Mountain Architecture: An Alternative Design Proposal
for the
Wy'East Day Lodge, Mount Hood Oregon

by Thomas P. Deering, Jr.



"The Alpine environment is not made up only of rocks, snow, pastures, pine forests, babbling streams, flowers, cows, sheep, and crows. It consists also of people and houses: therefore of architecture." (1)

Now that man is returning to the wilderness and bringing his buildings with him, the character of the wilderness is changing. The amount of land that can be described as true wilderness is diminishing, especially as permanent structures are built within its perimeter. Human beings will always need shelter, and for those who choose not to camp along a mountain trail, architects are providing it for them. For many people buildings are now part of the wilderness experience, and unfortunately for some, they have become the only source of contact with wild nature.

Buildings such as Timberline Lodge and the Banff Springs Hotel were originally built, in part, because of the number of people already visiting the area. The demand for a building existed--people were aware of the value of experiencing the wilderness around them. For the casual tourist their construction increased accessibility and provided new impetus to travel to a place that previously had been enjoyed by relatively few outdoors men. The buildings were as much of a destination as the magnificent scenery they embraced. They not only made the views more accessible, but became a significant part of the experience itself.

The question as to whether a particular building is appropriate in a mountain setting is a difficult one, and the answer is to a large degree, subjective. Certain building styles have been deemed better suited to the mountain environment than others, such as the "Rustic" style adopted by the National Park Service. But the fact is, architects have always designed their mountain buildings in the style that they, as trained designers, felt was appropriate. It serves little purpose here to sanction one style over another or revert to a nostalgic resurrection of past successful building traditions. It is not a matter of style; architects have the ability to make architecture respond to its surroundings, if that is the purpose and there exists a willingness to make an effort to understand the context.

The appreciation of a mountain building depends entirely on its ability to complement, reinforce, and enhance what we as human beings require of the wild, natural world--this assumes acknowledgement of the fundamental necessity of contact with the wilderness (see Chapter I). When an individual is drawn to the mountains, the experience should be complete and consistent. The manmade elements should therefore complement the essential qualities of the natural environment.

To manifest these qualities in a design, elements can be drawn directly from nature by using indigenous building materials, imitating natural forms, or other such devices. Of these techniques, imitation is the most limited; it provides little basis for learning or further development. The mountain environment instead should be examined on a more fundamental level: as a paradigm for its architecture. Through it will come the guidelines for understanding the proper manipulation of a building's form, texture, color, and spirit. This idea is not new. Thirty years ago for example, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, "Every true esthetic is an implication of nature." (2) But now, due to the increasing scarcity of wilderness, and thereby its appreciating value to civilization, the understanding and application of the paradigm is all the more important.

The character of a particular paradigm for mountain architecture stems from the consideration of which buildings do and do not seem appropriate in their respective mountain settings. The points that follow reflect my experiences in the mountains as well as my exposure to, and subjective evaluation of, existing mountain architecture. They serve as my criteria by which to judge the appropriateness or suitability of any building in the mountains--especially that of my own work. These criteria for appropriate mountain architecture are, in effect, an evaluation of the past and a model for the future.

In a Mountain Building, the Overall Form Should Be Simple and Understandable

Elementary and unambiguous, in nature a mountain is recognized for what it is if its form can be seen in its entirety. Only from this perspective can the mass, scale, and relationship to the surrounding environment be fully understood. From a distance the complexities of detail are subordinate to the overall form and serve only to reinforce and clarify the initial impression. If the sense of the whole is lost so will be an understanding of its character; as within a deep forest the awareness of its containment by a valley is unconfirmed.

If the basic form of a building is too complex, trust in the building is subverted--as if its essential character had been disguised. The effect is one of confusion and self indulgence, not of comfort and reassurance.

The Form Should Offer a Complete Range of Scales

Forms of all scales exist in the environment and one finds representatives in any scene. Nature leaves no gap in the continuum of constituent parts. A view across a valley for example, will consist on the largest scale of the valley itself. Next in the hierarchy may be a forest, rocky cliff or large lake. Subsequently, within each of these can be identified elements of ever decreasing size and scale. The limit is only what can be distinguished by the eye. (This argument is somewhat analogous to William Gilpin's plea for roughness and variety in the painter's interpretation of landscape, ie., that smoothness is not a product of the picturesque--see Chapter I.(3))

In the realm of built forms, this range of scale should be present on both the building's exterior and interior. The building itself is the largest exterior volume supported by a hierarchy of secondary and tertiary forms. If a group of buildings are under consideration the same principle applies. Each building is an element of the collective form: one should dominate, with the scale subsequently broken down to include the others.

