Carl Solander        

Submarine Design and Fabrication Facility.
Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, MA


Arriving at the abandoned Fore River Shipyard I was overcome by the sheer immensity of its spaces. The weathered patina of shipyard’s history is palpable in the cracked, crumbling, corroded texture of its massive steel structures. The vast, silent, semi-enclosed spaces seem to house the ghosts of the Herculean projects of industrial production that once took place there. Trussed arches 150 feet high are buttressed and aligned so as to form three distinct outdoor rooms, each containing an open volume of air hovering above discrete slices of sea. These volumes are textured both by slashing shadows produced by the sharp contrast between the open sky and the overlapping depths of open steelwork and by gently disturbed reflections which arise languidly from the partially confined sea. At its busiest, these massive open frames housed thirty thousand workers who assembled a new battleship every two months. Today only the latent characteristics of the site remain; brute structures designed solely for utility bear silent witness to their own obsolescence. They have become a landscape of memory, of activity absent. This is the place for which I was to propose a new building to serve the needs of a radically changed economy.

Once this site housed the production of battleships and oil tankers; today it is to house the production of automated underwater vehicles (AUV’s): robotic mini-submarines used for precise surveying of underwater terrain. The buyers are the same: oil companies and the navy, but the techniques of production, the scale of the enterprise, and the skills of the workers have changed drastically. The design problem for me was: how to express this shift in production needs while respecting the undertakings of the past which have left their indelible markings on the site? I addressed this problem with the two basic devices of open spacing and captured reflections and a general organizing notion of the interdependent nature of the new building and its existing context.

The new building is loosely contained by one of the three outdoor rooms defined by the existing truss structure. It sits low in the space and towards the sea; allowing room above for a semi-enclosed sky, it cascades down to brush the sea and the existing docks which bound it. The new building is composed of inhabitable trusses wrapped in glazing of various degrees of transparency. These discreetly massed enclosures inhabit this space as if they are being assembled there, organizing themselves around open centers and spreading out like a canopy. Large elevator rooms which move vertically in the center of the open space sketched out by the building reinforce this notion of assembly: their shifting volumes open and close substantial gaps in the building mass. The building is tenuously positioned in this outdoor room, barely touching its boundaries and yet allowing the physical forces of the existing structure to secure its form. While the lower masses of the building hover just above the water extending piers to submerged foundations, the upper masses float in the middle of the space, draped by cables from the trusses which define the outer ceiling. The building’s edges slide past the existing truss piers in close proximity; at ground level they barely contact the edge of the dock to allow access to the interior space of the building.

From the interior the discreet masses and open spacing define a notion of community for the scientists and technicians who will design and fabricate the AUV’s there. Laboratories and workshops occupy most of the lower volumes of the building, defining separate work areas while overlapping vertically to allow for visual and physical connections between the various spheres of related activity. The upper part of the building houses offices in perpendicular bars, organized along opposing ramps which define separate regions while also allowing for spatial continuity. Together the volumes of the building encircle open exterior spaces, defining the interior of the building as an exterior which is interior to the surrounding truss. Throughout the building there is a sense of trajectories shifting according to defined parameters: sharp verticals, gradual slopes, and long horizontals articulate one’s movement through the interior of the building and, by extension, through space bounded by the surrounding truss. Thus, the inhabitation of the building is characterized by an acute sense of inside and outside, which extends both literally and analogically to a notion of present and past. The shadows and reflections of both the existing exterior trusses and the new interior trusses are projected onto the glazed facade of the new building, serving as an ethereal intermediary which articulates this conjunction of a new use and its historic context. While this new building offers no distinct image of past use being overwritten by present circumstances, it offers an experience of inhabiting the spaces left vacant by history.

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