Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

This week we began our site study of Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge in eastern Tennessee. The studio broke into pairs to study particular aspect of the site: topography, hydrology, wind and light. My partner and I studied hydrology. We began in the studio with topo maps, TVA data, KGIS data and the like. We formulated diagrams to explain the watershed boundaries, how water moved through the site, rainfall and runoff levels and historic flood patterns. Having done all this, I thought I understood the site, but there is no substitute for being on the ground.

We took a trip out to the site and had a chance to walk the land. The road in followed the main drainage way beside Bays Mountain, a major ridge in the area. When we reached the bottom, the floodplain meadows and the new woods, the path turned to track along the base of the Mountain and eventually ran parallel with another drainage way. Seeing this shift, this natural turn in the watercourse, made so much more sense than the path had on the topo map. When the drainage way ran into a broad freshwater wetland, I was not surprised. Just past the wetland was the French Broad river. The river was broader and faster than I had anticipated, but we have had a lot of rain recently and the water levels were obviously higher than usual. Of course, the upstream Douglas Dam may have been releasing more water than usual, making accommodations for the higher water levels in the reservoir.
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As part of the assignment, each pair had to locate a path somewhere within a short walk of the wetland. The site had to highlight our studied phenomenon. We chose to situate our path at a point near where the drainage way that had paralleled our walk into the park met the French Broad. More particularly, where the drainage way and a smaller fork of the river met the main body of the river. On the other side of the existing walking path were the steep, rocky slopes of Bays Mountain with deep gullies that obviously channeled rainwater into the drainage way.
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Our constructed path will draw attention to the land/ water/ land/ water topography by being perfectly straight, perpendicular to the existing path. Right before our selected location, the dirt path turns a corner, revealing our location rather suddenly. The perfectly straight lines of our path and its location across the dirt path will cause people to pause. Whether they choose to take our path or simply step over it to continue, they are likely to turn their heads to look over the bridge’s path, noticing how close the river is at that point and noticing the alternating land/water pattern.

If they choose to take our path, they will encounter a dip, a ladder bridge that takes the individual down into the drainage way for a closer look at the eroded sides and the delicate vegetation that grows in that moist, shaded environment. Once across the bridge, the path will continue linearly across the small peninsula that separates the main path and drainage way from the river channel. The path will continue out over the water for a distance of nearly fifteen feet, pointing directly to a break in the trees on the other side of the channel. This will visually connect the onlooker to greater river environment.

Walking along the path, with thick vegetation and rock beside you, it’s easy to miss the river until you are right on it. It’s also easy to miss the beautiful alternating water/ land patterns. Hopefully, our path will draw attention to both these experiences.

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Design Process, the Beginning

The first project asked us to draw inspiration from a number of sources. Memories of the beach in Key West drew forth the ideas of “slippery”, “jagged” and “exposed”. Using those concepts, I cut and manipulated a single sheet of paper with regulating lines. An area of the paper near the bottom edge had some interesting regulating angles that were perfect for a void full of “jagged” points. Sweeping above that space, a wave-like curl was the perfect place to site both “exposed” on the broad face of the wave and “slippery” sliding off the apex onto the “jagged” space below.
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Our trip to the Cumberland Plateau highlighted some of the more interesting aspects of the local geology, including the steeply angled layers of rock, the result of an upthrusting of the ancient seabed to form a dissected plateau. In fact, these rock formations gave me my guiding concept for stage two of the project. When dissecting is used geologically, it means a break in the rock along natural lines, so I wanted my volume to be closely aligned with the existing regulating lines yet be distinct from the rest of the elements on the page. Primary regulating lines guided the placement of the volume’s longitudinal lines and resulted in a form that resembles two abutting rocks. Secondary regulating lines visually connect the volume with the paper wave and rocks. Also, as the wave rises from the surface in the lower left and climbs to the upper right, the rock volume also rises from the ground plane in the same direction.
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The rock volume also connects visually with other spaces around it. Directly to the left, another rock volume rises above the surface along the same regulating lines at the same angle as the larger plane of my volume. Like the underlying structure of the Plateau, our combined forms give the impression of deep, subterranean connection. When seen from the side, the neighboring form’s angled arm is framed between my two top planes like a mountain ridge in the distance.

Natural shapes and forms of rock and water informed the overall design and the final design feels organic. Natural forms continue to inform my design ideas. I don’t want to recreate a beach or a mountain, but the feelings, the forms, and the meaning of those places make sense together.

In terms of process, I really enjoyed making models, despite some frustration working in a new medium. The ability to change one aspect and immediately see the result was exhilarating. Also, the fact that each iteration was highly impermanent gave me courage to try lots of new things without worrying about showing my sketches to anyone. It was difficult to be as deliberate as I needed to be in terms of angles and edges, but I believe further work with models will make it easier. In general, this process felt more playful and creative. Modeling also helped me see in three-dimensions. This will be a technique I use again.