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Art and architecture meet in the desert

March 05, 2019

By Dalton LaVoie and Cary Baird

The new Boulder City Bypass shows how embracing history—in this case the Hoover Dam—can influence today’s landscape designs

In the 1930s, the Hoover Dam rose more than 700 feet from Black Canyon, holding back the Colorado River and becoming one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. Simultaneously, Boulder City, Nevada, arose as a home for the 5,000 workers building the dam.

Fast forward some 80-plus years, and a new infrastructure project has opened that bypasses the now-historic Boulder City while simultaneously honoring the Hoover Dam. The Boulder City Bypass—12 miles of highway that is part of the new Interstate 11—opened last year, directing traffic around Boulder City and alleviating bottlenecks through the community. 

It’s an honor to be part of a team that helps design and build massive infrastructure projects. As landscape architects on the Boulder City Bypass, we celebrated the Hoover Dam and the history of its construction while playing a part in creating an important highway link to the community’s future. 

It’s the perfect intersection of art and architecture.

The “cast of characters” that reflect the People, Place, Process, and Products associated with the construction of the Hoover Dam. This freestanding sculpture at the new I-11 and US-95 interchange in Nevada celebrates the workers who built the dam.

The Four Ps: People, Place, Process, Products

Storytelling is an important part of the design process and we embrace the opportunity as landscape architects tell the stories of our communities. Sometimes, those stories are as simple as native plantings. At other times, like on the Boulder City Bypass, they are far grander. They are artistic. And they are transformative.  

As part of the analysis and development for Phase 2 of the highway design, our team studied the Hoover Dam’s history to gain a deeper understanding of its significance and effectively build a compelling storyline.

From this research, we identified what we call the four “Ps” to build our story:

  • The “People” and the sacrifices they made to work on the project.
  • The “Place” for this civil wonder.
  • The “Process” of equipment and transportation methods used to build it.
  • The “Products” we benefit from as a result of the dam.

These four pillars are stitched together to tell the story of the Hoover Dam construction at a scenic view parking area. We developed a cast of characters based on the four Ps. From everyday workers and high scalers (people), to cities and wildlife (place), to equipment and materials transport (process), to power and water (products), our team developed the cast and celebrated them on interpretive panels and features at the overlook.  

Nevada’s largest bighorn sheep wildlife crossing provides safe passage over the new Boulder City Bypass with visual elements that reflect the purpose of the structure and the Art Deco style of the Hoover Dam.

Wildlife and wild views

Projects don’t live separate from their surroundings, they are married to them. For the Boulder City Bypass project, our design team made a concerted effort to ensure the project reflected the natural beauty of the surrounding area and its wildlife.

Storytelling is an important part of the design process and we embrace the opportunity as landscape architects tell the stories of our communities.

At the edge of the Eldorado Mountains foothills, the Mojave Desert undertakes a dramatic transition from flatlands to mountains. The colors, forms, textures, and, especially, the wildlife changes. The new highway cuts through the ridgeline of the Eldorado Mountains, a major migratory pass for bighorn sheep. Special underpasses and Nevada’s largest wildlife-crossing bridge were created to protect the wildlife from traffic—and the traffic from wildlife.

Like an artist painting the surrounding landscape, our team used the wildlife-crossing as a canvas to reflect the natural environment through which the sheep migrate. The surrounding mountains and ridgeline are cast into the face of the bridge using naturalistic form liner patterns. We then designed larger-than-life steel art cutouts of the sheep themselves and affixed them to the bridge. In no uncertain way, each of the estimated 30,000 daily travelers of the bypass are reminded of the great lengths that were taken to preserve and protect health, safety, and welfare of humans and bighorns alike.

If there is a must-see moment in this design, it’s the scenic overlook—a place where we could truly bring art and architecture together. Identified as an opportunity for southbound travelers to pull off the highway and view the expanse of Lake Mead, our team took a serious look at the landscape and aesthetic opportunities to enhance this scenic view. As the only opportunity in the project to interact with the public at a pedestrian scale, the overlook is a place where visitors can pull off the interstate to learn about the lake, the construction of the Hoover Dam, the area’s geology, wildlife, and its plants.

The Lake Mead scenic overlook provides travelers a place to pull off the interstate to learn about the lake, the construction of Hoover Dam, the area’s geology, wildlife, and its plants. Art Deco elements were included to connect to the era of the dam construction.

A lot of thought went into the use of materials. Over 8 million cubic yards of material was excavated to construct the new freeway through the Eldorado Mountains and all that material was kept on the project site. Our landscape architects played an important role in working closely with the engineers and contractor to repurpose all the construction materials excavated to create a finished product that blends in with the unique surrounding undisturbed desert landscape.

The environmental context was our key design focus, which includes part of the project built within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The selection of colors, materials, and textures blend in with or enhance the area’s unique desert and ground plane treatments. Ultimately, more than 10,000 salvaged native plants were replanted, while more than 700,000 tons of special gradation rock and boulders salvaged from the excavation were reused.

Key to the project theme’s success is celebrating its relationship to the Hoover Dam’s architecture. The dam was built during the 1930s Art Deco architectural period. All its towers and architectural buildings associated with the dam incorporate that style. For the bypass project, all the bridges outside the national recreation area feature custom-built pilasters on their corners, custom moldings, and other architectural embellishments connecting them to the dam’s architectural style. The custom form liner wall patterns we developed for the project’s retaining walls mimic the natural cut stone and extruded joint style of the 1935 walls built at the Hoover Dam by the Civilian Conservation Corps workers.

Multiple bridges within the project footprint (but outside the national recreation area) feature custom-built pilasters on their corners, custom moldings, and other architectural embellishments connecting them to the Hoover Dam's architectural style.

Celebrating place and history

Part of what makes being a landscape architect so special is the opportunity to celebrate place and history, and to do so artistically. At Stantec, we design with community in mind. It’s our promise. The Boulder City Bypass is a project that truly and literally belongs to the community it serves. It is a project that understands its place in history and does so with a respect for its surroundings and the people who helped shape it.

It is a perfect intersection of past, present, and future. And of art and architecture. 

  • Dalton LaVoie

    As a landscape architect, Dalton’s passion is to synergize the built and natural environments. By creating thoughtful, cooperative designs, Dalton hopes to create a world where communities and the natural world flourish together.

    Contact Dalton
  • Cary Baird

    Cary is a landscape architect with an eye for enhancing the built environment, while never losing touch with the end user’s needs and expectations.

    Contact Cary
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