foreign environment feels a little like home.

A NEW FORMULA

The Sky Park competition entry won Honorable Mention, with judges giving special praise to the unique, user-centered approach to designing the site experience.

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