When Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort opened in 1971, it transformed Utah’s local skiing scene into a world-class attraction. Time magazine showcased the resort on the cover of its 1972 holiday issue as a symbol of the emergent ski industry, not just in Utah, but in the entire United States. Located on the slopes of northern Utah’s Wasatch Range, twenty miles from Salt Lake City, Snowbird’s architecture was informed by a concept of skiing as a delicate and momentary symbiosis, if not a transient equilibrium, between humans and nature. At the same time, the resort’s architecture recognizes skiers as consumers of leisure, entertainment, and sporting goods. The complex is a reminder of the centrality of architecture to the modern entertainment, tourism, and sports industries.
Built at the site of a mining ghost town in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort vividly reflects the Utah’s economic shift from mining in the nineteenth century to tourism in the present day. The idea of the first year-round resort was developed by Ted Johnson while he was managing Alta Ski Lodge, situated only a mile and a half from the Peruvian Gulch and Gad Valley that he would eventually rename Snowbird. In 1963, Johnson started buying land around the area, most of which was owned by U.S. Forest Service. He acquired 850 acres at the bottom of the canyon next to the road leading to Alta. With the possibility of leasing the rest of the land from the Forest Service, he solicited the help of his friend Jack Smith, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah’s School of Architecture and an employee of Brixen and Christopher Architects in Salt Lake City. Smith sketched the location of buildings, lifts, and runs based on careful study of avalanche and earthquake dangers, heavy snows, strong winds, as well as the narrow footprint of mining claims.
In 1965, Smith developed a team called the Snowbird Group to refine the initial scheme and develop a detailed site model in order for Johnson to secure financing for the project (the group disbanded shortly thereafter). In addition to Smith, the Snowbird Group included Robert Bliss, Martin Brixen, and James Christopher. Given the narrow footprint of the land, they followed through with Smith’s initial concept of vertically stacked lodging. Investor Dick Bass, a Texas oil tycoon who had invested in a similar venture in Colorado, agreed in 1969 to finance the project. Smith put together a new team called Enteleki that included John Irving Perkins, Ray Kingston, and Frank Ferguson.
The original master plan developed by the Snowbird Group provided the framework for the resort’s architectural design. Using a brutalist vocabulary of exposed concrete, steel, and wood, the resort’s design responded to its location on an avalanche-ridden site. It comprises four guest lodges, ranging from eight to twelve stories high, located close to Little Cottonwood Road. Three of them, the Iron Blosam, the Inn, and the Lodge at Snowbird, are situated close to one another; the largest, the Cliff Lodge, is situated at the further end of the canyon floor. Gently sloped trails lead pedestrians from the lodges to a three-floor-high tram terminal and the unceremonious terminus for the chair lift located next to it. An elevated central plaza connects the tram station to an arcade with shopping and dining facilities. At the suggestion of American landscape designer Dan Kiley, the lodges and the tram building extend to the mountain’s ski slopes via a bridge, connecting architecture with the landscape. Side railings, lightly pressed pathways, signage, and informally designed landscaping ease the transition from heavily engineered infrastructure to the carefully designed slopes, stabilized brooks, and unmowed grass tempered with sown wildflowers that reinforce a sense of contact with raw nature.
Individual members of Enteleki took the lead on the designs for different buildings. John Perkins was the main designer of the Iron Blosam time-share facility that opened in 1974. He put together standardized models, coming up with sixteen different unit types, some with horizontal orientation and some vertical. The variety of accommodation is registered in the facade as rhythmically undulating orthogonal balcony lines that cast deep shadows. Iron Blosam, like the rest of the lodges, is situated far below the access road and is first viewed from above. Its roofs are covered with sod, softening their visual presence in the canyon.
Ray Kingston introduced a different approach in the design of the twelve-story-high Cliff Lodge that opened in 1973. He overlaid two grids at 45 degrees, generating a distinct parallelogram footprint that avoided the tired geometry and predictable massing of the 1960s hotels. Kingston instead produced a dynamic layout with rooms opening into individuated niches off the main corridor, providing the corridors photogenic folds. This footprint also gives the rooms half-hexagonal-shaped balconies. In 1985 Kingston was commissioned to expand the lodge to double its size (extending more than 700 linear feet) by adding conference center and other facilities. The enlarged Cliff Lodge moves guests through a complex array of circulation patterns with escalators, walkways, and lobbies that contract and expand, darken and lighten. The gray surfaces of circular concrete columns bear the imprint of formwork; the brute concrete walls feature expansion joints; and the coffered ceilings sparkle against golden cedar. When set against strategically located planters, all these elements imbue movement through space with a sense of pulsation. In the center of the hotel is an atrium that blows up the half-hexagon of individual balconies and raises it to twelve stories. Its enormous glass wall reflects the Hellgate Cliffs, which rise 2,000 feet above the canyon that inspired it.
The giant, tinted glass wall suggests a different take on the balconies of the Cliff and other earlier lodges. If the 1970s buildings give every room access to the outside via balconies and connect their occupants to nature by allowing them to enter it (albeit mediated by the architecture), Kingston’s impenetrable glass wall turns the mountain and peaks into an image—architecture becomes a picture frame. Here are two different attitudes to architecture in nature within the same complex. Kingston’s design transforms access to the landscape from indirect contact to representation.
At the landing of the runs, Franklin Ferguson designed a restaurant and warming facility that features spectacular views and sunrooms. The structure is a giant truss box on stilts, built with glue-laminated wood beams and steel gusset plates. Informed by bridge construction in an avalanche- and blizzard-prone region, the facility was finished in huge glass sheets intersected by structural trusses. Rather than having the architecture blend in with its surroundings, here it asserts itself into the scene.
Brixen and Christopher designed the tram station and the arcade that functioned as the gateway to the mountains. Its jagged profile was informed by the needs of avalanche protection, its transportation function, and structural supports, yet its exposed framework of reinforced concrete looks perfectly at home in the mountainous setting. Coffered ceilings assert the weight and geometric order of the structures on visitors. A courtyard within the arcade encloses mature pine trees in a manner that suggests another consideration for the vertical orientation and narrow footprint of the resort buildings: to minimize the impact on existing vegetation in the area. In her book American Ski Resort, Margaret Supplee Smith reported that the Lodge at Snowbird, with its 160 condominiums, necessitated the removal of only four evergreen trees.
The greatest architectural statement of Snowbird is to “fit” brutalist architecture, and all of modernism, into the landscape to celebrate its conditioning of the human experience of the majestic Utah landscape. At the same time, its optimism about industrialization, modernity, and progress as a narrative of control over nature is difficult to sustain today.
“The Lodge at Snowbird, Alta, Utah.” Architectural Record (August 1974): 113.
Smith, Margaret Supplee. American Ski Resort: Architecture, Style, Experience. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2013.
“Snowbird: In Scale with the Mountains.” Architectural Record 155 (Mar 1974): 119-126.