Project Big Bend Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Clients Big Bend National Park; Big Bend Conservancy
Architect Lake|Flato Architects
Design Team Andrew Herdeg, FAIA; Graham Beach, AIA; Jonathan Smith, AIA; Casey Nelson, AIA
Photographer Casey Dunn
The immensity of Big Bend National Park has a way of making the long drive (from any direction) it takes to get there worth it. One is struck by the rugged landscape, the crimson Chisos Mountains, and the scalloped limestone strata crisp against vast blue skies. The Chihuahuan Desert stretches endlessly, textured by sediment and dotted with desert plants. It’s hard to imagine this same dusty landscape covered in water, as it was 130 million years ago when the Western Interior Seaway divided North America. Just as baffling is thinking that dinosaurs once roamed this land, yet Big Bend harbors the most diverse assemblage of vertebrate fossils — and one that spans the greatest geologic timeframe — of any national park.
Big Bend’s history is a storied tale of paleontological research and fossil discovery. It established its first fossil exhibit in 1957: A shelter was constructed around rocks in which were captured primitive mammal fossils, allowing visitors to view the fossils in situ. The original exhibit was decommissioned and the fossils replaced with casts in 1990, when a more accessible exhibit was built near the parking lot. Don Corrick, Big Bend Park geologist, was never fond of the replacement, describing it as “kind of lame.” It was his longtime goal to replace it with something that did the park’s diverse fossil discoveries justice.
For Corrick, Big Bend was the reason he joined the park services. After an eight-year stint in Midland as a petroleum geologist, the oil bust of the 1980s left him unemployed and eventually led him back to graduate school and then a summer job at Big Bend. Before school started, he would cash his unemployment check and head out to the park to camp and explore. “I like it because it’s a self-discovery park,” he explained. “You can park on the side of the road almost anywhere and walk across the desert. You might come across a petrified log, an old Indian campsite, a homestead, an old Model T — any number of things. Or just see something pretty, some unique corner it feels like no one else has seen.” He hoped the new fossil exhibit would capture the same spirit of exploration and discovery.
After two decades of advocating for a new building, Corrick’s goal looked to be within reach. The Park’s Friends group, the Big Bend Conservancy (BBC), became strong enough to tackle the project, and the wheels were set in motion. BBC hired Lake|Flato Architects and shortly afterwards retained EDX Exhibits. Before design was initiated, park geologists and paleontologists led educational seminars for the team. Graham Beach, AIA, project architect, recalls the sessions fondly. “I learned so much about dinosaurs in this process,” he says. “That was one of the most fun things about doing the project — getting to dork out about dinosaurs again.”
The client’s vision to engage the public and bring awareness to the fossil record dominated the process. The exhibits would be the primary driver of design decisions. Corrick and the BBC team had a clear vision for the story they wanted to tell. They had strong ideas on the sequential path visitors would take, when certain fossils would be highlighted, and when the big landscape view would be revealed. That story also included siting the exhibit next to the resource being interpreted: For purposes of the new exhibit, architecture’s role would be that of supporting actor.
There were practical considerations as well. Lake|Flato was challenged with creating a low-maintenance, off-the-grid structure in a harsh environment. The building would be unstaffed, so navigation through the site would have to be intuitive for visitors. The client wanted the exhibit located near the original site and existing infrastructure. Proximity to existing dig sites and sensitive flora and fauna made building siting a delicate process. The structure also needed to camouflage itself so views from the roadways and trails would not be disrupted. The design team quickly learned the demands of working in a national park.
The final design is an open-air pavilion constructed of “desert-tough” materials with a simple form that mimics the surrounding topography and a roof that recalls a winged dinosaur. Both the materials and the low roof help conceal the structure from view. The building is held off the ground by concrete piers, minimizing site impact. Its skin of perforated steel panels keeps visitors’ focus on the exhibit while reminding them throughout of the surrounding context. Interior partitions define a path through the pavilion’s sequentially arranged exhibits, so visitors progress from the Marine Environment of the Early Cretaceous to the Volcanic Highlands environment that followed the dinosaurs’ extinction.
The Gallery of the Giants bisects the exhibit. The east edge is open to a view of the vast landscape, whose geology is evidence of the prehistoric tale told by the exhibits. The K-Pg boundary and past dig sites, like one where neck bones from Alamosaurus were found, can be pointed out from here. A re-created skeleton of earth’s largest known flying creature, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, hangs from the ceiling, displaying its impressive 35-ft wingspan. Wing bones of this pterosaur were discovered in the park. Two massive bronze skulls, Tyrannosaurus rex and Deinosuchus, are mounted on columns raised just above the floor. Deinosuchus, an alligatoroid the size of a school bus, was discovered by Barnum Brown in 1940 at Big Bend. The bronze replicas — mouths agape as if ready to consume their prey — are designed to be touched. Children are not shy, sticking their heads inside the creatures’ mouths while parents capture the moment on cell phone cameras. Corrick says this is precisely the point. “I wanted to engage kids. I love science and they love dinosaurs. Getting them interested in dinosaurs might get them more interested in science, and we need more scientists.”
Dinosaurs are indeed a big draw. People are fascinated by their immense size, especially in relation to themselves. There is the monster factor, too. Imagining real-life monsters roaming the continent is cause for wonderment and has provided fodder for countless books and movies. Scientists continue to unravel the many mysteries surrounding their existence, new discoveries piquing public interest. Perhaps most fascinating is the sudden demise of these dominant creatures, their extinction speaking to the precariousness of existence. The topic captured the design team’s imagination and appears to be doing the same for visitors. The park’s newest amenity is drawing people out of their vehicles and exposing them to an impressive resource previously underrepresented.
Corrick is pleased with the new exhibit, noting that his vision “was not nearly as ambitious as the final product.” The pavilion is the most significant new visitor service construction in Big Bend since the Visitor Center was constructed in the 1960s, and was a National Park Service Centennial project (NPS turned 100 in 2016). Outside of a Centennial grant, the $1.4 million project was paid for entirely through fundraising efforts by the Big Bend Conservancy. The park is finally able to tell a comprehensive story of its complex geologic history and impressive fossil record. Beach hopes the exhibit’s memory will remain with visitors as they venture into the park, causing them to see Big Bend in a new light. Now, too, those willing to make the long journey have the opportunity to dork out about dinosaurs.
Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas.