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The long road from USC architecture project to Joshua Tree National Park

USC School of Architecture faculty and students design and build an iconic public pavilion for Joshua Tree visitors.

Joshua Tree Carapace project
The USC School of Architecture project will soon be providing shade to visitors at Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo/Doug Noble)

When visitors go to Joshua Tree National Park, the idea is to be captivated by the natural beauty of the landscape. Their attention should probably not be drawn to any sort of human-made structure.

That goes against everything Douglas Noble wants as an architect — but as a lover of the national parks, he understands completely.

So, when he and his team of over 100 students and faculty members at the USC School of Architecture began working on project for the park, they all knew it was not meant to be a main attraction.

Now, after three years and countless hours of work, the project has gone from a concept to an award-winning design that will soon be providing shade to park visitors as a permanent installation.

“The National Park Service doesn’t like to collect spectacular attention-grabbing architecture. They want the architecture to be the best there is, but you came here to see the park,” said Noble, an associate professor of architecture.

“We wanted it to look like it belongs in Joshua Tree, but we still don’t want people going, ‘Oh, let’s go over there and see that building.’”

USC architects inspired by Joshua Tree and California colors

The project, called the Joshua Tree Carapace Pavilion, started as a concept for a standard double-restroom building. As Noble explained it, the carapace — a hard, protective shell — pulled inspiration from the colors and landscape of the park. The design structure was inspired by a cholla cactus skeleton and measures 42 feet long, with 12 feet of overhang on each end.

The design was cast into several large, 2-inch-thick pieces made of ultra-high-performance concrete that does not require any metal rebar. Due to the carapace’s location on a fault line, Noble said the material had to be extra strong: Most concrete can take 4,000 to 6,000 pounds per square inch, but this concrete tested up to 25,000 PSI.

The completed prototype will serve as a shade structure for the nearly 3 million people who visit Joshua Tree annually. Originally intended to be in a more remote part of the park, the carapace will now be in a more high-traffic area, and for quite some time.

“We promised them 100 years; I bet they get more,” he said.

USC architecture students create enduring landmark in a national park

Graduate student Victoria Dam said she was drawn to the project because of the hands-on experience and a chance to work on something that will have a lasting presence at Joshua Tree.

“Doug said that this is a project you can work on as a student, and show your kids in the future,” Dam said.

Of course, the pandemic presented challenges. Because of USC policy at the time, students could not go to the off-campus site where the carapace was being built; Dam was one of those students. Some former students — like Ivan Wong, who graduated with his Bachelor of Architecture in spring 2020 — were still able to work on the project as volunteers.

Wong, who is now back at USC earning his master’s at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, said he was working part-time and volunteering to help with the carapace project last summer after he graduated to see the project through.

Nothing like this has ever been done on so many different levels.

Ivan Wong

“Nothing like this has ever been done on so many different levels, from how it’s manufactured to how it was cast, how it’s connected and how it stands up,” Wong said.

“From the first panel, our attitude was like, ‘Even if everything else fails, we will have this one panel to show for it,’ and then we had the next panel, and then we had the walls. And now it’s waiting in the yard to be shipped, and I’m just really excited for this final step actually moving it in.”

The carapace should be installed sometime between December and the end of March, toward the end of the park’s busiest season.

The extra wait time doesn’t really seem to bother anyone, since the entire project was originally only supposed to take 4½ months.

Award-winning USC architecture design

It also doesn’t hurt that the project was recognized by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in a design competition. Of 140 entries — most professional projects — a mere 19 were honored.

As nice as it is to receive the award, the best part of the whole experience hasn’t even come yet. That will be years from now, when team members return to Joshua Tree and can say they worked on a piece of a national park.

“This is a life-bonding thing that we did,” Noble said. “They’ll come back to reunions in 40 years and people will say, ‘You’re the group that did that,’ and they can proudly say, ‘Yeah, that’s us.’”

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The long road from USC architecture project to Joshua Tree National Park

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