Salvaging Shangri La - Design Bureau

An open-air greenhouse with steel handlebars along the walkways was designed to become overgrown with vines

Rainwater falls in a series of rivulets that cascade down the grounds 

In keeping with the lush living of its namesake, Lake/Flato and Jeffrey Carbo Landscape Architects worked to ensure that “nature is slowly taking over the buildings.” 

Ornamental gardens with cleansing pools greet visitors at the door

Salvaging Shangri La

Monday, December 12th, 2011

by Sarah Cason
photos by Paul Hester

When philanthropist H. J. Lutcher Stark purchased 300 acres of land on the Adams Bayou in Orange, Texas, in the 1940s, he created his own personal paradise, complete with a man-made lake, walking paths and hundreds of plants. The somewhat anti-social Stark eventually opened his creation to the public, but in 1958, a devastating freeze the gardens at the park and prompted Shangri La to close its doors for good. 

Fast forward to 2005—principal architects David Lake and Ted Flato were taken on a boat ride through the swamplands of Shangri La by the Lutcher Stark Foundation, which still owns the park. The group was on a mission to restore the gardens and wetlands to their former glory, and they wanted Lake and Flato to make it happen. The architects were intrigued. “The buildings and grounds reflect the heroic mission of Shangri La by demonstrating how man can work in harmony with nature,” Flato says of the once-utopian gardens. “People can go away with some ideas that they can incorporate into their own projects.  It’s using as little energy as possible to create the buildings.” 

The foundation wanted Lake/Flato to create a visitor’s center and classrooms to educate and immerse the guests into nature. Given the delicate environment, Flato had to carefully plan the best way to sustainably connect the new buildings to nature without impacting the surrounding wetlands. “We help our clients understand the necessity and attainability of a sustainable approach to planning and design,” Flato says. “A big part of sustainable thinking is using what’s around you and not importing materials from far away.” 

Lake/Flato created a nature center and botanical gardens, and used recycled plastic decking to build minimal-impact boardwalks to link the classrooms. Educational centers span across the different ecosystems, including grasslands and swamplands. And the team cleaned up the formerly polluted lake with the addition of new plant life.

Lake/Flato’s efforts have been rewarded with LEED-Platinum certification. Now, the once-abandoned garden serves as a place where nature-lovers can walk amongst the wetlands or spy on the birds whose livelihood is ensured for years to come.

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