Chapter Three: DISCOVERY
You have to play a long time
to sound like yourself...
Fort Wetherill State Park, as a place, has compelling characteristics not only within its own boundaries, but also within the larger context of Narragansett Bay. As a means of discovering and understanding the site, a series of two- and three-dimensional images were created by casting the net far into intuitive waters without particular regard to their prospective suitability for supporting architectural space or program. As knowledge, they consist of two theoretically distinct but operationally interdependent tendencies, the first of which is the physical fact of Fort Wetherill and its place within Narragansett Bay. Wetherill's specifics have the capacity to operate as foil and datum for architectural intervention, if not as subject and theme. The second tendency is the author's interior collage of perceptions occasioned by the site, which mirror the author's internal landscape as much as they collectively provide a lens for viewing Fort Wetherill as the thing in itself. These images sponsor a narrative architectural design that enriches the site's existential meanings relative to human experience.
An assumption that drives much of this process is a distinction between graphic and mental images. W. J. T. Mitchell, in his essay, "What is an Image?" contrasts the current primary sense of image as a graphic picture with an earlier Jewish and Christian sense of image as mental "likeness":
The true, literal image is the mental or spiritual one; the improper, derivative, figurative image is the material shape perceived by our senses, especially the eye.
This concept is significant in that it suggests the possibility of "deep-structure" cognitive categories independent of and at a deeper conscious level than sensual percepts. These mental images could alternately be expressed through visual, verbal, mathematical, musical, social or kinesthetic intelligence, using Howard Gardner's working definitions. The idea, from the standpoint of architectural representation, involves drilling down past layers of graphic convention as a means of more directly accessing mental, spiritual, and otherwise "pre-visual" images. The result, theoretically, is a more authentic, if not novel, architectural design that tends to challenge and rethink existing graphic conventions if not reinvent them. The risk of this assumption is that it places a high priority on process at the potential expense of creating architectural space and form. The potential return is an enhanced way of making sense of "that big space between ocean and sky" at Fort Wetherill.
The vertical axes of Fort Wetherill's gun platforms were recalled from a dream as a series of geometric stalactites extending into the bedrock below. This is at odds with their physical reality, of course, for the actual gun mounts are massive concrete piers that have little connection to the land other than bearing upon bedrock. Yet the embedment of the bunkers within the landscape, in conjunction with the highly articulated, concentric spaces that formerly contained the gun carriages contribute to a sense that there existed, or should exist, a earthward expression of these spaces. Such spaces within the dense bedrock could not be habitable, but exist nevertheless in dark, inchoate imaginings seemingly as old as the earth itself. A model was constructed to represent this intuitive phenomenal reality of ultimately dense space, reflecting the impressions the author had while exploring the lower levels of the gun batteries. Accordingly, the building design sought to make visible this deep earth space. (See Figure 1) In a countervailing rational formal analysis, the gun batteries were drawn alternately as a linear assemblage of parts and as a series of interconnected subtractive spaces. This was an attempt to understand the original designers' concepts, how spaces were linked to each other, and how the various parts of the construction fit together. (See Figure 2) The discussions in Chapter Two tend to support the subtractive interpretation, with the carved gun mounts serving as containers for the artillery, which, in turn, gave focus and structure to the space. This syntactic idea became a recurring theme in the building design.
Deductive and Inductive Logic
The strategy of making visible the invisible within a deductive process was applied to what could be described as a modified Noli plan of Narragansett Bay. This represents an account of the echoing, shifting winds, waters and sounds of Narragansett Bay, as played against the natural and built coastlines and elevation contours. (See Figure 3) It was initially assumed that the shorelines, aids to navigation, roads, bridges, populated areas, and shipping lanes could be connected within one coherent tectonic vocabulary with syntactic subsets to accommodate local conditions. The chief dialectic occurs between the organic forms of coastline and geometric lines which seek out an underlying structure, and which are warped and skewed to make visible a reverberant Narragansett Bay. This homogeneous space was assumed to operate at all scales; a vocabulary developed to satisfactorily account for the Bay would sponsor the smaller scale design intervention at Fort Wetherill. Accordingly, site sections were created by applying this vocabulary to the expression of bell buoys, the fort, and the connecting sky and ocean. (See Figure 4) Less clear is how this strategy would be extended to reinvent standard construction methods and details. This unresolved issue, along with later investigations in sound, led to the replacement of this assumption of universal space and subsets thereof with the concept of multiple spatial orders juxtaposed in various ways within the building design.
As part of the initial discovery process, photographs were made of the site. While they collectively document its physical nature, as individual photographs they offer details rather than gestalt. As the beginnings of an inductive representational strategy, collage was used to reassemble details of multiple photographs to synthesize, rearrange and edit their simultaneous viewpoints towards a more complete representation of the site. (See Figure 5) A variant of this idea was the transformation of one photograph into pencil sketches, which abstracted the overall composition of the photograph as an armature upon which to place additional details. (See Figure 6) A photograph of Battery Walbach, with Beavertail Point in the background, was selected for this purpose because it exhibited Fort Wetherill's signature geometry within the larger site context. The sketches sought to illustrate and synthesize the radial geometry of the batteries, the separate vanishing points of built and natural forms, the slivers of land disappearing into the ocean at Beavertail, and the enclosing bigness of sky. These themes were, in turn, explored within a cardboard and balsa wood model as a transformation of the photograph into three dimensions. (See Figures 7, 8) The model articulates the fields in the photograph that represent sky, circulation along the batteries, vanishing points, and shoreline as separate three-dimensional components. At issue is what happens once a two-dimensional composition is created and how the phenomenal space implied therein becomes reinterpreted in architectural space and form. For example, there were deliberations regarding whether an abstract two-dimensional vocabulary should be realized in section as well as plan, or whether roofs and other criteria dictate otherwise. Revisiting these transformed images and comparing them to the Noli plan of Narragansett Bay resulted in the conclusion that making vertical sections do the same things as plan sections was a reductionist idea of universal space. Among other things, roofs, gravity, and ways of bringing in light from above, matter more than maintaining a graphic consistency in the design drawings.
© 2021 Philip S. Wheelock, Jr. AIA