Preservation, Innovation, and Education: Exploring the University Design Studio as a Platform for New Thinking in Resource Protection, Treatment, and Sustainability for the Next 100 Years

This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenters’ Bios

Julie McGilvrey, National Park Service

Julie McGilvrey: Thanks, everyone. I’m going to start my presentation by talking about the roles, opportunities, and limitations of the university-led design studio. And then I’m briefly going to introduce a Park Service studio that we did about Lance National Park with the University of Texas this past fall. And then, I’ll hand it over to Michael to follow-up with university perspectives on that same studio.

As the NPS celebrates 100 years, we leave a legacy of design and innovation from Olmsted to the modernism of Mission 66. Looking forward to the next 100 years, preservation and care of these resources is key for continuity, a visitor experience, and for fulfilling the NPS mission. Yet the NPS and partners face a different set of challenges than those found in the 20th century. In addition to challenges in hiring and funding, we have changes in planning and preservation standards, as a practice. Further, demands such as universal access, climate change, sustainability and evolving concepts of visitor experience push designers to pull from multiple disciplines and to think in ways that we have not before.

As an innovative partnership for the future, the university-led design studio has the potential to push the NPS in new directions in preservation, creative research, planning, and design, while educating the next generation of designers and preservationists through a set of real-world issues connected to heritage and place. Ultimately this type of partnership … Through this type of partnership we may explore possibilities that we would not normally explore without their help.

The Park Service has a history of doing design studios with universities. The Park Service has partnered in the past, such as through the Designing the Parks initiative, with its student design competition, “Parks for the People.” and also, individual parks seeking out the help from specific universities for certain design questions.

So what makes a good studio? I asked a couple of people that I’ve worked with, Robert Melnick of the University of Oregon and Kimball Erdman of the University of Arkansas, to give me a little feedback. And their answers really dovetailed nicely, so I’m going to kind of summarize their thoughts. First of all, we need a clear understanding of the roles of the university and the NPS. And we need to act in mutual support and find common ground through education as a priority. Student support through NPS participation is critical. And this is not just handing off research materials to students but being there for conversations and sharing perspectives. Real-world issues are key and provide a richer learning experience for our students. And we know parks have some very interesting real-world issues going on. Regarding products, the learning process and the design process is the product of a studio. So this can be a challenge for the parks. They want a set … A sort of packaged thing like what me might get from a contractor. But we can’t expect those from our partners and universities. So, as Kimball put it very well, he said, “Students must be given the freedom to experiment with real-world issues, while not confined by their constraints.”

I asked some students for their perspectives, too, on the design studio. And I asked three students from the University of Texas studio that I was involved with, Kathleen Conti, Hannah Simonson, and Kelsey Riddle, who is not with us today because she is working on the preservation of castles in Ireland this summer. So we miss her at this conference, certainly. So, to students, and again repeating some of the things that Robert Melnick and Kimball Erdman shared with me, real sites matter. Complex and challenging issues can be very rewarding to students. So we should not be afraid to give them the complexity that are these Park Service places, and what we find in Park Service units. NPS involvement is key. We have all kinds of professions in the parks. And we have lots of different types of research going on. So when we allow students to see that reality, it really broadens their horizons. And it certainly, again, exposes them to the type of complexities that are in our parks. And it can change the way they tackle a design problem for us.

The Badlands National Park visitor center, ca. 1960. NPS image.

Studio classes average 10-12 students. And so that type of … plus what you get from faculty perspectives that really offers diverse perspectives to the Park Service. When you couple that with all of the people working in park units, then you really start to have all kinds of diverse perspectives represented. And we definitely need this in the National Park Service. So that helps students understand, like in this case, this is the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Badlands, what changes were made from the Mission 66 Visitor Center design, to what we did in 2005 to this building. So the students have a foundation to move forward.

