Outsiders getting Outside: From Dallas to the Dunes

Road Trip

Important to every life of a Studio Outsider is planning how to use our paid time off (PTO). Last year my wife and I, new to North Texas, decided to take advantage of our closer proximity to Colorado and take a road trip to  the Rocky Mountains. Our America the Beautiful Annual Pass was expiring and we wanted to squeeze-in one more park, do some hiking, and see some scenery. A (long) day’s drive from Dallas, nestled in the south Rockies, Great Sand Dunes National Park seemed like an interesting destination to visit with beautiful scenery, unique hikes, and fascinating history.

History and Geology

Originally designated in 1932 as a National Landmark, Great Sand Dunes National Park was established in 2004 to preserve the unique character of the site and to protect valuable water resources that still exist just a few feet below the surface of the sand. Covering 44,245 acres, the sand dunes are the highest in North America. Trapped between the San Juan Mountain Range to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east, the dunes rise as high as 770 feet above the San Luis Valley floor. The dunefield evolved and grew over the past 440,000 years as winds from the west deposited sand left behind by the now extinct Rio Grande River and prehistoric Lake Alamosa at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. The dunes grew higher as storms blew from the east down from the mountains pushing and depositing the sand back towards the valley floor. Contributing to this constant evolution Medano and Sand Creek run along the base of the dunefield carrying sand from the eastern edge of the dunes around to west edge where the eolian process continues in an endless loop.   

The Hikes

The Park offers incredible dune hikes as well as hikes into the Rocky Mountains and through the valley’s grasslands and wetlands. Our favorite trail was to the summit of Star Dune, the highest dune in North America. I use the term “trail” loosely as I can’t tell you how we reached the Dune. As we entered the dunefield we gradually found our way up, around, down, and across several ridges, past High Dune, and eventually to the summit of Star Dune. From Star Dune we looked across the 30 square miles of the dunefield toward the Rocky Mountains in the distance. If you remember your sled (we didn’t) you can make the trip down the dunes much quicker by sliding or sandboarding down the sandy slopes to the edge of Medano Creek.

Safe Travels

A uniquely exciting trip, I would recommend Great Sand Dunes National Park to anyone looking to escape the city for a long weekend. If by chance you have enough vacation days to extend the trip, the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is a quick and beautiful four hour drive north through the Rocky Mountains. Drive safely and remember your water and sunscreen!  

Unveiled: Oakbrook Center Vortex, Chicago

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Oakbrook Center first opened its doors in 1962 and quickly became a regional shopping destination for the Chicago metropolitan area.  The mall, located in a first ring suburb of Chicago called Oak Brook, offered a unique shopping experience in an outdoor, open-air environment.  Original designs for the mall played on this idea by conceptualizing the mall as a garden, with water features within the garden a primary component of the experience of the place. 

Oakbrook is the second-largest retail destination in the Chicago area, so it was an easy decision for Chicago-based development company General Growth Properties to invest in the redesign of the shopping center.  In 2011, GGP engaged Omniplan Architects and Studio Outside in that task: to take the strong points of the existing shopping center and re-envision them through total renovation of the exterior space.

The studio team used an elegant palette of materials to revitalize and upgrade the aging facility while using many of the existing large specimen trees as focal points of the landscape design. The largest task that faced the design team was to re-imagine the shopping center’s well-known water features.  Studio Outside began the large task by conceptualizing 5 new fountains which would run year-round for the mall.  Fountain Source, a California-based fountain design firm, helped the team understand the powthe intricacies of water technology and engineering.  

At the heart of the mall is perhaps the renovation project’s most celebrated amenity, the Vortex Fountain.  The large, central fountain consists of a series of concentric spirals that work in harmony with water jets, lighting, and seating to create an incredible public space and focal point for the entire project.  A large, central fountain had always existed in its space, but it’s tired 1960’s design was one-dimensional and did not excite shoppers.

Video Credit: Crystal Fountains

The owner challenged the designers to create a fountain that was visually dynamic while also discouraging shoppers from directly entering the space. To do this, the fountain’s form created a space, as opposed to simply acting as an object in space. The design team sought to minimize the edge of the fountain in order to marge the fountain into the surrounding plaza space.  The edge was given multiple functions; it acts as a seat wall, a planter wall, and a water container. Instead of being continuous, the wall is made up of many segments spiraling around each other.  This makes it hard to define where it begins and where it ends. At its lowest point, the fountain is only 18” deep and spirals down to this point from the elevation of the plaza surrounding it. 

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

The sculptural water feature plays a significant role in the visitor’s experience of the fountain.  Fountain Source created very dynamic water sequencing to engage visitors. Vertical jets emphasize the spiraling form of the fountain and draw the visitor’s eye down to a large central array, a composition pulsing with over 4,000 gallons of water per minute. This is enough volume to fill a typical backyard swimming pool in less than five minutes.  

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

Photo Credit: Jongmu Lee

What a visitor will never see is the impressive pump and computer system built by Illinois-based fountain contractor Fountain Technologies and General Contractor Graycor Construction. Together, the team was able to design, engineer, and build the system that runs the fountain including: a 40,000 gallon water tank (located in the basement of the mall building next to the fountain), a highly sophisticated computer panel, over 50 Crystal Fountain nozzles and LED lights, 7 pumps, and an elaborate network of piping.

Construction Photos

Below the fountain: two layers of an elaborate network of piping.

Concrete reinforcing shows where the concrete will be formed to create the concentric spirals of the Vortex walls. Pipes stub up where weirs are located that deliver water to the fountain.

Massive concrete formwork in place while concrete is poured to form the fountain.

The concrete basin is cured.  A dozen ornamental trees are planted in perimeter planters along the fountain walls.  To the side of the planters are the weirs that supply water to the fountain.  Pipe connections for the jets are stubbed up. 

In the middle, the piping to deliver water to the center array of jets.  A layer of black water-proofing membrane covers the concrete fountain basin- which will evenutally be covered with stone pavers.  Stone masons work on cladding outter foutain walls with limestone.  

Fountain System Photos

The fountain system's mechanical panels and computer. 

Massive supply and drainage pipes to take water into and out of the pump room.  To the right: The fountains 40,000 gallon water tank.  

Pumps that feed water to the fountains jets, and supply weirs located just outside of the water tank. 

Read more about Oakbrook Center at StudioOutside.us