The Dimensions of an Island

Urban Islands continues apace down here in Sydney, with Day Five beginning in about an hour. While I’ll describe the actual studio process in some detail later on, it seems worth recounting our trip out to Cockatoo Island – a derelict shipbuilding site and former prison in the Sydney Harbor – earlier this week.

[Image: The dimensions of an island: a sign posted on Cockatoo].

We went out as a massive group of about 70 people and spent a bit more than five hours there, wandering around through old turbine halls and tunnels, walking past fenced-off but still functioning lift shafts cut directly through an eroded plateau of sandstone, and exploring former convict barracks, exercise yards, a Submarine Weapons Workshop, and the lost interiors of buildings demolished long ago, their internal walls, spaces, and bays still marked by iron rails set rhythmically in the concrete.
The first step was for our students to install small models that they’d built the night before, fitting them into cubbyholes inside an old warehouse near the turbine hall.
The cubbyholes themselves were all very strangely labeled, however, referring to old tools and other handheld pieces of industrial equipment; but the words written on them in black lettering were more like a set-list by the Aphex Twin than a serious description of useful implements: Vodex Elect, Murex Vodex, Yorkshire Flux.
After that first exercise was over – and there were some fantastic projects on display, from a conic room-amplification device to mirrored boxes and temperature-sensitive geometries – we broke up into our respective tutorial groups, approximately 16 students per group, and headed outside to sit amidst that old iron grid in the concrete, looking out through a missing interior that still seemed to haunt the island’s perimeter.

[Image: The gridded rails of a lost interior, Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbor].

I’ll explain in another post what it is that I’m having my students do – though I will say that it involves what I hope is an exciting mix of formal landscape analysis, combinatorial mythology, and Tarot cards (yes, Tarot cards) – but this first day out on the site was more of an introduction to the spectacular historical landscapes on display there in the harbor.
From recently discovered “convict structures” under active excavation at the top of a hill to the long stories of ships constructed on Cockatoo – warships drifting outward in an endless archipelago of micro-islands – by way of the extraordinary Mould Loft, where massive ribs and geometries for future ships were outlined with chalk drawings on the floor, cut into wood, sent down piece by piece to be remade in metal, and then assembled again, like dinosaur skeletons, into boats and submarines, Cockatoo is a three-dimensional catalog of unique situations and spaces.
When does a ship cease to be a part of the island that created it? Perhaps ships are to Cockatoo as pollen is to flowers.
There is electrical equipment still sitting there like something from The Prestige, converting DC current from mainland Australia to the island’s AC needs; there is a locked switchboard room inside of which phonecalls used to be connected through grids of wires; and there are entire missing hillsides – artificial cliffs still marked with drilled incisions for dynamite – that you then realize aren’t missing at all, they’ve simply been transformed into the ground you’re standing on, the island having been expanded in size nearly fourfold through a coastal growth that pushed the island’s perimeter further and further out to the sea, like terrestrial rings for a maritime Saturn.
There are moving walls formerly used to plug-up the dry docks; there is ship-launching equipment; there was the deliberate feeding of harbor sharks to turn them into a living security fence against the island’s 19th-century prisoners; and there is the incredible angular cross-bedding of ancient sand dunes now frozen into permanent form as the island’s central plateau.
There is a filled well; a campground for tourists; inflatable “slave docks” that could temporarily expand the outer edge of the island; and all around us were things that had yet to be constructed, from viewing platforms planned by the Harbour Trust to our own students’ future installations.

[Image: Cockatoo Island in profile].

While I suppose all islands lend themselves well to mythology, Cockatoo seems particularly well-suited to a kind of over-the-top symbolic analysis – the bizarrely preserved film set from Wolverine, the space of the Turbine Hall so immeasurably huge that they had to install visual guide tags for laser-based surveying equipment, the escaped ship that beached itself on a neighboring island – that it seems impossible to believe architects working there could not foreground the narrative potential of the site. Even if only as a way to recombine and situationally understand the possibilities of an island, delving into the mythology of Cockatoo seems both incredibly fun and architecturally necessary.
It’s an history full of plane crashes and visiting aviators, with a backwards warship that arrived without a bow to be temporarily repaired by workers on inflatable slave docks, and there are the hollow voids of old grain silos visible in section on the sides of collapsed hills, connected onward to an internal network of rock-cut drains and reservoirs…
Obviously, I hope my own studio here – breaking down Cockatoo into its major and minor spatial types and material details for the purpose of performing an oblique combinatorial analysis – will draw on these histories and forms, but we’ll have to see if two weeks is enough time even to begin exploring such extraordinary symbolic potential.

(For a bit more about Urban Islands, check out Design + Build and these two posts by Nick Sowers of Soundscrapers fame).

7 thoughts on “The Dimensions of an Island”

  1. Thanks for the mention Geoff. I'm really looking forward to seeing what the three studios come up with. Should be really interesting.

  2. Just started checking your blog, kudos on the exploration of form and ideas with Tarot cards! The name "Cockatoo Island" tells me there is a whole lot more to this place than the manmade which is considerable. Is there opportunity to bring Nature back into the mix? Visions of flocks of Cockatoos, repurposed lofting yards and people are making the mind reel.

  3. "When does a ship cease to be a part of the island that created it? Perhaps ships are to Cockatoo as pollen is to flowers."

    This is by far one of my favorite quotes of yours in a while. As an architecture student and urban explorer (shouldn't these be synonymous), I am extremely envious of you all as you get to play with and analyze Cockatoo Island. Best of luck to you and your students.

  4. I'm assuming that you know about Nikki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden in Italy (Giardini dei Tarrochi)…it's wonderful just like your blog -many thanks!

  5. Simon, glad you like the line – the island is amazing, and I'll continue putting up material about it (if there is ever any free time!) this week and next.

    Joey, I will check out the garden online when I get a chance – thanks for the tip.

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