Development of good visual communication is key to any design student. And this helps them express design concepts and research. While this helps students sharpen their skills, it also helps the Park Service see things in a completely new light. So, I really love this. I would have never tracked a visitor in a visitor center before, but one of the students at UT did. And it really helped us understand how it was working, how it wasn’t. Great information.And of course, design students, we hope, will be the next generation of NPS employees and consultants. And this is an outcome in a future investment of these studios.

So here we are at the final critique of the Badlands studio at the University of Texas at Austin. We’ve got students, NPS staff, ones that could not be there were Skyped in, so they could see what was going on. And lots of faculty. And lots of UT staff and visiting professors. So, talk about diverse perspectives, this is incredible idea-generation.

And so, in talking to students, for me, they inspire me. And this was one of the coolest quotes that I heard from any student. This is from Kelsey Riddle, the one who’s working in Ireland this summer. She made a connection between the Park Service and the design studio. She said, “The Park Service, in all of its innovation and its history, is this fantastical thing. And it’s surprising that it actually works.” And she said that the design studio is the same way. All kinds of fantastical ideas come out of this, but some of them are the seeds of great things.

I wanted to introduce the studio to you, briefly. This is Badlands National Park. And Badlands has sort of one developed area, and it’s Cedar Pass. So that’s where we focus the studio work. And it has a period of significance of 1927 to 1966. It spans early tourism, development by a concessions company, and then the New Deal Era enveloped … developments under the guidance of Thomas Vint’s philosophy. And then, of course, Mission 66.

This place has some challenges. Because it was the only developed area in the park, there were liberties that were taken by about 2005 with new design interventions that started to change the integrity of this place. And the CLR was just written, but sort of the changes that took place around 2005 to a lot of the buildings and the structures started to sort of cancel out that work that we had done to record it and do determinations of eligibility. So, by about 2012, the Park Service, the Midwest Regional Office, and the Park itself, wanted to find a way to move forward, to inspire the staff, to get them engaged, back in this place, and to understand the value of preservation and a cultural landscape.

So the superintendent wanted to do a studio. We targeted the University of Texas at Austin because we wanted to have a multi-disciplinary studio. We wanted to pull from the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, preservation and planning. And we wanted to also tap into something that UT has that’s quite special. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. They’re an ecological research arm of UT. And we wanted to see how we could start to merge natural and cultural, and have that conversation within this cultural landscape.

This is Cedar Pass. This is the original, historic core. Mission 66.  And then it’s tied together, of course, with the fabulous Loop Road. We’ve heard a lot about roads already today, and Badlands has a terrific one. This changed a lot over time, but it’s still pretty amazing, if you’ve ever driven it.

Overview of the Badlands National Park Cedar Pass Developed Area. Image created by J. McGilvray, 2014.


So, we had the studio … we gave them a framework, and we gave them what I call the four-in-four framework. We gave them four areas to focus at Cedar Pass, so they weren’t completely overwhelmed with this place. And then we gave them four concepts under which to work. So we had them focus  on the 1930s lodge built by our concessioner back in the day. And then we had them focus on the Mission 66 Visitor Center. Housing. Could we have new infill and how would that work? And then, ecological restoration of the landscape and what that might start to look like in this cultural landscape.

Badlands National Park Design Studio concept for a new lodge. Student: Blagica Ristovska. NPS image, 2016.

The concepts that we asked them to pay attention to applied to those four areas were, cultural landscapes as a preservation framework. SITES as a landscape-level sustainability framework. And if you’re not familiar with SITES, this is the Sustainable Sites Initiative. And it is a … In effect LEED for landscapes. It is a metric for sustainability. And it was developed in partnership between the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, the US Botanic Garden, and the ASLA. And then of course, visitor experience and accessibility, or universal design. And these two things are completely intertwined. If you don’t have good universal design then you don’t have good anyone’s experience in a place, including the staff. So we wanted to make sure those things were represented quite well.

