The past few years have witnessed some of the most rapid – and sometimes shocking – cultural shifts in our country’s long history. If experience has taught us anything, it’s that we need to find a way to keep our story in sight, while putting it into perspective. Monuments, landmarks, battlefields, entire landscapes, sites of struggle, loss and triumph, all require a new spatial framework, capable of conveying their meaning, not only to the current generation, but to generations to come.
Fortunately, architecture puts at least one valuable tool at our disposal to further explore these relationships and foster productive and inclusive discourse. It’s called an interpretive center, and it’s a type of building that our office has researched, reinvented, designed and built over the past three decades, completing more than 65 such projects.
Most people have been to an interpretive center of one type or another. In its simplest form, it is familiar to any American who remembers – as I certainly do – being dragged along by his parents on a long road trip and stopping at various places along the way. of natural or historical interest. There, at the end of the parking lot, was the visitor center; generally a modest, boxy affair, the building often featured a few dimly lit and uninspiring exhibition displays, a gift shop stocked with themed keychains and shot glasses, and perhaps some literature and a few services to help guests navigate the site. They may not have always been inspiring, but these buildings at least succeeded on those terms and paved the way for what we now call ‘interpretive centres’.
From the 1990s, we began to think about this typology of interpretation centers in a new way. In short, the difference between visitor centers of the past and an interpretive center is that while the former is usually nothing more than an indescribable box of information, the latter provides an environment of comprehensive information that begins with the building and its surroundings. then extends to all aspects of its interior. The Fort McHenry Visitor and Education Center in Baltimore is a good example. Designed by our firm in 2011, the project was intended as a destination, a landmark that would drive traffic to the site and actively engage visitors upon arrival. At Fort McHenry, home to the original Stars and Stripes, the structure’s curved, flag-like facade begins to tell the story of the place before guests even step inside; once past the threshold, visitors progress inside in discrete and carefully planned steps, with spatial cues, lighting, didactic and interactive displays, and more all flowing together to produce a natural and understandable narrative. As with all of our interpretive projects, the goal in Baltimore was as much to convey relevant facts about the site as to express its essential emotional significance, transforming the encounter with history into a moving and transformative experience.
Beyond the building envelope, there is an array of strategies that can make up an effective interpretive center. The context is one. In the past, buildings like these were often located close to the historic site but with no organic relationship to it; now, as at our recent Niagara Falls State Park Visitor Center, the focus is on establishing a vital connection to the site, with views of the Niagara River Gorge and the Cataract roaring to allow the landscape to tell its own story. The variety of different media, ranging from artifacts to video to digital interactives, is also crucial in attracting potential visitors of all ages and backgrounds, and presenting them with as many options as possible for engaging with the subject. And the ability to guide the user experience doesn’t stop inside the hub, with intuitive wayfinding that directs visitors around and through the site, we’re able to extend the experience and enable everything the environment. Even amenities such as restaurants, rest areas, and the gift shop (shot glasses and all) can be harnessed into a moving and provocative space, along with many things that ordinary visitors might not notice. be not, but which nevertheless reinforce the key themes of the site. Our Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center in Colorado, for example, meets the Living Building Challenge’s stringent green standards, helping to preserve the very natural environment it celebrates.
Ensuring that the curatorial message hits home is obviously essential and it is up to us to ensure that it is the right message, or the right messages, that get through. At our Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Maryland, it was especially imperative to hear Tubman’s voice alongside the voices of millions like her desperate to escape slavery. The challenge of inclusion – ensuring that everyone is present and taken into account, especially those who have traditionally been excluded from the historical conversation – makes it all the more important to create interpretive centers, such as Tubman, which ensure different points of view and provide spaces for events and programming to bring in outside speakers who can broaden the reach of the center and invite more audience participation. Equally important is ensuring a fair experience. The summit of Pikes Peak would generally be virtually inaccessible, especially for older visitors and those with physical challenges. But gentle grading and accessible vantage points high above the fragile tundra ecosystem, along with parking and a cogwheel train to transport guests to and from the summit, ensure that the center and experience are as fair as they are sustainable. The functional as well as the formal sophistication of any interpretive center can be measured by means of a few simple questions: For whom does this building make room? To whom does he speak and whom does he allow to speak?
It is by answering these questions that the interpretation centre, unique in the contemporary architectural repertoire, can be precisely what we need to get out of our current cultural impasse. The forces that have so insistently tugged at the fabric of our national life must somehow find expression and become part of our common history. Taking the best developments in interpretive center design to date and combining them with some of the most promising trends currently emerging in the field, integrating new forms of technology, including AR/VR; forge links between establishments and sites, particularly those in the same town or region; and by encouraging visitors to shape their own experience – interpretation centers could perform this delicate act of intertwining. With many more of them, big and small, appearing in many more of these much-needed contested places, we could create a vast interconnected network, a national brick-and-mortar system for mediating between the past and the present that could help forge a new national consensus. For a type of building with such humble beginnings, that’s a lot to hope for, and certainly a lot to expect from the architects commissioned to design them. But it’s a good starting point.
Alan Reed, FAIA, LEED AP is President and Design Director of Baltimore-based GWWO Architects. He has traveled to 49 of the 50 United States and visited national parks and sites of historical and cultural significance in each. He hopes to go to Alaska very soon.