Catalyzing the Parkway: Botanical strategies for the Blue Ridge Mountains

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[The parkway] is a good road, a road that does not fight the mountains — their geography, geology or history — but rather follows their every twist and turn, every ascent and descent. The parkway never seems and intruder among these mountains.

Harry Middleton, “The Good Road of the Blue Ridge,” Southern Living (1985)

In 1985, for the Blue Ridge Parkway’s fiftieth anniversary, Southern Living magazine put out a cover story in the September issue, describing the essence of the scenic parkway and praising its harmonious relationship with the mountainous landscape. The narrative presented in Middleton’s article reflects a commonly held perception amongst parkway visitors, however this harmonious and idyllic pastoral aesthetic is not the result of touching the ground lightly, as has been described, but rather, it is a thoroughly constructed landscape experience, produced through the combination of recreational motoring and aggressively nationalistic heritage tourism. The physical parkway was the product of a large operation of cutting and moving mountains to fit a route ultimately determined by political will.

Located at the site of friction between an aggressive rhetoric of cultural heritage and the entropic nature of mountain landscapes, Catalyzing the Parkway considers the repercussions of the layered history of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The project engages both the inherent structure of the regional landscape, and the established structure of the National Park Service through a landscape design strategy based on the botanical properties of both the Rhododendron maximum and the Cephalanthus oxidentalis. While the Blue Ridge Parkway and its ancillary landscape have become stagnated in a regime of nationalistic heritage tourism, this project proposes an alternative to the 469-mile-long pastoral perspective. A newly engaged experience of the parkway and Blue Ridge Mountains is created by preserving the heritage parkway as a contemporary archeological ruin—acknowledging its history and revealing the controls, weaknesses, and frictions in the landscape—and simultaneously providing access and amenities for the contemporary visitor through the overlay of a new parkway system and reactivation of the landscape.

Through a strategy of topographic and programmatic interventions, Catalyzing the Parkway proposes a new approach to preservation based on dynamic mountain processes, and in doing so, transforms both the landscape itself, and the parkway typology by way of both its viewshed and the parkway corridor. Thus, these subtle interventions catalyze fundamental shifts in perception and understanding of the regional landscape, redefining the static notion of picturesque upon which the parkway was founding, into a contemporary notion based on performance and edification.