Isolation, magnificent beauty, and interesting geometry help make Big Bend National Park one of my favorite places on earth. Granted, it takes work to get there—an eight hour drive from San Antonio, mostly through the Chihuahuan Desert. But your arrival is spectacular. As you descend from Persimmon Gap down to the desert floor, you watch the Chisos Mountains rise in front of you. And the long drive is a metaphor for your experience at the park. The best hike, up to the South Rim, is an all-day ordeal but your reward is an incredible vista looking hundreds of miles south across the sweep of the Rio Grande into the Mexican landscape. A trip to Big Bend requires a lot of effort, for which you will be richly compensated.
As an architect, what interests me most are the geometries of the landscape.
Nature is the model for how humans design, and few places evidence this like Big Bend. First is the geometry of symmetry. One sees this initially in the individual mountains that spring up on your approach to the park; then on a grander scale in the cluster of the Chisos. As one moves through the park, the Chisos form a visual anchor around which the vast landscape revolves. And once up in these mountains, the Basin—an ancient volcanic caldera—provides a hollowed out ampitheater to all that plays out around it. The park is a series of concentric visual rings, from basin to mountains, to desert, to river, to beyond. Recently I read a book about spatial organization which proposed that the simplicity and efficiency of ant hills demonstrated these insects’ genius for structure and composition. Big Bend appears to multiply the lessons of these little creatures a thousand fold.
Within this overall composition, however, one sees a very different form-shaping at work—what is known as fractal geometry.
Haphazard arrangements of geologic form in the crags and crannies of the Chisos contradict the overall sense of symmetry. Fractal geometries result not from imposing grander design schemes, but from series of random “decisions,” so to speak, which nature makes when its forces intersect. Imagine some lava shootong up through the air, trying to decide where to make landfall. It’s not likely to make a neat ant hill. Depending on its own temperature and that of the air, its viscosity, prevailing wind currents, and so forth, it may split into many smaller pieces, each of which is then subject to the same set of forces, and so on. When all is said and done, a very irregular pattern may emerge.
It is this contrast—a symmetrical, seemingly ordered landscape, versus a series of randomly determined features—that makes the natural environment of a Big Bend so fascinating. We can see this in what we design too. For efficiency and order, we tend to arrange our structures in symmetry. Yet seemingly random influences—unusual site conditions or programmatic requirements—can be exploited to provide richness in detail (or even basic form!) that completes a good design. Nature is, after all, a good teacher.