Chapter Two: SITE METAPHYSICS
If all war machines are doomed to obsolescence, some seem to display their uselessness longer than others. In this regard, what separates Fort Wetherill and its ilk from other military technology, excepting medieval castles and nuclear weapons, is the fact that it is not easily recyclable. In contrast to steel or aluminum used in ships or aircraft, reinforced concrete on the scale used in these structures presents a serious demolition problem: there is no cost-effective way to dismantle them; they can only be buried or left to crumble ever so slowly on their own. One might ask whether they might be renovated as part of a new use, such as the case with Battery Armistead at the former Fort Kearney near Saunderstown, where the University of Rhode Island has built its School of Oceanography. Apparently, the only use that has been found for these structures is storage for ocean floor core samples and other objects which are unaffected by the dank, unheated interiors. Otherwise, their considerable sculptural and iconic impact notwithstanding, these structures are uninhabitable and without use for utilitarian purposes because they are impossible to retrofit with mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems required for habitable space, and the lack of windows create an unpleasant, if not illegal, working environment.
The current concept for the site is a state-sponsored recreational park with cliffs and a commanding ocean view. Periodic improvements have included picnic tables, a rest room pavilion, paved access roads and parking areas at scenic overlooks. Ironically, the ruined fort, as the site's most distinctive feature, is unusable as a public place. Despite the visual appeal, it represents a safety hazard since the walkways and crumbling stairs provide little protection against falls to glass-covered concrete surfaces below. In recent years, guardrails have been placed at the edges of most elevated levels, and bulldozers have piled dirt against the lower level entrances of Batteries Wheaton and Zook. Despite these precautions and posted signs warning visitors to keep clear, these developments have only served to encourage further exploration. Moreover, for another crowd, the brutal, ever-deteriorating state of the batteries represents a darker and wilder side of human experience. Punk artists and would-be soldiers of fortune armed with spray paint cans and paintball guns ghost through the batteries, playing out visions of apocalypse and offering graffiti, broken glass, beer cans and blotches of paint as their testimonies. The park planners' hope that the military artifacts could somehow coexist with Wetherill's new mission as a public place has not been realized within the current program. Due in large part to the batteries' fundamental conceptual and physical structure as the product of a hierarchical, disciplined response to the logic of warfare, they have resisted an easy transition to the public realm. By contrast, Beavertail State Park, formerly known as Fort Burnside, has made a more successful transition in part because it represented a relatively small military presence that could be either removed or separated from public areas.
If the current state park program has shown limited resonance with the gun batteries at Fort Wetherill, the unofficial programs of graffiti writers and paint ball combatants are more compelling to the extent that they more successfully engage the batteries. Here, they have been co-opted as a stage set for an ad hoc, alternative theater that not only dramatizes a dangerous world at society's physical margins, but also celebrates the margins themselves as decorated altars of power. If this idea of alternative theater venue is a viable, although not necessarily palatable, reading of the site, there is nothing more to be done architecturally, since well-meaning intentions of supporting this use would amount to naïve patronage and legitimization. The significance of graffiti for this project is that it identifies Wetherill as an edge condition bordering on a wilder, untamed realm, and thus serves as a heuristic device toward the development of another program.
While it may be useful to research Wetherill's graffiti as a Rosetta stone for the darker edges of society, its presence may indicate another mechanism at work. If one can make the analogy that graffiti, as well as nature, abhors a vacuum, then its presence signals that these buildings are in transition, if not in crisis. Rather than suggesting a new use, graffiti may serve only to confirm a loss of mission. The batteries, in the context of the current site program, are moribund and, as such, are the targets of opportunists such as graffiti artists and architects alike. In this regard, there is competition for the meaning of this place. Others have made their interpretations; now it is the author's turn to cast the net further, only this time into realms found beyond the site's discrete edges.
