The objective of our design-build studio was to integrate a community gathering area into the existing context of Goose Island State Park. Our site was the Youth Group Area, a large clearing in a coastal live oak grove where a variety of organizations engage in educational activities. The arrangement of the seating around the fire circle developed from a close analysis of how a person perceives the proximity of another person and how that relates to a larger group. The desire for a flexible space that still felt unified led to a design with a strong formal orientation and several informal spaces. The formal space is anchored by a large wall that provides a presentation backdrop for group activities. Material choices emphasize the unified but varied seating experiences by placing a wooden skin over the horizontal sitting surfaces. Exposed structural shellcrete is found at all of the vertical faces.
Goose Island State Park covers 321 acres and features over 100 camping sites found on the bay and nestled under large oak trees. Activities on the site include camping, boating, biking, fishing, and bird watching. There are around 200,000 visitors to the park annually, with 60,000 of those camping overnight. Goose Island State Park provides a place of refuge for over 600 bird species during different parts of the year. This number includes the highly endangered Whooping Crane. The Whooping Crane has a current population of less than 450 in the wild. These cranes attract an avid collection of naturalists hoping to catch a glimpse of the tallest bird in North America. Citizens that visit this park are looking to reconnect with the environment. Oysters, which were once a major part of the local economy and ecosystem, are highly culturally relevant in this region and have been on the decline for years as a result of overfishing and runoff from industrial and farming activities. One of the early goals of this project was to encourage a dialogue that Texas Parks and Wildlife has established with its visitors about the consequences of the degradation of oyster reefs and their remediation efforts. Our site was the Youth Group Area, a large clearing in a coastal live oak grove where a wide variety of organizations engage in educational and recreational activities. There are a number of nature walks and interpretive programs that Goose Island State Park provides for visitors. Many of these programs commence or take place at the Youth Group Area. The original program that was proposed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife was limited to the construction of a fire ring with some basic seating elements that could accommodate around twenty of the Youth Group Area campers. The initial design was organized based upon the procession from the parking lot to the camping area. A sequence of spaces was envisioned that becomes more private as one moves further into the site. The orientation of the fire circle was chosen to maximize stargazing opportunities and to provide a separation from the proximity of the parked cars. Once the site plan had been developed, the focus shifted to the specific form of the seating elements around the fire circle. A variety of seating conditions were considered to cater to the needs of different types of groups using the site. Ergonomic forms were developed to provide varied seating experiences as well as a play element for younger groups. These seating opportunities developed into more planar forms to provide a unified experience. The arrangement of the seating around the fire circle developed from a close analysis of how a person perceives the proximity of another person and how that relates to a larger group. The desire for an extremely flexible space that still felt unified led to a design with a strong formal orientation and many informal spaces. The formal space is anchored by a large wall that provides a presentation backdrop for group activities while also providing some screening from the parking area. Material choices emphasize the unified but varied seating experiences by placing a wooden skin over the horizontal sitting surfaces. Exposed structural shellcrete is found at all of the vertical faces. As the project moved forward from discussion and planning to reality, the build sequence was carefully designed to maximize construction efficiency and minimize material waste. Building the project took place in two segments: modular elements and concrete formwork were assembled in Austin and site work and installation were performed at Goose Island State Park over three four-day work weekends. The three build weekends were broken into three elemental tasks of concrete, wood, and steel. The primary design material was shellcrete, an adaptation of the methodology employed by the early settlers on the coast. After researching primitive methods, as well as more recent experiments with the material (known as tabby in other parts of the American South), the studio conducted extensive mix tests that looked at various aggregate and binder mixes to get the optimal aesthetics and durability for the benches. The shellcrete was sandblasted on site after the initial curing to expose the aggregate. The pine 2x4 boards that were used for the deck were separated by oak and pine boards. These elements are reminiscent of the surrounding grove.. The boards were developed into a specialized pattern that allowed for a certain structural coverage that could be interpreted by the individual assembling the panels giving a sense of randomness inside the system. The gabion wall was constructed of steel structural members cast in concrete with 2x2 galvanized steel wire mesh welded inside to provide a showcase for the oysters and create a didactic tool for the park nature interpreters. The fire pit itself is a ring of shellcrete with a broken 1/4” steel plate that protects the shellcrete from the roaring fires. River rock and sand were used to tie the two elements together. Two horizontal datums were established to regulate cast materials and their wooden counterparts above. All concrete and shellcrete elements appear to rise from the ground, 12” above average grade. The 3/4” reveal sets up the second datum and becomes a consistent measure, the gap between all materials. The tops of the 2x4 wood benches snap to a height of 16 1/4” above average grade based on material thickness and the 3/4” gap. The steel liner of the shellcrete fireplace rises to meet this height. Like the lining of a fine jacket, the interior of the fire circle showcases the shellcrete, while the more utilitarian concrete defines the perimeter. The typical grey of the concrete serves as a sharp contrast to the warm white of the shellcrete, emphasizing the richness and tactility of the material. The wooden tops of the deck and benches determine the outer boundaries of the fire circle. Boards run in the long direction of the seat, creating a pinwheel effect with the fire pit as its gravitational center. The taut alignment of the wood tops with their cast bases gives the impression of a thing that is both elemental and monolithic at once, a reference to the gravitas of historic shellcrete construction tempered with the warm, familiar tactility of wood. The inclusion of a vertical element was created to screen the view of the broad parking area at the front of the site, provide an enclosure to the fire circle, and to act as a presentation backdrop for the interpretive nature programs offered at the park. At night, the headlights of cars driving through the site or entering to park are blocked from view, while the dancing firelight on the other side can be seen from the entry through small voids in the oyster shells. The magnetic steel provides a place to hang star charts for the new night sky observation program, and the oyster shells act as a didactic tool for discussing bay ecology.
Ruth Carter Stevenson, Chair, University of Texas at Austin, School of Architecture