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 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 the 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 associate of Brixen and Christopher Architects in Salt Lake City. Smith established a new and strong concept of what would become Snowbird. It would be a studiously modern American ski resort, quite unlike the pseudo-European resorts that were in vogue at the time.
In 1965, Smith organized a team called the Snowbird Design Group to develop the initial concepts and prepare drawings, renderings, and models for Johnson to secure financing for the project (the group disbanded shortly thereafter). In addition to Smith, the Snowbird Design Group included Robert Bliss, dean of the University of Utah School of Architecture, and Brixen and Christopher Architects. Given the narrow footprint of the land, they followed through with Smith’s initial concept of vertically stacked lodging. Snowbird Design Group located the buildings, lifts, and runs based on careful studies of avalanche dangers, heavy snow loads, strong winds, as well as the narrow footprint of mining claims. Investor Dick Bass, a Texas oil tycoon who had invested in a similar venture in Colorado, agreed in late 1969 to finance the project. Based on the designs by Snowbird Design Group, Brixen and Christopher became the architects of record for the plaza, skier’s bridge, Lodge One, and related early support buildings. Subsequently Smith founded a new firm called Enteleki Architecture, Planning, Research that included Ray Kingston, Frank Ferguson, and later, John Perkins. The Enteleki partners were the architects for all of the buildings and development from 1971 through 1975.
The original master plan developed by the Snowbird Design Group provided the framework for the resort’s architectural design. Using a modernist 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 original Cliff Lodge (before the major addition designed by Ray Kingston) is situated at the east end of the canyon floor. This distant positioning of the Cliff Lodge from the plaza was strongly opposed by Smith in that it required driving from one lodge to another, which was a contradiction of his concept of the integration of all buildings. Smith lost that battle.
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 the celebrated American landscape designer Dan Kiley, the lodges and the tram building extend to the mountain’s ski slopes via a bridge, providing a ski run out from the steep terrain and 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 un-mowed 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. But unlike many architectural firms, Enteleki operated like a studio of designers in that all of the partners and associates took part in the designs of all of the buildings. John Perkins was the partner in charge of the Iron Blosam time-share facility that opened in 1974. The design team, which included engineers from Vancouver, British Columbia, put together standardized models, coming up with sixteen different unit types, some with horizontal orientation and some vertical. The concrete structural system, called a staggered Vierendeel truss, was one of the first in the world. The variety of accommodation is registered in the staggered truss 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 and the design team, including Smith and associate Paul Dudek, introduced a different approach in the design of the twelve-story-high Cliff Lodge that opened in 1973. The team overlaid two grids at 45 degrees, generating a distinct parallelogram footprint that avoided the tired geometry and predictable massing of the 1960s hotels. Instead, the designers produced a dynamic layout with rooms opening into individuated niches off the main corridor, providing the corridors with 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 a 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. Smith opposed this concept vehemently.
At the intersection of the runs mid-mountain, Frank Ferguson and Jack Smith 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. The bridge-like structure was inspired by Mies van der Rohe, of whom Smith is an advocate.
Based on designs by Robert Bliss, a member of the Snowbird Design Group, Brixen and Christopher completed work on the tram station and the arcade that functions as the gateway to the mountains. Its jagged profile was informed by the needs of avalanche protection, its transportation function, and structural systems, 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 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.