American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2005 Professional Awards
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The entire approach to the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument was conceived of as a 60-plus mile ecclesiastical journey. From the highway approach “nave,” to the visitors complex “transept,” and the metaphorical terminus at the crater “apse,” visitors undertake a journey that is ultimately and explicitly more powerful than themselves (photo: CALA/Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture).
Like modern day pilgrims, visitors flock to the prow of the Johnston Ridge Volcano Observatory, which feels like a teetering altar. This proscenium stage provides an unparalleled setting for contemplation of the beauty of the devastation beyond (photo: USFS/United States Forest Service).
In plan, the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center is organized around a ridge rim arc with an arrow orienting visitors toward the crater and piercing its heart (photo: CALA/Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture).
Within the construction envelope, ejected debris was catalogued and later replaced in its original location. Boulders cast from the mountain and blown down trees are compass needles pointing away from the crater’s devastating force, while the site interventions orient viewers directly toward the crater (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
The building entry features fractured pavement and specially designed light elements that are reminiscent of the once towering trees that now lay scarred and prostrate on the ground (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
From 1993, when it opened to the public, to 2005, plant life at the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center has slowly returned. It is a gradual, delicate process that speaks volumes about the fragility of the landscape (photo: EDAW/Strode-Eckert Photography).
A spring 2005 view of the main entrance to the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center provides an indication as to how an entire alpine ecology dominated by lupine, penstemon and fireweed has established a strong foothold (photo: Andrew Buchanan).

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Coldwater/Johnston Recreation Complex, Castle Rock, WA
Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, Seattle, WA
EDAW, Inc., Seattle, WA
USDA Forest Service, Vancouver, WA

"Talk about a sense of place . . . very nicely documented . . . I like it very much."

— 2005 Professional Awards Jury Comments

When the snowy cathedral of Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, the world witnessed the terribly beautiful and surreal speed with which a pristine wilderness could be transformed into a paradoxical and enigmatic landscape. This May, 25 years later, Mount St. Helens demands our attention as the mountain rebuilds and pilgrims flock to the Forest Service facilities at Coldwater Ridge and Johnston Ridge to once again bear witness to the mountain’s majestic fury.

Conceived on a master plan level as a 60-mile ecclesiastic experience, visitors enter the “church” upon exiting Interstate 5 onto the new road leading to the monument. This central "nave"—long, narrow, atoning—prepares visitors for the crater-cum-altar within the conceptual "transept" of the blast zone where the two facilities are located. The immolated past is laid bare in this surreal landscape of prostrate trees, denuded soils, and funereal memorials. The continuation of the spiritual journey—from earth to ether—is purely a metaphorical construct, yet standing on the fractured prow of the Johnston Ridge Observatory while confronting the apse (crater), visitors are connected to the powerful, terrifying and, ultimately, deeply beautiful face of the unknown.

For many of the survivors who experienced the mountain’s power, the memory is more emotion than experience. It was this primal wellspring that provides the foundation for the site design at both locations: awe, fear, joy, terror, reverence.

Fractured pavement gives the feel of a burnt, unstable firmament. Custom light poles read as stripped but standing tree trunks during the day and become illuminating beacons at night. There is also the psychological perception of permanence. Rather than terraced landforms to accommodate the seasonal crush of vacationers, the designers approached parking as a buried ruin that was dug out from beneath the blast debris and ash. It was a counter-intuitive move that lead to the massive earthwork creation of a plateau for parking using the cut material from the new highway’s construction. These moves also met the goals of the collaboration between the public and private sector clients: an interdisciplinary design that was deferential to the mountain and its resources, yet evocative and expressive in its own right.

T he Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center takes the crescent shape of the volcano and imposes an arrow oriented to the crater. A network of paths thread visitors through the devastated cloisters where great trees once stood and overlooks provide moments of pause and praise. Here, and at the Johnston Ridge Observatory further on, planting design was conducted with an restrained hand. Life, here, is delicate and primeval; a precarious balance that was part brownfield and part intensive ecological restoration. For these reasons the majority of the site was left to sustain and succeed on its own—as a laboratory where life, once tenuous, was now spreading its tendrils slowly. Where plantings were justified, the designers specified only plants that were growing within the monument. Even the blown down logs and "volcanic bombs" (superheated boulders that flew up to eight miles from the eruption landed and split apart) were cataloged and returned to the construction envelope.

Both memorial and monument, the Johnston Ridge Observatory poignantly displays the drama of the destruction and becomes the visitor’s penultimate experience along the emotional/spiritual journey through the metaphor of a resting butterfly. The butterfly is a symbol of beauty, delicacy, and durability. It is a creature that quickly returned to the devastated landscape and symbolizes the vital forces of this landscape. The butterflies returned without memory of the eruption, seeking the nectar of the lupines, penstemons, and fireweed that were quick to cover the blast zone.

Human visitors return to the site seeking another type of sustenance. So that visitors may concentrate on the power of the mountain, the design deliberately minimized the view of the road and parking area from the observatory. Moving from drop off to the earth-sheltered observatory, visitors walk an ash-laden arc that has been sliced through the ridge. Both allegorical and functional, the meander of this trail pushes visitors further outside traditional zones of comfort in anticipation of the proscenium thrust of the mountain. The volcano emerges from beyond the balcony overlook, which drops down slightly to increase the sense of liminal imbalance and uncertainty. With a 2,000 foot drop and the looming mountain just five miles distant, the choreography of the landscape ends on a teetering altar.

Rather than inciting fear for disingenuous reasons, the designers have delicately balanced the extant power of the mountain to awe and inspire with the human desire to connect with a power beyond themselves. The spaces bow to and highlight an omnipotence only imagined 25 years ago. At the same time, they continue to inspire visitors through emotional awe and a deeply-resonant respect that reveals both the brutal and delicate processes of survival, regeneration and reformation.


The second site in the sequence is the Johnston Ridge Volcano Observatory. Named for geologist David Johnston, the Observatory is a monument that directly confronts the power of the mountain. The site design takes inspiration from the butterfly as a pioneer species, a metaphor for transformation and the story of survival (photo: CALA/Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture).
The ridge separates the parking from the visceral view of the mountain’s north flank, It removes visitors from their cultural safety net and brings them to a place where they must uneasily confront the mountain as diminutive supplicants (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
The specially designed light posts are avatars of the forest of trees that once stood on the site (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
The lights also provide a vertical element that provides scale to the towering landscape beyond (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
Looking from the ridge to the earth-bound observatory building, an ash-strewn landscape of broken trunks and fractured limbs is slowly being stabilized by new plantings. The carved gap in the ridge provides a transition space between culture and nature, safety and danger (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
Standing on the prow looking to the past and future mountain is the final experience in the physical journey through the “church.” The rest of the journey to the holy of holies—the mountain’s crater—is purely metaphorical, but its power is immediate and undeniable (photo: Andrew Buchanan).
A steam eruption is captured in the reflection of Spirit Lake (photo: USFS/United States Forest Service).
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