Chapter Four: THREE LINES IN THE SAND
The Chapel sanctifies the Fort;
The Fort profanes the Chapel.
Fort Wetherill, in combination with the existing eighty-foot high cliffs at Bull Point, articulates a sheared boundary layer between land and ocean in vertical and horizontal space. In the larger context of Narragansett Bay, it contrasts with the weave of land and water at Great Swamp and the front porch to the Bay at Beavertail Point. Here, graffiti celebrates Fort Wetherill as a symbol of human experience at its darker, wilder margins. As a diagram of this composite edge condition, the fortifications can be expressed as a thickened line more or less parallel to the curvilinear coast. They represent, in this context, the separation of realms into the known and the unknown, the sacred and the profane, and the sheltered and the dangerous. As a core function of rational consciousness, limits and associated borders, ground rules, and disciplines are essential cognitive structures required for making distinctions and choices. However, this single line diagram, as a model of existential meaning, implies that these concepts exist as an unexamined, static order. The corresponding "idea" space that they inhabit, then, becomes equally discrete and inflexible. The fact of human action as discovery and journey suggests a competing conceptual axis in which to operate. This sponsors the addition of a second line to the diagram to represent a path that crosses and thereby challenges the line of conceptual limits while simultaneously redefining the condition of edge as a dynamic source, center and gateway rather than static periphery. This line, as articulated at Wetherill, breaches the coastal boundary and leads into the ocean as symbolic journey into a paradoxical realm of the seen and the unseen with no borders, limits, and points of navigation save for constellations overhead.
These intersecting lines of the emerging thesis parti define a horizontal plane of human action, but do not necessarily reify the myth-making and otherwise spiritual activities by which humanity collectively ascribes existential meaning to the world. These myths require conceptual space in which to exist, space which is distinct from the horizontal plane of human action yet exists within the bounds of perception and imagination. This suggests the addition of a vertical third line to the diagram to provide a commensurate depth of existential meaning. The complete parti diagram thus resembles a skewed three-dimensional grid. As armature, it accommodates syntactic shifts and collisions of both Cartesian and polar geometry to describe regularized built space and the reverberant interplay of sounds coming off the waters of Narragansett Bay. The sky and the deep earth have the capacity to symbolize transcendental space where myth and spirituality may exist because they are tangible yet separate and unreachable in the course of everyday human activities: a nearer world apart. At the intersection of these three axes, at this conceptual still point of a turning existential world, the chapel exists as vessel, not only in the sense of outward imaginative journey in the direction of the ocean, but in the inward sense of container and refuge.
Space, Articulation and Meaning
A stele makes visible the vertical axis of the parti diagram and organizes the site into approaches to the chapel from Ocean Avenue to the north, and from the ocean to the south. The entry sequence at Ocean Street begins with a forecourt that incorporates parking and permits a view from the road past a series of trees to the stele, which gives unambiguous directional clues regarding entry to the building. The geometric orientation of this path to the water off Ocean St. and associated spaces is aligned with a prominent ledge, which divides the site east to west into an upper and lower shelf, thus building upon spatial divisions and geometry inherent in the site. At the southern edge of the parking area, water is displayed as another level of entry and accompanies a ramp that rises toward the stele and chapel. To the east, closely following the ledge, is a service road with a gatehouse entrance that separates it from general access. The retaining wall and extended linear relief sculpture to the east of the ramp become relatively higher with the approach to the stele, creating the edge of a carved-out lower terrace that recalls the subtractive character of space at the upper levels of the batteries. A radial extension of the upper terrace frames the path and water, visually attaching them to its mass and serving as gateway to the radial geometry of the stepped lower terrace.
The stele occupies the geometric center of the terrace; by virtue of material and linear shape, it is a transformation of the guns that formerly occupied the platforms of Fort Wetherill's batteries. Whereas the gun batteries' mission was the projection of power into horizontal space, the stele serves as vertical space-catcher and shear pin holding sky, water and earth fast at the compositional and thematic center of the site. The stele as navigation marker becomes part of an earthly constellation of coastal boundaries, making nearer the myths and dreams mirrored in distant stellar oceans. Its vertical presence is translated into plan view with a series of granite inlays along an axis independent of ocean path and fortifications. These are the tracings left upon the horizontal realm of human actions by the mythic spaces of sky and earth. They emanate from the stele as source rather than path in the sense of journey. Accordingly, they end in the entry court to the north and in the thin air at the cliffs' edge.
A shallow, circular pool surrounds the stele, whose lower half is held within a water-filled well carved through bedrock well past sea level seventy-four feet below. Concentric stairs mirroring those at Battery Wheaton lead into the pool. To the west, a wide stair connects the lower terrace with the large court that fronts the lower levels of Batteries Zook and Wheaton. The lower terrace, pool and stele thus serve as an anchor for this space and the entry court on Ocean Street. South of the stele, the path breaches the poché of the upper terrace in a symbolic collision of limits and action. The path continues on to the ocean side of the fortifications as an arcade covered by a sweeping, curved roof. Water continues alongside it; the two cross once at the entrance to the chapel, and again as they simultaneously merge with the ocean. The arcade leads to an open court that connects the chapel entrance with the grand ocean stair, and to a turreted, sheltered observation post projected into ocean space. The stair, open court and chapel represent a commanding view of the ocean, while from the ocean side, they are landmarks signifying arrival for the southern approach to the East Passage. As symbolic receptor of ocean, the chapel's glazed components either retract into the floor or are removable, optionally allowing sound and salt air breeze to infuse the chapel space.
Several levels of spatial differentiation and hierarchy are made visible within this architectural intervention. The core of the chapel is a symmetrical space axially articulated by a skylighted barrel vault and transept. As simultaneous shelter and vessel, it is embedded in the carved poché of the existing batteries and mechanically attached to the path. This connection recognizes the path as an offset extension of the chapel's longitudinal nave; thus it also assumes the meanings of spiritual journey. The curved web surrounding the chapel makes visible the swirling, reverberant, imprecise continuum that forms the connecting boundary between the seen and the unseen levels of transcendent existential space. Its curves trace decayed echoes from phenomenal sources of navigation and myth. The spatial figure defined by the stele, and its shifted geometry relative to the path, symbolizes the transcendental realm of myth and spirituality, disconnected from physical nature. As the unbounded tallness of sky and the depth of earth-space are translated into horizontal tracings, the resulting visual tensions between of stele and path mirror those between unreal appearance and unseen reality.
The ceaseless, reverberant, transcendental ocean traces phenomenal levels of reality hidden from rational view. The simultaneous view of distance and borders prefigures a journey whose course is charted with diffuse echoes and winking lights in a wine-dark sea. So begins and ends an odyssey toward the mirrorings of one's inchoate self, borne on wind and tide.
© 2021 Philip S. Wheelock, Jr. AIA