Seven Islands Wetland Overlook

I’m going to share some information about our final project, a wetland overlook and wildlife viewing station at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. Don’t worry, in the future I’ll hit the highlights of the process and some of the comments I received from the jury, but right now I want to show you my design.

I’m very excited by the concept and even most of the form, but my renderings need work (to say the least!). I’ll do a “Before-After” post over the break to highlight my improved representation skills, so bear with these now.

Below I’ve copied the text I used to prepare for my review presentation. Of course, I didn’t hit all those points during my six minutes, but this will give you an idea of what I was thinking.

Seven Islands is a special and unique place in that it provides us with a taste of what Christian Norberg-Schulz calls a ‘cosmic landscape’ that is uncommon in East Tennessee. The topography and the managed grasslands create a situation where the connection between the ground and the sky brings a sense of infinity and timelessness. Those same grasslands are habitat for night fliers like owls and bats, a glimpse of whom is certainly worth a night visit to this wonderful site.

In 1980, Norberg-Schulz wrote “Genius Loci’ in which he described three landscape topologies based in part on the interaction between earth and sky. The cosmic landscape is defined by its featureless ground plane that provides no visual orientation so that the movements of celestial bodies supply the primary order and structure to the world. This is the landscape most commonly associated with the desert, the open seas, and Great Plains. When experiencing a cosmic landscape, the individual becomes aware of the infinity of the space and easily believes in an absolute and eternal order.

The site lies in a wide flood plain of the French Broad River. A high wooded ridge anchors its northern edge and the end of Bayes Mountain lies to the southwest. A line of succession trees runs to the west between the river and the grasslands. These two sides help shape the boundaries of the view and focus our attention to the south and east. While far from the featureless ground plane of the desert, the warm-season grasses of the site do have a certain uniformity, especially at night when the colors are indistinguishable. The site itself is quite dark, darker than one might imagine, given its proximity to Knoxville. NASA satellite maps clearly show both the bright light of Tennessee’s major cities and the darkness over the Smoky Mountain National Park. Seven Islands lies in a darker patch between the two. According to the Site Manager, and my own nighttime observations, there is still some glow low in the sky from Knoxville’s lights, but there is very little light near the Park itself.

The wetland overlook has quite a simple form, as befits a piece of cosmic architecture. Its primary shape is that of a circular mound. You approach it along a straight path of pale gravel; both the light color and the sound and texture of the path keep you going in the right direction. The mound itself is covered in White Cloud Muhly grass, the rounded mounds mimicking the mounded overlook which in turn mimics the full moon. The mound is carefully oriented according to the cardinal directions to aid astronomers in locating celestial bodies.

I wanted to accentuate the cosmic experience of the location and allow the visitor to experience the night sky in three different ways. The first was heavily influenced by James Turrell’s current installation at the Gugenheim, “Aten Reign”. He masterfully manipulates light in the space above your head, drawing your attention directly and intensely upwards. In the first experience, the Framed View, you walk into the mound directly from the East through a narrow channel that opens up into a columnar space taller than you are. The height of the column frames the night sky and accentuates the verticality of the relationship between ground and sky. The surrounding walls firmly hold you to the earth while your attention stretches upwards.

The second way to experience the night sky is the cosmic Expansive View. Ascending a mild slope to a height of six feet, just high enough to be above the level of the summer grasses while not breaking the horizontal plane of the grassland, you come to a level path that is wide enough to accommodate a telescope tripod. The rim of marble that formed the last two feet of vertical space below now serves as both a seat and a wall to prevent you from inadvertently stepping into the empty column at the center of the mound. The view from that vantage is now both broad and high, an inverted bowl above your head while the grassland rolls out smooth in front of you. Here you are close to the cosmos and the cosmos is close to you.

The third way to experience the sky is the Reflected View. If you were to continue around the path and descend the stairs, you would come to a platform just above the surface of the wetland pond. The platform points due north. From that position you could see moonlight reflected in the dark surface of the water as if in a reflecting pool. You might be tempted to disturb the water, or a bird or frog might do it for you, and the ripples would change the experience of the moon. The Reflected View brings your attention to the quality of light, something that changes through the month with the lunar cycle. Whereas the previous two views held the stars and moon in sharp relief, this view is softer, more abstract.

While you are over the wetland pond, you may have a chance to see bats flying overhead. They are attracted by the water and the night-flying insects that congregate there. There is a space designed for watching bats and owls and other nighttime wildlife situated at the verge between the succession forest and the grassland. This location was selected because it is here, on the edge, that the Great Horned Owl likes to perch and watch and listen for prey animals moving in the tall grass. While they tend to roost in older trees, they like the cover and height these trees offer as well as their proximity to the owl’s primary hunting ground, the warm season grasses. You approach the wildlife watching station via a path that skirts that same edge, camouflaging your movements and helping you maintain a low profile much in the same way that a mouse stays to the edge of something solid when moving across open space.

The wildlife viewing station itself is elevated, using an existing dirt pile, in order to improve the view out over and into the grasses. When hunting, Great Horned Owls typically display one of two behaviors, both of which are better seen from a slightly higher vantage point; they can either perch until they bselect a prey animal, then swoop down soundlessly and pounce, talons outstretched. At other times, they fly low and silently just over the tops of the grasses, quartering the field in search of prey. Either way, a view that puts you at or above grass height is superior to ground level. Owls are active dusk to dawn, with most of their feeding happening earlier in the night. They are particularly active during their late fall breeding season.

The height of owl activity coincides with a drop-off of bat activity. Most bats in East Tennessee hibernate during the winter months, so you can expect to see them only from about April to October. Two species of endangered bats include Seven Islands in their range. Woodcocks are also present at Seven Islands and their March mating flights happen only at night and are spectacular.

The screen for the wildlife viewing station is between it and the woods where owls would be likely to perch. You need to stay hidden from them while they’re watching; once they’re on the wing, they are less likely to be deterred by your presence. The ground is packed earth, the better to muffle the sounds of your movements. The handrail sweeps up to form the top of the blind, then back down to form a rail on which to lean your elbows to steady binos or a camera.

Seven Islands is a remarkable place any time of the day or night, but I believe there is something special about being out in the dark, away from buildings and people, something that heightens the senses and helps us see things in a new way. The fact that Seven Islands has an expanse of open space, thanks to its topography and the park staff who keep succession at bay through controlled burns, should be considered a gift. We can use that gift to help people connect with the world in a new way, a way that’s impossible in our urban centers.

Yikes! That was long! No wonder I didn’t get through it all. I find it really hard to distill all of the thought and connections I’ve made during the process into something really short. Clear, elegant, clever designs are my ideal and those require an enormous amount of thinking that may or may not be apparent to the user. That’s okay. A successful project doesn’t need to be explained, at least not in words. I suspect as my representation gets better, my verbal presentations will get less… verbose. On the other hand, the jury did comment on my eloquent explanation, so I suppose I should find a balance between the two.