Dinosaur fossil park in Texas gains rust-coloured visitor centre by Lake Flato

American firm Lake Flato used tough materials like weathering steel to create an off-grid educational facility for Big Bend National Park, known for its dinosaur skeletons.

The Fossil Discovery Exhibit building was constructed on a flat site within the federal park, which stretches along the Mexico border in southwest Texas.

Encompassing 801,163 acres (324,219 hectares), the park is known for its desert terrain, archaeological sites, marine fossils and dinosaur bones.

Lake Flato, a firm with offices in San Antonio and Austin, was tasked with creating a low-maintenance facility that would tell the story of the park’s 130 million years of geologic and palaeontological history. This covers from the Early Cretaceous period when it was underwater, to the Cenozoic Era, in which mammals flourished and diversified.

“The complex story of Big Bend’s remarkable landscape is brought to life through its fossil history and the artefacts found within the park,” said the team. “These characteristics created a unique opportunity for interpretation and education.”

The park intends to leave the centre un-staffed, which meant the centre’s use and circulation needed to be intuitive.

The architects conceived a low-slung, open-air building that is composed of a central volume flanked by two wings. Pathways lined with stone walls lead to the centre, which is elevated off the ground by steel structure on concrete piers. Solar panels enable the building to be off the electricity grid, and a rainwater catchment system fulfils the building’s minimal water needs.

Exterior walls were formed using perforated metal screens and wooden planks. The building is topped with a roof made of corrugated sheets of weathering steel. From a distance, the roof’s shape evokes an ancient bird in flight.

Inside, the exhibits present a combination of fossil replicas, text, custom murals, geologic diagrams and viewing scopes.

The central volume, dubbed the “Gallery of Giants”, features life-sized bronze skulls of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and an ancient giant alligator, which are meant to be touched by visitors.

Suspended overhead is a replicated skeleton of a Quetzalcoatlus, with its 35-foot (11-metre) wingspan. The central area also contains various types of seating, with views of the nearby Dead Horse Mountains.

Other projects by Lake Flato in its home state of Texas include a lakefront holiday home that rises above the tree line, and the Hog Pen Creek Retreat, which has a two-storey porch and a bridge that passes over a slender lap pool.

Photography is by Casey Dunn.

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