When someone says Rock Springs, Wyo., I think of cowboys on bucking horses, pickup trucks with gun-racks in back windows and bumper stickers that say "My wife yes, my dog maybe, my gun never" or "Insured by Smith and Wesson."
Least the Wyoming cowboys feel like I'm picking on them, the same rough-and-tumble lifestyle is throughout the western states, but Wyoming and small towns like Rock Springs flourish on this high desert, windblown, cowboy-rough genre.How about architecture? - the same haphazard, rattlesnake tough, unsophisticated nature - until now.
Having visited Rock Springs several times in the past 15 years, my wildest imagination could not have conjured up what I saw as I approached the city on I-80 from the west. Atop the wind-scoured bluff that hangs over the old city sits a sophisticated desert scorpionlike building fashioned of crystal and polished stones sparkling against the low evening sun of a moody Wyoming sky.
Western Wyoming College was once a series of nondescript mansard buildings in thick-butt shingles, stone and brick. They were cast upon the bluff like sand-caked and wind-driven cockleburs. The college now boasts a unique post-modern structure that looks as though it crawled among the disjointed buildings, joining each functionally and giving unity to a campus of architectural discord.
The head of the scorpionlike structure faces north and is the entry into the complex. The large crystalline upper body is the focal point and contains the administration, auditorium and student union. The long bodylike tail is perched upon the nape of the bluff and, when viewed from the West, the end of the long tail has a scorpionlike raised characteristic as defined by the original water storage tanks that supply the city below.
Inside, there is an exposed skeletal structure of white trussed space frames with a multitude of skylights which allows natural light to enter in fragmented patterns. This light bounces off glass block windows and the walls and floors colored in desert earth tones of blues, greens, reds and browns.
Appropriately, the focal point or student union is the most dramatic space in the building. A lofty volume made of white steel and glass beautifully forming a multitude of facets frames the vast Wyoming landscape and sky. This hublike environment is central to all other functions and is the most impressive in light and volume.
The single-axis tail runs across the mountain spine and houses the library, offices, classrooms and the industrial arts. What appeared from the freeway to be little Monopoly houses neatly arranged in a row on the back of the tail are light monitors for the functions below.
The library, on the second floor, is tied across the double-loaded corridor with flying glass bridge. Small glazed balconies project into the corridor and are used for reading under the monopoly house light monitors above.
The central spine of the scorpionlike building has legs that reach out to the original cocklebur buildings that were once offensive but now manage to be reasonably comfortable with the slick new neighbor. Even the large, once out-of-place water storage tanks that sit at the end of the industrial arts spine artfully punctuate the end of the complex.
Unlike the scorpion analogy, the sprawling structure invites you to stop and visit. In doing so, you will be rewarded with architecture that unifies the campus and enriches the harsh Wyoming environment. Rock Springs is most fortunate. This architectural statement is a landmark, establishing a precedence the city will enjoy for years.