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Outdoor Learning Center at Broad Cove Banks

Broad Cove Banks, on the north coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, is a remarkable landscape.  With rugged coastal cliffs along the Northumberland Strait, deep gorges lined with rivers that swell and shrink with the seasons, and broad glacial slopes, it features a variety of geographical and geological conditions.  Here the air is fresh, the wind powerful, and the sky clear (in fact parts of Cape Breton Island are certified dark zones, perfect for star-gazing and watching the Northern Lights). It has an equally remarkable ecosystem in which groves of old growth beech, birch, and black pine stand within areas of new-growth mixed and coniferous forest.  Whitetail deer, moose, and bear make their home in these woods, birds in these skies, and fish in these waters. The cultural history is also rich, evident in the crumbling pasture fences and farmhouse ruins that tell us these banks were used for homesteading in the days before coal powered the industry of Nova Scotia -- coal, which by the way, was mined just down the coast at Inverness Bay.   This is a landscape rich with stories.


Broad Cove Banks Outdoor Learning Center uses this storied land as a living laboratory that awakens young minds to the wonders of the environment.  Here students learn about wind, earth, water, trees, animals, fire, and sky through direct contact with the elements. From trees to waterfalls, students can see what makes up the natural world and how it works. Nature walks, like the Brookline Trail or Coastal Path, teach plant identification and creature appreciation.  Courses about mining, farming, fishing, and local industry teach about stewardship and management by making special use of the resources on site. Broad Cove Banks offers a hands-on learning experience that will ignite a life-long relationship with the natural world.


This project explores shaping the ground using the retaining wall as a primary architectural device.  It treats ground not as a background element against which figures are understood, but rather the primary material for place- and space-making.  The ‘thickened ground’ of Broad Cove Banks hosts space, circulation, and landscaping.  


The retaining wall has many functions. Most evidently, it allows building on the most rugged areas of the site.   Here the wall retains the earth upslope and creates a shadow of flat, occupiable space.  Long lines of architecture and landscape are inscribed along the contours, blending into the grade.  The buildings do not rest on the ground, but rather lodge into it. The thin width and long length of these buildings give them volume without apparent mass. The walls slip and splay, organizing space, circulation, and landscaping.  They define edges and levels; produce gaps for sunlight and entry; and distinguish between enclosed and open space. 


The walls don’t only organize the buildings and their territories; they also orchestrate “pauses” in the surrounding landscape -- places of special interest for learning about, observing, and experiencing the natural wonders of the site.  In some places, the wall emerges simply to provide a bench to sit on along a steep slope. In others, it forms a euripus that traces the course of a seasonal stream flowing from the mountains in the spring and fall. Or creates an incision in the hillside that exposes a section of the glacial geology. Or creases a flat place around a chimney for holding a campfire or cook-out.  Walls here are active, doing more than marking territory.


The camp at Broad Cove Banks hosts students in a wild, wilderness setting.  It teaches them about elemental ideas of nature and exposes them to the wonders of the natural world. The architecture amplifies this experience of immersion.  By rooting -- indeed embedding -- the campus in the thickened ground, it suggests that we don’t just tread on this earth, but that we belong to it. 


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YALE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE  | Fall 2018 | Advanced Studio

Omar Gandhi, critic

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