Words: Charlie Keaton
Images: Matthew Millman, Audrey Hall, Gibeon Photography and Paul Warchol
The hustle of modern life is pushing a growing number of people from coastal metropolitan hubs to the relatively open spaces of the American west. Colorado added more than 90,000 residents last year, surpassing 5.5 million for the first time. A little further north, Wyoming ranks 15th in population growth rate.With such large-scale influx, our built environment is in a constant state of change. But how best to manage that growth and advance design while simultaneously preserving the region’s natural splendor?
The answer is rooted in vernacular architecture, a movement that emphasizes local influence, contextual materiality, and fitting snugly into the surrounding environment. One significant champion of that ethos is Carney Logan Burke. The Wyoming-based firm brings an appropriately modern sensibility to parts of the U.S. not typically associated with architectural innovation. Their reputation, which now extends nationally, is built on residential and commercial projects that weave forward-thinking principles into the landscape’s very fabric.
"We feel a reverence for the land in the West. The sites we get to work with are intense and incredible," said Principal Eric Logan, a Wyoming native whose early career included a four-year stint at two Denver firms, Blue Sky Studio and Urban Design Group. It was here that he met John Carney, and by the mid-1990s, the two were reunited in Jackson Hole at the firm that bears their names. Along with fellow Principals Kevin Burke and Andy Ankeny, they oversee a team of more than 30 that’s enjoying expansion into new realms and new territories.
More on that later, but back home in Wyoming, much of the land they so revere is (rightly) protected from development of any kind, and existing sites face stiff resistance to change in any form. The challenges of creating lasting work are compounded by the scarcity of available sites and the limitations imposed on others.
Furthermore, the rustic Adirondack aesthetic, evidenced as far back as Robert Reamer’s early 20th century work at Yellowstone National Park, no longer feels appropriate. The incorporation of contemporary ideas and materials are a key element in the growth of the wide open west.
But getting to that point doesn’t require an abandonment of setting or tradition. Carney Logan Burke is among a growing number of firms that focus heavily on site orientation, landscape precedent, and materiality.
"A modern palette in Jackson Hole should look and feel different than a modern palette in Los Angeles," said Logan, who has served in a variety of community leadership roles (including the local design review board) since migrating from Colorado in 1995. "The environment is just completely different. To plop a white steel and glass building in Jackson would certainly make a statement, but it’s not respecting place."
And what a place it is. The Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, for instance, is an 1,100-acre inholding of land gifted to the National Parks Service. The site’s Interpretive Center was conceived around ideals of environmental stewardship and conservation, and required a suitably quiet structure. In response, Carney Logan Burke created a 7,000-square-foot structure featuring an L-shaped, rectilinear order that curves to an apse-like form at the south end. Vertical wooden slats call to mind old barns, complete with gaps between boards that usher narrow slits of light to the serene interior. The building was the first in the National Parks Service to achieve LEED Platinum status.
Similarly, the firm’s work on the Jackson Hole Airport earned a LEEDSilver designation. That project was particularly heavy on regional and recycled materials, including Forest Stewardship Council certified timber. Like the airport, many of their projects juxtapose traditional and modern materials, from ledger cut Montana sandstone and grain cedar siding to Bonderized panels and blackened steel recessed into a mahogany wall.
In some cases, contextual constraints serve as catalysts for inspired design choices. One residential project in a tightly prescribed subdivision required strict adherence to traditional architectural style – but not at the expense of a clean and balanced program. An exterior of natural stone and reclaimed barn wood features cantilevered eaves that showcase mountain views while protecting the home from harsh seasonal weather. The interior contrasts white oak millwork with natural timbers and dark oak flooring. Every room features large windows to welcome natural light. All of which goes toward a direct preservation of the region’s cherished buttes and vistas. But there are other, more controversial needs that impact the future of those outdoor spaces in less obvious ways. Chief among them is the issue of increased density in urban areas – a concept guaranteed to rile up locals reticent to concede the small town feel of their communities.
"It’s frustrating because at the end of the whole conversation, people are still moving to the west, and we have to figure out how to deal with growth responsibly," said Logan. "In places like ours, we’re going to need to face the reality of having a responsibly dense downtown community. And what that does from an urban design standpoint is preserve all the open space that’s so precious to all of us here in the west."
That scope extends beyond their own backyard and into places like Montana, where Carney Logan Burke will soon unveil a new full-service design studio, and to Colorado, where their work already includes single family homes and the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences. The firm has also launched Studio 110, an interior design workspace created in collaboration with upscale Denver furniture purveyor Studio Como.
The future of our built environment varies from one part of the country to another, but philosophical commonalities outweigh any specific aesthetic choices. Whether in major metropolitan areas or rural heartland, respect for the sanctity of the natural environment goes hand in hand with the thoughtful and efficient use of urban space. One without the other creates vulnerability to the unchecked forces of needless sprawl and careless degradation of the natural wonders that make the American west such a special place.
How fitting, then, that a part of the country once associated with fearless exploration in the face of untamed wilderness comes full circle. Innovation doesn’t always mean shiny, complex solutions. Sometimes, it simply means finding elegant ways to maximize beauty and minimize dilution. For a firsthand look at the accelerating evolution of vernacular architecture, go west, young man.