Interior spaces must provide for both the solitude of the individual on the one hand, and the gregarious, interactive group on the other. Small buildings are often served with one room fulfilling both purposes, whereas larger buildings usually require spaces which, as individual entities, must vary in scale to accomplish the same task but the hierarchy must be clear. One space should be unquestionably larger in scale (but not necessarily in size) than the others. As the range of scale must be continuous, every mountain building should contain a large scaled public space, within which the scale is further broken down to include smaller, more intimate and human scaled spaces.

Symmetry Should Not Dominate the Form

Nature is never perfectly symmetrical, despite our common use of symmetry in the stereotypical rendering of natural forms. Symmetry is formal and man-centered; it implies his superiority and control over nature. But its use need not, and should not, be avoided completely. As a device to organize secondary elements within the total form, it provides stability and helps establish order among smaller and repetitive elements.

The Structure and Function of a Mountain Building Must Be Intuitively Obvious

Protection, and therefore survival, is one of the primary purposes of a mountain building. If the building is to be trusted, this sense of security must be intuitive and conveyed by the building's form, not just by the a priori knowledge that modern buildings do not fail.

This is one of the stronger arguments against a flat roof in the mountains. One intuitively understands that a sloping roof will shed melted snow and rain water, and on steeper roofs that the snow itself will slide. Whether it actually does is not essentially important--it is the belief that it will. On the other hand, an absolutely flat roof gives the impression of having to withstand the load imposed by an entire season's snowfall. There is no visible relief from the accumulation; the building can not take care of itself. Only the architects or engineers truly understand how the building functions and one is forced to trust them. In short, if the mechanisms for relieving the loads imposed by snows or heavy rains on a flat-roofed building are hidden, it is more difficult to believe in the security of that building. This is further supported by the absence of prototypical structures among the mountain vernacular with flat roofs. Often what appear to be flat roofs are usually slightly sloped, a product of the roofing material being used, e.g., slate shingles. If the roof is absolutely flat, an internal, engineered, mechanism is employed to handle the runoff.

Many examples of structures with low-pitch roofs do exist in heavy snow zones, however. In fact, retention of snow is often desirable both for its insulating quality and to avoid potential injury from snow sliding onto people; especially the latter point, which actually contributes to a sense of well being while in or around the structure.

Individual window panes in a mountain building should be small. The vulnerability of large areas of glass, if not divided into smaller lights, can violate the intuitive sense of security and the faith in the ability of the building to protect.

Visible and conspicuous structural members further reassure the occupant that a mountain building can withstand the extremes of winter weather. Contemporary structures tend to fall short of this requirement. Modern building techniques often rely on materials and structural sections with which the layman has little, if any, familiarity. Slender steel columns, for example, may be properly engineered to withstand any anticipated snow load, but the system is inappropriate as its appearance belies its function. By extension, this is applicable to other structural, functional, and non-decorative elements of a building.

An Image of the Surrounding Environment Should Be Included Within the Form

Every physical environment can be described in terms of its form. The mountains are massive and vertical; stable and complex and diverse. A specific locality may exhibit one of these traits more than another as the balance of these and other determinants combine to establish its unique character. The form of a building should be sympathetic to these characteristics thereby reinforcing the existing sense of place. A mountain building should be to some degree geomorphic or mountain-like.

Color Balance and Hue Should Be Substantially Derived from the Natural Surroundings

The sense of place imaged within a building's form is complemented by the proper use of color. Hue, saturation and value vary as much in the natural environment as do the scale and texture of form. From a distance, colors blend to give the impression of a single dominant hue. In this sense, the overall coloring of a mountain building should be simple and restricted in range.

Natural environments maintain a balance of coloration which, by emulation, works well when applied to mountain buildings. In nature, a specific type of environment is typically indicated by a predominant color: greens for the coniferous forest; oranges and reds for deciduous trees in autumn; beiges of the desert; sparkling, white snowfields; and so on. Within the predominant color are variegations of tints, shades, and saturations. While the overall effect is that of the predominant color, the variegations always exist and are essential to its character.

Sky coloration, at first, appears to be an exception to this rule. A dramatically clear day produces a sky overhead of an intensely saturated blue whose extent is far greater than any other natural element of a single hue. The color blue, in the natural world, is unique to the sky; a product of a unique environment. The variegations of color are present in its saturation, which varies from the most intense blue overhead to almost white at the true horizon.(4) On a cloudy day the variegation is in the form of value contrast produced by the clouds themselves. If overcast turns to fog, the contrasts and variegations are eliminated and the effect is one of confusion and disorientation.

The principle, therefore, by which one should affect color on a mountain building is to let one specific range of colors dominate, yet accent with it small amounts of other saturated or contrasting colors. By careful observation, a suitable palette can be drawn from the immediate environment. One might picture a mountain meadow strewn with wild flowers, whose predominant color is created by the mixture of all of the colors of all of the flowers. Up close the sense of the overall coloring will diminish and the individual colors of the flowers themselves will then be distinguished.

