Chapter Three: DISCOVERY
Due to its directional and reflective character, sound can indicate the characteristics of spaces in which it propagates. Terms in music such as 'high', 'low', 'color' and 'shape' have analogous meaning within architecture. A musical suspension is defined as "the continuing of one or more tones of one chord into a following chord while the others are changed; so that a temporary dissonance is created". It is analogous to a composition of shifted grids in which the geometry of one grid is continued or otherwise extended into the next. For both music and space, their respective structures of chord and geometry are destabilized, thus producing tension that seeks resolution.
The critical part of this investigation of sound comes not with its successful transcription into architectural space but with discovery that multiple types of space within an architectural design can make visible a corresponding number of existential meanings. The reverberant space of the Bay somehow is of a different order than the orthogonal spaces articulated on the land side of the gun batteries and the carved spaces of the radial gun mounts. The key discovery is the concept of multiple spatial organizations and the conclusions that International Style universal space is inadequate for the architectural expression of a range of existential meanings.
In a pencil sketch, marks were made to give texture to the sky in the sense of wind, clouds, and echoing sounds coming across the water. Bell buoys that roll in the surf surrounding the site were considered visual representations of that echoing changeable, mythical indeterminacy of ocean and the deep side of the coastal boundary. The idea that sound has a spatial component, and that sounds issuing from bell buoys and lighthouses can be perceived as musical phrases, inspired a series of two and three dimensional images as explorations of sound's capacity to sponsor architectural space. Collectively, they investigated the theoretical possibility that architectural space could have its own "sound" that could reflect the unique relationship of Fort Wetherill to Narragansett Bay.
Several audio recordings were made of navigation devices at the site as a rational analysis of their resemblance to the musically patterned nocturnal recollections of Chapter One. After limited success, a more intuitive approach began closer to these memory percepts with a musical score, composed with the site in mind. (See Figure 9) This score was used to sponsor a two-dimensional spatial analysis of melody line and chord structure, which represent an object/datum relationship similar not only to the bell buoys in the rhythmic ocean swells but Wetherill's guns within the linear rhythms of its carved concrete wells. In this analysis, melody lines are composed of interrelated additive objects within the "space" of the staff. The chords are represented by subtractive forms, which surround and support the melody notes and act as a datum against which the notes stand in relief. As a three-dimensional transformation of this analysis, a relief model was then created to develop a material syntax of phrased object/notes within a subtractive chordal space. (See Figure 10)
These visual images display segments of music and linear space, but the idea of musical score as space presents structural difficulties to the extent that music has beginnings and endings, whereas the broader spaces at Wetherill are continuous and cannot so easily be segmented. A soldered steel and bronze wire sculpture was created in part to explore this issue. (See Figure 11) By allowing the staff lines to loop back on themselves, three-dimensional, curving spaces were created among which the "object" notes could be embedded. This also reflected the reality of the site more accurately, for it suggested the cyclical, reverberant, swirling air at Wetherill that contains the point sources of navigation sounds. Two interdependent notions of space were created, represented by the looping staff and the linear series of note objects. The resulting composition supports simultaneous readings of the looping staff enclosing the notes, and the notes serving as armature for the staff. A granite & steel sculpture was then created to explore these two types of space in materials found on the site. Curved spaces were suggested by a granite base, to which was attached an armature of welded steel angles and plates. (See Figure 12) This sculpture, given a breeze, sounds like a gong buoy.
In the end, the exploration of the spatial aspects of sound was useful not because of the promise that a building could have its own "sound", but that sound and music define a phenomenal, evocative space in the imagination that beckons the architectural sensibility with their siren songs. Thus sound and other non-visual imagery serve to prod visual processes past customary boundaries; their promise in architectural enterprise is an awakening to ephemera lying at the edges of sight.
Building program subjects the otherwise unbounded formalism of the discovery process to the rigors of meaningful human action. It imbues Wetherill with further significance for those who have happened upon this part of the island, or those setting sail from nearby harbors, or those who again see the lights of home at the end of an ocean journey. For the author, it offers the opportunity to imaginatively stand in a building that offers a sense of understanding that perhaps he was seeking when he bicycled there twenty-one years ago.
Architecture is ontologically dependent upon the human condition; the concept of place requires the vitality of human response. The ruins speak to the fact of armed conflict and the necessity for military capability, and to the honorable contributions of those who stood watch at Fort Wetherill during wartime. These concrete forms seem destined to maintain their presence for the next hundred years in a manner never dreamed by their designers, and by this capacity to endure in a severely diminished state, they manifest the mortality of armed conflict. At another level, the simultaneously ancient and reconstituted ocean, as mystical source, alternately gathers and casts itself within Rhode Island Sound. It is proposed that a path be created to connect Ocean Street with this largeness of ocean, intersecting the line of existing fortifications. It would cut through the granite cliffs and continue into the water as a grand stair that would be seen when approaching Newport and the East Passage from Rhode Island Sound. The intersection of the line of gun batteries and this path establishes a dialog between the concept of bulwark and a countervailing breach of this boundary as a necessary component of journey.
As a further link between the domains of land, ocean and sky, a vertical marker is proposed to be set into a water-filled well at the geometric locus of collision of military artifact and ocean path. This land-bound navigation marker would become part of the coastal constellation of lighthouses and buoys that map out the visible and invisible connections between land and deep waters. It would also serve as a shear pin and vertical connector between the realms of earth and sky, thus forming the z-axis of a three-dimensional site diagram. At the point of intersection, a non-denominational pilgrimage chapel will be simultaneously embedded within the poché of the fortifications and attached to the path to the water. The chapel would be a sheltered, symmetric space, in contrast to the swirling, dynamic spaces of the site, and a vessel to navigate the realms of mystical source and implacable causality inherent in this connection of earth, ocean and sky.
© 2023 Philip S. Wheelock, Jr. AIA