What the Park Service kind of pulled from this, was a few things. We knew that it was good to give the University of Texas a framework and let them take it from there. Which is what they did. And then what was really cool to me is that the site became a lab for idea generation. This is a place that was neglected and undervalued, and it became a hub of research and thinking and asking questions and engagement. I really, really liked that… watching that happen. Multiple ideas and multiple scales. Because we pulled in a multidisciplinary group of students, they were attacking things at all different levels. And it was really up to the students to figure out exactly, kind of where they wanted to take things.

Badlands National Park Design Studio concept allowing changes in the visitor center to better interpret erosion in the larger landscape. Student: Xiaomeng Ma. NPS image, 2016.

Design process and value are revealed. This is something, too, that was … I would have never imagined something like this would happen. When you work in parks, you’re around people all the time that do not have design backgrounds. And I think that … And I’m speaking for them, but I think they think that what landscape architects and architects do is something of a mystery. What are they doing? What are they talking about? So, because the whole park really engaged in this studio, they got to see what designers do. And they got to watch that process. And I think that that’s important for the future of design in the National Park Service. We need to let people know what we do. And this is a way to do that.

And then future research ideas were identified. A few of our pieces of the framework did not works that well, like SITES applied to cultural landscapes. And so we know, because we were working in a free framework, we could innovate, we could think, we could talk. We didn’t have a set outcome that had to be produced. We knew that we could tackle new thoughts and ideas, and set aside research goals for the future. So that’s exactly what’s going on with cultural landscapes and SITES now.

And before I hand it off to Michael, future possibilities. So I go to parks all the time, and I hear people discussing, scratching their heads. “What should we do with resources? And how do we take them … How do we keep them? How do we engage them? How do we take them into the next generation of use?”I was just at Mesa Verde a couple of weeks ago, and we had great conversations with the superintendent about this visitor center. And I was thinking, that’s exactly when you want to do a studio. And we have to ask ourselves, at some point, what would the next generation do with these places?

Thank you.

Michael Holleran, Unversity of Texas at Austin

Michael Holleran:  Thank you.

My teaching partner for this, for the Badlands studio, was Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla, who’s on our faculty.  Benjamin was not able to be here today. But the paper he and I put together is, in short, a distillation of advice on studios, as a tool for parks, for the Park Service. It represents, with Badlands as the most recent example … Benjamin and I put our heads together from several decades of client-centered and community-centered studios, to come up with seven pieces of advice, that are directed both toward potential studio sponsors, you all in the Park Service, and also toward our colleagues. Academics who run studios who may be curious about doing this strange business of a studio where you’re actually out there and working with real people and real problems.

So, this is gonna track fairly closely to things that Robert and Kimball said, to things that Julie has already heard. That you have already heard. That redundancy is partly saying that there are … There really are some things that we’ve learned here that we want to share.

The first one is, if you can write specs for deliverables, it’s not a studio. Hire a consultant. It’s not going to be satisfactory for you. It’s not going to be satisfactory for the students. They need to be able to do their work, learn, be responsible for what they’re coming up with. And you, if you’re using the studio to its potential, are doing it in order to have that energy out there, going in directions that you didn’t think of. That’s what the studio does.

Number two. The process is the product. Process is a big part of the product. We have a product that the students produced. We don’t have them to hand out for everybody, but we do have a few of them. We have a more organized product that students have been working on since the end of the studio, that will be a usable document done with the Park Service, for some of the park’s needs. But the … We’re here at a conference. The point of the conference is not to produce proceedings. Similarly, the point of the studio is the process. It was having those students out there. Having those park staff interacting with them. You can see as we flip through the slides here, there was a lot going on. There were a lot of ideas being explored. There were a lot of people coming back and forth to Austin.

The students asking questions and the park staff having to think about how to explain what they do, how it works, what works, what doesn’t work. This is the real … This is really what we did, was six months of a kind of intensive interaction that you can’t get from consultants who show up and you know where they’re coming from. Or you think you do. You know who they’re gonna talk to. We set lose thirteen students and eight faculty and staff members, and it was out of control in a very wonderful and productive way.

