In April 2017, Parks Canada invited Canadians to provide input on three design options for a new visitor centre in Waterton Lakes National Park. A six-week consultation period included an on-line engagement website as well as an open house in the community on April 29th. Interested members of the public were provided with multiple resources, including planning reports, design principles, and three possible design options, in order to have all the information they needed to meaningfully contribute to the discussion.

A total of approximately 4,000 visits to the consultation website and 86 attendees at the open house generated 115 comments on the design options. Following a review of the comments and consideration of three design options, Parks Canada has announced that the Town Plaza (Concept #3) design option has been selected for the new visitor centre.

The Town Plaza design option creates a central plaza that captures the interest of visitors and complements the beautiful setting of the community of Waterton.

The building relates directly to Waterton’s environment through its uncomplicated building design and its use of natural materials, reflective of the craftsman style typical of Parks Canada buildings. Large, sturdy stone blocks contrasted with large windows will celebrate the majestic views the site offers.

This design consists of three structures, with a main building, an administration building, and a public washroom building, all joined together by one roof. Dramatic overhanging roof canopies connect the structures and will act as a public porch area for visitors.

The visitor centre grounds will include new play equipment that incorporates more natural play structures, such as logs and large rocks. This new style of playground is gaining popularity and will create an additional interpretive opportunity for visitors.

Highlights

  • The design implements a craftsman style coupled with wood and stone to reflect the Waterton Lakes and Parks Canada style.
  • The site plan provides visitors with a new ‘natural-materials’ playground.
  • The main public plaza will become a vibrant part of Waterton’s commercial district and includes outdoor theatre space, providing a gathering space for engaging public presentations.
  • The architectural design enhances new exhibit and interpretive displays on the grounds that engage visitors, transforming the plaza into an overall interpretative element.
  • Moving through the inside interpretive space, visitors are led to the main theater / multipurpose area that features southeast-facing windows providing views down the lake valley and toward Vimy Mountain.
  • Vegetation and natural screening will be used to integrate the building into the surrounding landscape, and reduce noise for neighbours.
  • Large overhangs will provide sheltered sitting areas for visitors to relax. A sheltered walkway will provide protection from the weather and the sun to ensure the plaza is accessible in unfavourable conditions.

The site

The Town Plaza design takes advantage of the full potential of the shape and context of the site. By moving the building to the north and creating a town square, the new visitor centre becomes an extension of the existing commercial district.

This design will provide visitors with a new ‘nature-based playground.’ Parks Canada, the Waterton Park Community Association and Improvement District #4 have agreed to work together to relocate the community playground and splash park from Block 39 to Block 42, (the old school grounds leased to the community association), which are situated 1/2 block west of the present playground location along Cameron Falls Drive.

By moving the visitor centre to the north end of the site, a new urban plaza will be created off the intersection of Wind Flower Avenue and Cameron Falls Drive. Ordering the three buildings to border the plaza creates a wind-sheltered space.

The careful situation of the buildings also emphasizes channeled lines of site that emphasize interpretative focal points. The plaza will incorporate a large relief model depicting the Crown of the Continent, a geological feature that defines Waterton Lakes National Park - transforming the plaza into an overall interpretative element.

In addition to framing the public plaza, the wings of the buildings create two major pedestrian axes through the site. They lead the visitor from the parking area and from the primary pedestrian eastside access to the front door of the visitor centre. The other major axis orients pedestrians in a north south direction through the site.

The south end of the site will incorporate community amenities woven together with outdoor interpretive walks. A fire pit area will be located on the east side of the visitor centre, acting as both an interpretative component and a community element to enliven a secondary plaza and gathering space on that side of the site.

By situating a plaza at the corner of Windflower Avenue and Cameron Falls Drive, events and activities at the new visitor centre will be visible and can activate the street, attracting larger visitor groups to the site.

The outside perspective

The design relates directly to the environment of Waterton through its uncomplicated building forms and its use of natural building materials, reflective of the craftsman style typical of Parks Canada buildings.

