A new I-35 rest-area facility shows how the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has prioritized quality design for travelers

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

In his ground-breaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes “fast” thinking as quick, intuitive, and automatic, like driving, and “slow” thinking as controlled, contemplative, and effortful, like walking. No building embodies these ideas better than the I-35 Goose Creek Safety Rest Area in Harris, Minnesota, designed by VJAA and winner of a 2019 AIA Minnesota Honor Award.

Think about how we use highway rest areas. Those in a hurry want to move quickly, and this new building accommodates that, with a clear path through glass doors and a glass-walled lobby to the restrooms. The landscape, in contrast, encourages visitors to slow down and rest. An elevated walkway, like a miniature highway ramp, arcs out over the wooded slope behind the building, overlooking Goose Creek below and farm fields beyond. “The walkway widens out,” says VJAA’s Vincent James, FAIA, “so people can stop to have a conversation or view the landscape while others can still easily pass by.”

That curving path leads to radial, trellis-covered benches for people to sit and watch children on the arced and undulating VJAA-designed playground. From there, a meandering path leads past pollinator plantings, upgraded and reused picnic pavilions, and a dog run, all designed “to meet MnDOT’s highway-safety goal of having people slow down, rest, and rejuvenate,” explains VJAA’s Jennifer Yoos, FAIA.

The architecture reflects these fast and slow ways of thinking. The overall form of the building, with its wood-slat cladding, looks immediately inviting, like a protective enclosure. Needing to double the program, VJAA added a second round structure to the footprint of the original circular rest stop, with services in half of one circle and restrooms in half of the other, all linked by the glass-walled lobby. “Building on the old footprint reduced costs,” says Yoos, “and recalled the old building.”

The clarity and simplicity of the plan—fast thinking at its best—is balanced by carefully considered details and a thoughtful use of materials, providing plenty for visitors to contemplate. Take the exterior envelope. Composed of alternating squares and rectangles of dimensional lumber, the vertical wood slats wrapping the outside walls provide a low-cost, long-life, low-maintenance surface that recalls the upright wood siding of barns and the circular forms of wood silos that once dotted the rural landscape. The slats also conceal, in a visual sleight of hand, the air vents, privacy glass, and utility doors that a building like this one requires. Meanwhile, the slats’ extension above the angled roofline, like the vertical weathering-steel pickets in the railings along the walkways, evokes the blur of trees in our peripheral vision as we drive through the countryside.

That control of materials and details continues into the interior. The reddish restroom doors and gray masonry walls provide a subtle preview of the serene Lake Superior landscape with its gray basalt and red rhyolite geology. They also evoke the beautiful colors of North Shore architecture, including Edwin Lundie’s iconic Lutsen Lodge. Meanwhile, the building’s micro-perforated wood ceilings visually warm the interior spaces and acoustically quiet them, inviting travelers to sit on one of the interior wood benches and be still.

Kahneman’s book shows how fast thinking, while valuable, can lead to rash judgments. When MnDOT added needed infrastructure improvements to this project, one state legislator rushed to call it a “boondoggle,” even though “the building and site work came in under budget,” says James. Instead, the Goose Creek Safety Rest Area shows the value of slow thought, with the architects carefully considering every aspect of the project and delivering enormous value—and great beauty—with every element of their design.

“The building is such a beautiful object in the landscape, but the more I studied it, the more I realized I was also appreciating the safety afforded by its openness and transparency. As a woman, I would feel safe there, even if I were traveling alone or late at night. I would feel comfortable exploring the landscape on that lovely exterior loop.”

Location: Harris, Minnesota
Client: MnDOT
Architect: VJAA Inc.
Landscape architect: Damon Farber
Construction manager: Sheehy Construction Co.
Size: 4,800 square feet
Cost: $5.9 million (includes building, site, landscape, custom play area, and parking)
Completion: May 2019