Canadian Architect

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Governor General’s Medal Winner: Glacier Skywalk

WINNER OF A 2016 GOVERNOR GENERAL’S MEDAL IN ARCHITECTURE

May 19, 2016
by Canadian Architect

The Skywalk Vista cantilevers daringly over a glacial gorge.

The Skywalk Vista cantilevers daringly over a glacial gorge.

LOCATION Jasper National Park, Alberta
ARCHITECT Sturgess Architecture
PHOTOS Robert Lemermeyer, unless otherwise noted

The Glacier Skywalk, a man-made extension of the fractal landscape of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, is a jaw-dropping feat of architecture and engineering. This private development initiative in a public park was undertaken in concert with Parks Canada, which wished to more fully engage tourists in an environmental experience.

The project weaves a continuous thread through geometric and material forms. A sinuous journey defines the Skywalk not as a singular destination, but as a catalyst that empowers guests to immerse themselves in their natural surroundings.

The narrative of Canada’s National Parks necessitates a sustainable approach to building. Geologically, thrust-fault movements have created a fractal landscape, and this informs the architecture. The theme of rugged architecture is evident throughout the voyage of discovery, providing contrast between the subtle gestures and monumental idea of the Glacier Skywalk.

A view of the dropoff pavilion.

A view of the dropoff pavilion.

Interpretive stations project from and recess into the rock face in response to the program, view and climactic conditions present at each location. In contrast, the Skywalk Vista projects from the sheer face of the mountainside to allow visitors to be immersed in the grandeur and scale of the glacier below. The broken geometry of the viewing platform is further accentuated by the eccentric horizontal suspended cable structure supporting the glass walkway. Stepping onto the glass surface, one is able to physically experience the depth of the surrounding icefield.

The exploration begins under a bus stop canopy at the receiving area. Venturing out from under the canopy, visitors are given a first glimpse of the gorge far below and a hint of what lies ahead. The trail initially slopes gently downwards, providing separation from the adjacent highway, and is cut into native bedrock.

A series of interpretive stations are incorporated into the approach.

A series of interpretive stations are incorporated into the approach.

The efficient material palette for the off-grid structure consists of Corten steel, glass, wood and stone. The rusted hues of the steel relate to the ferric outcroppings of the mountains, while the glazing mimics the calcified deposits of the mountainside. Gabion mats of locally mined stone retain the pathways. Wood-lined areas support human contact.

The pathways widen and narrow, and rise and fall, allowing visitors to visit several interpretive stations. At the halfway point along the trail, the path starts to slope upward. As the ascent continues, excitement builds as the outlook becomes increasingly visible.

Glass balustrades add to the drama of the lookout.

Glass balustrades add to the drama of the lookout.

Arriving at the Skywalk Vista, the view of the platform and the nature of the experience that awaits is obscured by Corten walls. Just beyond this outcropping is the cantilevered glass walkway—a transparent arc floating 280 metres above the valley below. Here, visitors can venture 35 metres beyond the face of the cliff and come face-to-face with nature—and the evidence of climate change in the receding glacier.

The journey concludes with an amphitheatre tucked into the outcropping, where visitors may sit in the sun and engage with others.

The project is an unprecedented example of the design-build process. Consultants, contractors and manufacturers worked in constant collaboration to realize this collective vision.

An amphitheatre provides a space for rest after the outlook. Photo by Sturgess Architecture.

An amphitheatre provides a space for rest after the outlook. Photo by Sturgess Architecture.

:: Jury :: This extraordinary landscape intervention challenges visitors to experience the scale of the Columbia Icefield on foot, rather than from a car. Tough materials such as Corten steel and the jagged, fractal forms along the pathway emulate the thrust-fault movements that have shaped glaciers. Like many outstanding works of architecture, this project offers users a unique opportunity—a viewing platform to see the world in a whole new way. The skywalk makes you feel safe and frightened at the same time: that’s its magic.

Corten steel is used throughout the project to echo the rugged and weathered natural surroundings.

Corten steel is used throughout the project to echo the rugged and weathered natural surroundings.

CLIENT Brewster Travel Canada | ARCHITECT TEAM Jeremy Sturgess, Lesley Beale, Kevin Harrison, Jan Kroman, David Tyl, Bob Horvath | DESIGN-BUILD TEAM LEADER PCL Construction Management—Scott Updegrave, Keith Bowers | PRIME CONSULTANT Read Jones Christoffersen—Simon Brown, Geoff Kallweit, Mark Ritchie | AREA 5,500 ft2 | BUDGET $16 M | COMPLETION May 2014