Buildings constructed of indigenous materials accomplish this effect most easily. The variegations are already present in the materials themselves, hence a conscious decision as to how to apply added color is eliminated. Windows will reflect sky color, and similar contrasts will arise from the use of small amounts of other materials such as metals for flashing and hardware. Artificially colored buildings must be handled carefully to avoid the unnatural elimination of color contrasts and blending.

Surface Texture Should Remain True to the Material

The faith in the ability of a mountain building to fulfill its purpose must be promoted on all levels. The choice to use one building material over another is not arbitrary but based on its ability to complement the implied intention of the building as a whole. At any scale, the surface of the material is part of the building's form, and thus subject to the same constraints of honesty and integrity outlined above. The strengths and weaknesses of a material are communicated through its surface. Wood, that has been sanded smooth, often will indicate a delicacy or fragility that may not be appropriate to its expected use, despite the actual suitability of the material itself.

A finished surface also disguises the history of the material. This is not so important in itself, but some of the potential for the user to understand the building intuitively is lost. A mountain building is a symbol of the contact with humanity that all human beings who venture into the wilderness eventually need. The richness of this interaction depends partly on how well the building communicates its past relationships with the people who built and used it. This is most evident in the surface texture of materials subject to wear. If the material can not be touched however, some indication of the construction process responsible for its resultant form helps to establish its link with the human past. It also reinforces the intuitive understanding of how the building was put together.

The Building Should Represent and Embody the Natural Cycle of Life

"Save for the atoms themselves, it is life that has longest endured--while continents rise and fall and towering mountain ranges emerge only to erode into inconsequence." (5)

Life is an integral part of a mountain building. Its purpose is to sustain and enrich it. All life exists through the interaction with other lives, past and present; and there can be no life without death. A mountain building comes into existence because of a human need. Throughout its life, it is subject to human use; it weathers; it ages. At some point it must die.

The conception, design, and construction of a building is its birth; and in this sense all buildings are "born". Growth is manifest by wear and regeneration as people use it over time and badly worn elements are repaired or replaced. A building that does not show the effects of use and weathering is detached from life. If, however, damage, as opposed to wear, is the result of a winter's use, then the building is struggling too hard for life; it is sick and can be of little spiritual help to the individual. The growth of a mountain building is slowed or vitiated if it is forced to become simply another building in a mountain setting. It is indeed sad to see magnificent structures become merely museums for the curious tourist.

Immortality should be reserved for the gods. For a mountain building, death usually comes by fire. The mortality of a building is brought out by the knowledge that it is vulnerable to the ultimate catastrophe. Many historical accounts of mountain buildings end with "The Fire". One poignant example is the demise of the first hotel constructed at Government Camp, on Mount Hood's south flank: ". . . Then came the bad Wednesday of October 11, 1933. It was 11:00 in the morning. Rafferty was under the building doing some plumbing work when someone yelled, 'FIRE'... By nightfall all that remained of the [thirty-four year old] hotel was the old fireplace, a dark monolith against the afternoon sky." (6)

A Mountain Building Must Be a Paragon of Optimism and Potential for the Future

Earlier, Wendell Berry was quoted as saying that "if change is to come it will have to come from the . . . margins." (7) (And here the margins is interpreted as the mountain wilderness--see Chapter I.) Mountain buildings make the margins accessible, especially to people whose contact with it would be otherwise limited. The optimism required to make positive changes in the world will be present in the building if it is perceived to be life-giving and life-sustaining. It must foster interaction between people by bringing them together to share their joys and sorrows, and also give them the freedom and solitude to reflect upon their experiences. This is no doubt required of any successful building but its importance in the mountains is to be underscored if the essential value of the wilderness is given any credence.

The suitability of a building in the mountains arises fundamentally from the respect given to the wilderness environment. A building represents the relationship between the culture that produce it and nature herself. For contemporary man it is the transition between civilization and the natural wilderness. A mountain building is very much a part of the landscape and its intimate relationship with it should not be denied.

Table of Contents


1. Mario Cerghini, Building in the Mountains, (1957). p. 34.

2. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House, (1954). p. 40.

3. William Gilpin, Three Essays: on Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: with a Poem on Landscape Painting, 3rd ed., (1808), pp. 8-20.

4. This is caused by the tendency of the shorter (blue) wavelengths of sunlight to be scattered at 90 degrees from the incident angle. The sky is therefore the most blue not directly overhead, but at a point perpendicular to the incident sunlight.

5. Ian McHarg, Design With Nature, (1967). p. 172.

6. Jack Grauer, Mount Hood: A Complete History, (1975). p. 42.

7. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (1977). p. 174.

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Master of Architecture Thesis
(M. Arch - University of Washington - 1986)

Extensive copying of this thesis is allowable only for scholarly purposes,
consistent with "fair use" as described in the U.S. Copyright Law.
Any other reproduction for any purpose or by any means
shall not be allowed without my written permission.

Copyright 1986 © Thomas P. Deering, Jr.