While opponents claim that Jasper National Park’s Glacier Skywalk, scheduled to open in May 2014, ruins the experience of untouched wilderness that attracts so many tourists, the cantilevered glass structure is inarguably a spectacular achievement.
A collaboration between Sturgess Architecture and RJC Engineering, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper called the Glacier Skywalk "an audacious promenade that matches rather than shrinks from an epic landscape.”
“It is all about the visitor experience at Glacier Skywalk,” said Simon Brown, the structural designer behind the project. “The vision for the client Brewster Travel Canada was to create an opportunity for visitors to view and connect with the Sunwapta Valley in a meaningful and memorable way."
He added that protecting the environment was a key facet of the plan.
The structure is built into native bedrock and is made with weathering steel, glass and wood. These materials mirror, rather than distract from, the natural environment and are free of paint and other toxins.
The Glacier Skywalk includes a reception area, a free viewing area, and 300 metres of interpretive trail cut into the face of the cliff, which features information about the surrounding geological, hydrological, glacial and biological features. This trail leads to the Discovery Vista, an outlook cantilevering 35 metres beyond the face of the cliff.
Supported on steel box girders with rock anchor tie-downs, the observation deck sits 280 metres above the Sunwapta Valley. Understanding the rock formation and the quality across its face was critical.
Beyond the weathered surface material, the deeper rock on the whole was solid, and where there was cracking it was factored into the design.
Tuned mass dampers reduce the vibration of tourists walking on the deck, while wind deflectors attached to the outer handrails counteract the crosswinds which howl across the valley.
The Vista includes 30 metres of curved, cable supported glass walkway, heightening the sense of exposure as one looks upon the exhilarating landscape. The use of a draped cable suspension system on the inside radius is the critical structural element, as it allows for an unobstructed view straight down. Previous proponents of see-through walkways have used large box girders below the structure’s floor which restrict sight lines.
The glass floor is fashioned from laminated, tempered and heat-strengthened glass. Thinner non-structural glass, which can easily be replaced when damaged by heavy foot traffic, sits on top of three structural layers which are one and a quarter inches thick.
“When contemplating material choices and construction methods, we took into consideration the local site restrictions, the importance of blending the structure into the natural surroundings, long term durability and ongoing maintenance requirements, budgetary considerations, as well as the expressed desire for a rapid construction time,” said Brown.
“Weathering steel was selected because the bulk of the structure can be substantially fabricated off-site, is very durable, has limited maintenance requirements and will naturally blend in with the surrounding geology.”
The design was initially unveiled in 2011 and was immediately recognized with a World Architecture Festival Award in 2011, with judges calling it “a simple, elegant yet highly emotional project.”
Despite the opposition of environmental groups, the Canadian Tourism Commission has commended the project for the opportunity it provides visitors to "engage with the dramatic Albertan landscape in a way that was not previously possible."