About rebeccarainey

I am a Masters of Landscape Architecture student at the University of Tennessee. I want to make it easy for people to make the right choices for themselves, their communities and the Earth.

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.

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Cades Cove

Ask anyone in East Tennessee where to go in the Smokies and you’ll likely hear all about Cades Cove. A beautiful valley formed by erosion of limestone from the surrounding sandstone mountains, Cades Cove was hunting grounds for the Cherokee and later home to nearly 800 European settlers before the formation of Smoky Mountain National Park in 1927. Several 19th century settlement buildings have been preserved and relocated along the Cades Cove Loop Road as representations of Appalachian settlements.
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Oft-photographed double-cantilevered barn

Oft-photographed double-cantilevered barn


Beyond its rich historical context, the Cove has extremely interesting geology and biology. As in much of the Smokies, the hills are made up of sandstone that has withstood the worst of erosion while the valley that eroded was softer limestone. This porous subterranean condition means that water drains quickly on the hillsides leading to a drier than expected surface environment. The plants and trees there have had to adapt to dry conditions and fire threats. Of course, as a managed park frequented by visitors, Cades Cove is protected from burning as much as possible and some of the trees in particular are suffering for it. Nonetheless, the trails were remarkable and full of intimate moments of beauty.
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One of the unexpected finds in the Cove was the freshwater wetland. Our guide explained the challenges faced by the wetland ecosystem and some of the many adaptations bog plants had developed to overcome them. We came away with a lot of practical ideas to incorporate into our next design: wetland overlook at Seven Islands.
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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.

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.

Cumberland Plateau

Getting to know East Tennessee

Getting to know East Tennessee

This week the studio took a road trip to the Cumberland Plateau near Cove Lake State Park. First, let me tell you that every image you ever had of a plateau as a high flat place is misleading. Sure, the larger region is generally flat when compared with the Smoky Mountains or even the undulating Valley and Ridge region, but hiking around up there is one heck of a climb! Unfortunately, I never made it to the top; an old hip injury sidelined me about halfway up, making me feel even older than the rocks, but I digress.
Creeks cut through steep terrain

Creeks cut through steep terrain

The trip was really informative for all that I missed the pinnacle. Especially when seen from above, the Valley and Ridge region is obvious, the land crumpled like a rug. The push of tectonic plates from the southeast is tangible.

The gaps through those ridges, formed by creeks and rivers over millennia, became the primary paths for long hunters and settlers and remain the preferred routes for railroads and highways. Of course, the construction of those highways entailed some widening and straightening of the route and the exposed rock faces reveal the sharply slanted layers of rock beneath the surface.

Sharply slanted rocks reveal the geological upheaval that formed this region.

Sharply slanted rocks reveal the geological upheaval that formed this region.

Such layering is familiar to me from travels all through the southern Appalachians and I had assumed all the hills and mountains were essentially geologically the same. I was wrong.

What I hadn’t realized is that the Valley and Ridge region, geologically similar to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, is essentially made of limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed from the ancient remains of marine organisms like coral or diatoms. It’s mostly made of a type of calcium carbonate and is soluble in water and acids. This solubility leads to fantastic cave systems carved out by underground streams, full of stalactites and stalagmites. It also leads to surface erosion and the formation of the Valleys.

This creek's path was altered to move it away from nearby I-75.

This creek’s path was altered to move it away from nearby I-75.


Erosion in action

Erosion in action

In contrast, the Plateau is made up of mostly metamorphic rock: shale, sandstone, quartzite, and coal. Creeks have cut through the softer sandstone, forming deep, narrow valleys, but harder quartzite formed capstones that protected the tops of cliffs and peaks. This topography is familiar to me from visits to my mother’s people in eastern Kentucky coal country. The difficulty they had in farming even the bottomland is no surprise after realizing that their farms were sitting atop such hard ground.

The creek widens and slows at the bottom of the hill

The creek widens and slows at the bottom of the hill

All of this new information is undoubtedly interesting and will make my trips to the mountains more meaningful, but how does it affect my professional practice? As environmental stewardship must form the backbone of any modern landscape architecture design, an understanding of the watershed is vital. When you realize that the limestone karst system lies under all the Valley and Ridge region, non-point source pollution issues become even more problematic. How can my designs eliminate the need for fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides? How can my designs mitigate storm water run-off? How can I help people make the best choices for their own actions? Practically, the soil of the Valley and Ridge is going to be high in calcium, quite alkaline and drain quite easily. I need to keep that in mind as I select plants. On the other hand, if I am designing for the steep and rugged portions of the Appalachian Plateau, I will need to accept that the soil will be thin and poor with the underlying rocks not too far away. The land is also likely to be steep so erosion control will be important.

Getting to know a particular region intimately is one of my anticipated joys. With the last two decades spent moving around the country, putting down my own roots, learning the language of a smaller region, and designing for its particular quirks will be heavenly. I’m thankful it is a focus of studio this semester and hopefully this attitude of regional respect will inform all of our work at university and professional practice.

What are those squiggles made of?  How did they get there?  Questions, questions...

What are those squiggles made of? How did they get there? Questions, questions…

Appropriate footwear

Appropriate footwear

Chen Yu gets a taste of the Tennessee  woods

Chen Yu gets a taste of the Tennessee woods

Zach the Intrepid

Zach the Intrepid