- American Ski Resort Architecture, Style, Experience by Margaret Supplee Smith
Margaret Smith is the Harold W. Tribble Professor Emerita of Art at Wake Forest University and this three hundred-page book with as many illustrations has been ten years in the making. It has been worth the wait.
There are three major parts to the book, each with subsections. Smith proposes “Resort Skiing Begins” during the 1930s-1950s; “Postwar Populism” during the 1950s-1960s; and “Resort Skiing as a Total Experience” during the 1970s-1980s. An important epilogue brings the study into the twenty-first century. A list of three generations of ski resort architects and about one hundred mini-biographies of some of them, as well as landscape architects, the latter important since, as one of them explained, “we make picture postcards,” comprise the two appendices (p. 207).
This book is about the tensions created among people from very different backgrounds and the locals they meet, tensions stemming from how land use changed a wilderness outpost to a popular destination and then, in many cases, to a recreational community. The role of developers and their relationship to architects is one of the fascinating aspects of this study.
American ski resort architecture first appeared in the 1930s, whether as a park winter shelter or the Civilian Conservation Corps’ magnificent Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, Oregon. Smith argues that as skiing became more available—and popular—“architectural design increasingly scripted places to create special experiences and unique memories that [End Page 147] would meet and exceed tourist expectations” (p.4). You did not just enjoy skiing, Smith contends; the architecture that you found there informed your experience.
However skiable a mountain, success for both owner, developer, client, and tourist turned on its amenities: first snow cover, then lifts with a swift change in only two years from the first rope tow in the United States in 1934 (Woodstock, Vermont) to the first chairlift in 1936 (Sun Valley, Idaho). But a rope tow could be put up just about anywhere and was; a chair was a permanent fixture. It is no wonder Smith dwells on Averill Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad and his Sun Valley as America’s first destination resort. Thus, in the first section 1930s to 1950s, rustic camps and revamped inns gave way to Sun Valley and “Creating Resort Aspen” with its subtitle “Historic Preservation, Cultural Aspiration, and Ski Town” gives a glimpse into the thrust of Smith’s analysis.
In “Postwar Populism,” Smith scrutinizes “Alpine in America”, “Mountain Modernism,” and “Cabin to Condo.” The Alpine ambience—ersatz Austrian if you don’t like it— became part of the business model of selling skiing to an increasingly wealthy public. A reaction to the faux Europeanism had its first bold statement at Squaw Valley where an ultra-modern steel and glass complex welcomed the world to the winter Olympics in 1960. At Snowbird in the narrow canyon just out of Salt Lake City, the designers, “experienced skiers and committed modernists,” created a resort that made a major statement about “skiing, the environment, and America” (p. 107). Set in a valley prone to avalanches, Snowbird was remarkable for its sound ecological principles in building its megastructures, its attempt to create a vast social complex while preserving the surrounding yet very narrow valley. The 160-unit condominium, for example, only had a footprint of half an acre: truly an American answer to high mountain living.
Smith portrays the 1970s and 1980s as “Resort Skiing As a Total Experience.” She takes a critical look at the environmental problems created by the vast new meccas of skiing, especially those in the West, although she does not shy away from considering “Vermont under Siege.” It was the out of control condo development that was as troubling as Vail had become and remains simply an urban corridor. Beaver Creek, a short distance west was built for the über-rich not to have to deal with the populism of Vail. As...