The previous couple of years have borne witness to among the most speedy—and at occasions most jarring—cultural shifts in our nation’s lengthy historical past. If the expertise has taught us something, it’s that we should discover a option to preserve our historical past in view, whereas additionally placing it in perspective. Monuments, landmarks, battlefields, complete landscapes, websites of wrestle, of loss and of triumph—all of those require a brand new spatial framework, one that may transmit their that means, not simply to the current technology, however to generations to come back.
Fortuitously, structure places at the very least one invaluable device at our disposal to additional discover these relationships and foster productive and inclusive discourse. It’s known as an interpretive heart, and it’s a kind of constructing our workplace has been researching, reimagining, designing, and constructing for the final three a long time, finishing over 65 such tasks.
Most individuals have been to an interpretive heart of 1 variety or one other. In its easiest type, it’s acquainted to any American who recollects—as I definitely do—being dragged off by their dad and mom on an extended trip drive, and stopping alongside the best way at numerous spots of pure or historic curiosity. There, on the far finish of the parking zone, was the customer heart; often a modest, boxy affair, the constructing would typically embrace just a few dimly lit, not very-engrossing exhibition shows, a present store full of themed keychains and shot glasses, and maybe just a little literature and some primary companies to assist visitors navigate the positioning. They may not at all times have been inspiring, however these buildings succeeded on these phrases at the very least, and so they paved the best way for what we confer with as ‘interpretive facilities’ at present.
Starting within the Nineties, we began to consider this typology of interpretive facilities in a brand new means. Put succinctly, the distinction between the customer facilities of the previous and an interpretive heart is that, whereas the previous is usually little greater than a nondescript field with info inside it, the latter supplies a complete informational setting that begins with the constructing and its environment then extends to each side of its inside. instance of that is the Fort McHenry Customer and Schooling Heart in Baltimore. Designed by our agency in 2011, the challenge was supposed to be a vacation spot, a landmark that might drive site visitors to the positioning after which actively have interaction guests from the second they arrive. At Fort McHenry, house to the unique star-spangled banner, the construction’s curving, flag-like facade begins to inform the story of the place even earlier than the visitors go inside; as soon as previous the edge, guests progress via the inside in discrete, rigorously deliberate phases, with spatial cues, lighting, didactic and interactive shows, and extra all flowing collectively to provide a pure, comprehensible narrative. As in all of our interpretive tasks, the purpose in Baltimore was as a lot to convey the related info concerning the website as to precise its important emotional import, turning the encounter with historical past right into a transferring, transformative expertise.
Past the constructing envelope, there are an array of methods that may make for an efficient interpretive heart. Context is one. Up to now, buildings like these had been typically positioned close to the historic website however with no natural relationship to it; now, as in our latest Niagara Falls State Park Welcome Heart, the main focus is on forging a significant connection to the positioning, with views out to the Niagara River Gorge and the roaring cataract to permit the panorama to inform its personal story. The number of completely different media, starting from artifacts to video to digital interactives, can also be essential to enchantment to potential guests of all ages and backgrounds, and to current them with as many choices as doable to interact with the subject material. And the chance to information the person expertise isn’t confined to the middle’s inside, with intuitive wayfinding routing guests round and thru the positioning, we’re capable of prolong the expertise and activate the entire setting. Even facilities like eating, relaxation areas, and the reward store (shot glasses and all) might be marshaled within the service of stirring, provocative space-making, together with many issues extraordinary guests may not discover however that nonetheless reinforce the important thing themes of the positioning. Our Pikes Peak Summit Customer Heart in Colorado, for example, meets the stringent ecological requirements of the Residing Constructing Problem, thereby serving to to protect the very pure setting it celebrates.
Guaranteeing the curatorial message hits house is clearly key and it’s incumbent upon us to ensure it’s the best message, or messages, that get via. In our Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Customer Heart in Maryland, there was a selected crucial to listen to Tubman’s voice alongside the voices of tens of millions like her determined to flee from slavery. The problem of inclusion—guaranteeing that everybody is current and accounted for, most of all those that had been historically neglected of the historic dialog—makes it all of the extra vital to create interpretive facilities, like Tubman, that assure completely different factors of view and supply areas for occasions and programming to herald exterior audio system who can broaden the middle’s scope and invite additional participation from the viewers. Equally as vital is guaranteeing an equitable expertise. The highest of Pikes Peak would often be all however inaccessible, particularly for older guests and people with bodily challenges. However mild grading and accessible overlooks elevated above the delicate tundra ecosystem, together with parking and a cogwheel practice to hold visitors to and from the summit, guarantee the middle and expertise are as equitable as they’re sustainable. The useful in addition to the formal sophistication of any interpretive heart might be measured by means of some easy questions: For whom does this constructing make room? Who does it communicate to, and whom does it enable to talk?
It’s in answering these questions that the interpretive heart, distinctive within the up to date architectural repertoire, could also be exactly what we have to escape our current cultural deadlock. The forces which have been pulling so insistently on the material of our nationwide life should one way or the other discover expression, and be woven into our shared historical past. Taking one of the best developments in interpretive heart design to this point, and mixing them with among the most promising developments now rising within the area—incorporating new types of know-how, together with AR/VR; forging connections between establishments and websites, particularly ones in the identical metropolis or area; and inspiring guests to form their very own expertise—interpretive facilities may carry out that delicate act of intertwining. With many extra of them, large and small, showing in lots of extra of these contested locations that so sorely want them, we may create an unlimited interconnected community, a nationwide, brick-and-mortar system for mediating between the previous and current that might assist forge a brand new nationwide consensus. For a constructing sort with such humble beginnings, it’s lots to hope for, and it’s undoubtedly lots to anticipate of the architects tasked with designing them. But it surely’s an awesome place to begin.
Alan Reed, FAIA, LEED AP is President and Design Principal of Baltimore-based GWWO Architects. He has traveled to 49 of the 50 United States and has visited nationwide parks and traditionally and culturally vital websites in all of them. He hopes to make it to Alaska very quickly.