The form, material, and experience of space are both produced by and themselves produce culture. Thus, while a design may seek to control the engagement of an object with the world, the effect of an engineered object on culture is often unintentional.
Visible from space, the Athabasca bituminous sands region is at a scale equal to or greater than any other human landscape project. At first glance, this massive earth-moving operation could be confused for a regional urban development project; however, it has only one objective: oil. Here, in the Athabasca river’s headwaters, Canada’s largest petroleum reserve and the second-largest known global petroleum deposit is found. Open-pit mining is possible in an area spread over approximately 500 square kilometers or 20% of the total bituminous sands region, where below-ground reserves are close enough to the surface. Since 1967 corporate operators have been moving earth out of the way and processing sand and rock to extract bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum that becomes oil once upgraded.
And yet, we see almost no landscape architects engaged in the design and specifically the topographic shaping of these sites of extraction, production, waste and reclamation. Nor are there many examples of landscape architects contributing smaller-scale interventions that acknowledge these sites’ human occupation, experience, and material realities.
This project introduces ten proposals, of which five are design improvements to existing tourist sites and five are new sites of intervention. Together they establish a circuit of unique moments in significant areas of the Athabasca bituminous sands operations. The ten stops, designed for tourists and locals, capitalize on the existing tourist route and add new experiences only possible in the region of the bituminous sand. In each case, the landscape design is an armature to experience the sites through their exceptional materials, environment, forms, and ecology. In this sense, the plans provide the same function as a picture frame or a gallery wall, while it is the bituminous sands operators, the engineers who must recognize themselves as the land artists.