THE HABITABLE MACHINE
Military Mission and Armament
Fort Wetherill's mission was the coastal defense of Rhode Island Sound, the East Passage of Narragansett Bay and the naval operations at Newport and its armament was the means to the job. Today, apart from its obvious state of ruin, Wetherill differs notably from its operational status in the absence of its armament and associated transport systems. The presence of weaponry gave a functional rationale to the surrounding spaces and concrete works and signaled an unambiguous specificity of program; the ruins today are stripped of these primary objects for which they served as datum and space-definers and by which they represented a source of power. Nevertheless, the decommissioned fort, even without its teeth, remains a compelling example of a machine program sponsoring a quasi-architectural space and occupies a gray area where the definitions of machine and architecture overlap. The fort represented the most advanced land-based military construction of its day, and in order to optimize its effectiveness as a gun platform, advanced concrete casting techniques were used in its design and construction. Concentric figures were carved in concrete to create gun mounts. Double-wall construction isolated the gun mounts from the magazines and other spaces at the lower levels; compound curves and angled surfaces at the upper level were cast to deflect incoming fire. Shifted grids resolved the circular geometry of the gun mounts with the orthogonal grids of interior and service access spaces.
These formal characteristics, by virtue of scale and mass, still suggest the deadly seriousness of Wetherill's former mission, and the fort ensures the ongoing recognition of military issues by virtue of its persistence as a physical artifact. While other weapons systems of its era such as ships and aircraft have long since been scrapped, the concrete construction is not so easily removed other than by burial, as was done at nearby Fort Getty. It is appropriate that these military relics and their history remain visible at the peripheries of Conanicut, for they serve as reminders that institutionalized armed conflict is a recurring theme of the human condition. The rapid obsolescence of its armament comments on the limits of power and their bleak anonymity, massive scale and ruinous condition place a grim face on the reality of warfare. While even this strongest of bulwarks is being dismantled by weather, time and disuse, and shrubs grow out of ever-widening cracks in the concrete, questions of boundaries and who is kept inside and outside remain the fundamental subtexts of Fort Wetherill.
The Formal Accommodation of Power
Artillery was the primary principle of Fort Wetherill's operations, and was attached to the bedrock by means of circular concrete piers of a mass and radius designed to withstand the violent recoil thrust during operations. The diagram of the batteries, then, is a linear series of concrete nodes upon which the guns were mounted, parallel to the coastline. Layered upon this diagram are secondary spaces for shielding, storage, circulation and fire control requirements, and the actual design reflects the following: 1. The horizontal distance between nodes and vertical distance of their tops of concrete above bedrock were determined by the operational clearances for the armament and the dimensional storage requirements of spaces at the lower levels, 2. The radial spaces that contain the swiveling armament were resolved with orthogonal storage and planning spaces that respond to the land side circulation geometry, 3. A series of thick continuous cast concrete ramparts shielded the ocean side of the gun platforms and 4. An entry arcade was attached at the land side to facilitate the transfer of shells and powder.
The Fort as Edge
In context of the larger site, the linear zone of fortifications manifests different attitudes respectively to ocean and land. If one views the site from onboard ship or from Newport, the batteries are barely visible; the cliffs define the edge at the water. In contrast, the batteries address the land side with three types of space articulating the edge visible as one enters the site from Ocean Street. The colonnaded arcade at the lower level of Battery Wheaton provides human-scaled access and circulation to the bunkers within. Functionally, its upper surface provided additional space at the operations level for Wheaton's 12" armament and protection for the lower level circulation. This permeable lower edge forms the southern boundary of a large open space, defined to the east and west by grade changes at Batteries Dickenson and Walbach. The second edge type presented to the land side is a series of horizontal and vertical slots of space created by the column-supported overhangs at Battery Wheaton's operations level fire control center and wells at the edge of its operations apron. These are akin to parts in a spatial Chinese puzzle, as these spaces interlock and pin the boundaries of open space facing Ocean Street. (See Figure 2) The third type of edge definition is created by vertical surfaces of the ramparts, which combine orthogonal and radial geometry in plan and create carved spaces in response to the gun mounts at the operations levels. These edges set the limits of occupied space; carved into the granite bedrock, they act as a mirrored, regularized inner edge of the natural coastline. From the land side, passage to the ocean side of the fortifications is difficult; of the few stairs, the most visible one, at Battery Zook, is barely three feet wide. Thus, the fort can be read as the inner, habitable edge of a wall that separates the natural domain from inhabited space. The top of this dividing "wall" is experienced as an odd strip of leftover space belonging to neither inner nor outer realm. To the south, there is a forty-foot cliff at the water's edge; access to the water can only be achieved visually. To the north, the built, inhabited world is no longer in view. Within this no man's land between the built and natural worlds, the abiding impression is a disquieting isolation.
© 2021 Philip S. Wheelock, Jr. AIA