Three. This one is directed primarily toward our colleagues running design studios. Embrace reality. Design studios can have a reputation for being space-shot, up in the clouds, not connected with anything, kinds of applications of imagination in a vacuum. And in defense of many of our colleagues, and I don’t know if we’ve done this ourselves, but it can be hard to get the kind of nitty-gritty reality of, how does the park actually work? What do you need to do every day to make it work?

Final charrette presentations in Badlands National Park, September 2015

Get the students out there, not just talking to cultural resource and design professionals, but to the people who talk to the visitors. The people who mow the lawns. The people who take care of the buildings. There was a lot of nitty-gritty reality. And it came back into the studio and almost everything the students did was rooted in things that they had heard from folks in the park, in problems that were real in the ways that the park really worked.

Number four is for potential sponsors. Transcend reality. We know you all need to mow the lawns. You need to fix the leaks in the roof. You need to make all of those things work. You can get weighed down into the … Into that routine. You can, in the world of bigger ideas and bigger possibilities, have the burdens of history of things that have been tried and have blown up. Of ideas that have become political third rails. The students are shockingly unshockable. They don’t know what the third rails are. They can go out and try things out. They can say things that if you said them, or if you hired a consultant who said them, would very possibly step on a landmine or blow up.

So here’s the thing. Here is the secret. Please turn the video camera off. If the students say stuff and it blows up, you can say, “Well, they’re just students. They didn’t know.”

If it turns out that there is a way to cut the knot, if it turns out that something that was politically untouchable … What do you know, those people actually retired, or maybe some of them possibly even learned. And we can try this. Then, not only have you gotten that out into the discussion, but if you’re the one who is bright enough to bring those students and faculty in, then you can take some credit, too. So it’s a … It is a process win-win. That way you can try things out.

Number five. Take logistics seriously. And some of this is easy. We needed to get students a thousand miles away. We needed to have a place to put them. But some of it gets to some of what Julie was saying about the kind of support and interaction. It’s not just, “Okay, we have beds for you.” It’s not just, “Here is your data that you needed for that thing you’re doing.” It is making sure that there is time, that there are people, that there is the contact that the staff will be able to come and interact with them. That this time-intensive process has the opportunity to happen.

Number six. The semester is not enough. A studio that’s going to work for a community, for a client, is not going to be something that you cook up in August and everybody shows up and you do something for 15 weeks and you’re done. We spent well over a year planning this. A lot of that was really … “Planning” is the word I just used, but a lot of it was just going and talking to people in the park, talking to people in the Park Service, and explaining over and over again what it was that we were setting out to do, how we were setting out to do it, figuring out what things they understood or didn’t understand about it, and explaining it another way.

Deposition from recent erosion near the Ben Reifel Visitors Center (Xiaomeng Ma)

And it paid off very well because we had met a lot of the people in the park. So when we got there we were able to function. We were able to … Expectations were reasonably, mildly calibrated. And after the semester, the product booklet that I showed you was not produced for the last day of class. Had it been, it would have meant that the last two weeks of the semester was wasted on production. It was done after class. There was a … There has been a process that is still being wrapped up, to digest the parts of the studio that the Park Service will use. And that’s all … That after the class, post-processing is really important. Partly to buy that freedom for students to be able to do stuff that is going to go up on the last day, and we’re looking at it and we’re saying, “Well, I don’t know how that’s going to fly. But we’ll see, and we’ll mop it up afterwards.”

Number seven. Not all studios are created equal. And that’s something that my colleagues here know. That’s something that those of you who have worked with them know. We had 13 students who were all graduate students. They represent six different graduate programs. I would not say that a room full of 19-year-old architecture students couldn’t do something useful, but they would do something different than we did. And understanding that is important.

So, questions?

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