The scale of this design creates a dramatic impression, while the adjacent wings bring the overall building back to a human scale; therefore, appropriately fitting the project into the Waterton context.

The simplistic detailing, craftsmen style and use of natural materials provides a humble, approachable quality to the overall design. The materials for this building use a natural palette of stone and wood with a craftsman style familiar to the national park vernacular, often highlighted using heavy timbers supported by stone walls and details designed to withstand the environment for generations.

The portions of the building that face the public square will have large overhangs that will act as a public porch area for visitors. It’s a place for visitors to enjoy the lunch, ice-cream or coffee they have purchased at neighbouring businesses.

The overhangs will provide protection from the weather and the sun to ensure the plaza can remain active even in unfavourable conditions.

This space will also act as an outdoor theatre for interpretive talks, events and performances. The outdoor theatre productions are critical to activating the plaza, much like street musicians performing for the public in town squares.

The square will have two edges that are stepped to provide public seating areas, but will also be bordered by vegetation and grassed areas to soften the environment and allow it to blend in with the park-like setting of Waterton. In addition, the area will have an information kiosk that visitors can access afterhours.

The interior perspective

Entering the visitor centre from the main entrance of the plaza, visitors will be awestruck by the volume of the space. The large wood roof will float above a clerestory window high on the wall that follows the perimeter of the entire building – providing views of the neighbouring mountains while the context of the town will be screened out.

As visitors proceed through the interpretive space they are drawn forward by a roof that is steadily rising, leading them to the main theater/multipurpose space. This dramatically tall space has large floor to ceiling southeast-facing windows that unveil grand views down the lake valley and toward Vimy Mountain.

A raised stage in the southwest corner of the space has a glass back wall that will be covered in scrim that, when lifted, reveals a tree-covered berm and powerful views to the mountains beyond.

Once visitors enter the interior of the interpretive centre they are led meanderingly through the main exhibition space. The space within the visitor centre is open and vast, with the supporting areas located in smaller structures.

The support spaces within the visitor centre are single-story structures that are much shorter in height than the overall structure. These smaller structures within the building will create a village atmosphere within the main space.

Landscape design

The geographical zones of Waterton Lakes National Park provide the unique opportunity for the landscape to tell a story as you circulate through the visitor centre site. (See Interpretive exhibit for further explanation). From wetland planting to the northwest of the site through to the subalpine planting on the south, visitors will experience both planting and landform characteristics of each geographical zone found within the park.

A more natural circulation layout has been selected to soften the site by contrasting the strong linear massing of the building. The forms of the landscape and pathways on this option are taken from the natural environment. The pathways mimic the trails you would find within the park. This allows for people to explore and take many different routes through the site, experiencing interpretive nodes along the way. The landscape design will highlight major park elements including Red Rock Canyon, the regional watercourses and the Crown of the Continent.

Throughout the landscape, spaces and facilities are provided for visitors to relax and enjoy the environment. Formal seating in the form of benches, boulders, walls and picnic tables is scattered around the site for different experiences in each zone.

Informally, visitors can lay out on the grass lawns, berms or sit on the boulders or logs placed throughout the site. Shade and protection from the wind is provided by vegetation strategically located throughout the site.

Spaces where interpretation can occur are also located throughout the landscape. Along the pathways, interpretive features are placed as nodes carved into the undulating topography. Plazas act as gathering areas and spontaneous presentation spaces. The landscape as a whole also acts as an interpretation feature taking you from the prairies to the alpine environment with its material selection and planting palette.

Using both interpretive nodes and landscape design, visitors will obtain a better understanding of each specific geographical zone, providing a glimpse into Waterton Lakes National Park. Vegetation and natural screening will be carefully positioned to integrate the building into the landscape and soften hardscape elements. Tree covered berms will be incorporated to screen the parking area from leaseholds adjacent to the site.