Rabbit Island

I first heard of Rabbit Island on Cabin Porn, the sort of escapist, Instagram-tinged Tumblr that sets your mind adrift on a Sunday afternoon.  The island sits in the middle of Lake Superior, a few miles off of the Michigan coast.  Bought by Rob Gorski in 2010, the land was put into a trust, and conceived as an artist's colony.  The hope is to put up artists -- visual, performance, musicians -- for temporary terms.  

Some have already spent time on the island, finding inspiration in the solitude, spacious sky, and long water views.  At 90 acres, there is a substantial amount of land to explore; yet, as an island, edges are clearly defined.  The island, as archetype, fulfills a primal, childhood dream, same as a treehouse, or blanket fort, or backyard hideaway -- it limits the big, bad outside world, circumscribing a complex universe into a simple, manageable space.  What one of us didn't fantasize about having our own island as a child, filling it with pools and waterfalls and ziplines and basketball courts and video game caves?

All photos, except renderings, by Rob Gorski, available on the Rabbit Island Flickr page.
From the air.

Rob and the Rabbit Island crew built a small, open-sided structure there last summer.  It is more of a permanent camp than a real building, 12' x 16', with a little kitchen and a hanging bed.  The trust that governs the use of the island caps the total number of buildings at three in an attempt to keep the land wild and preserve its current status as a refuge for bald eagles.  

The shelter under construction.
Looking to formalize the artist program, and attract some funding, Rob and creative partner-in-crime, Andrew Ranville, put up a Kickstarter and started an architecture competition for a more serious shelter and studio space for the artists.  The middle of Lake Superior can be a harsh environment, depending on the time of year, and artists require some resources, including, possibly, electricity.  The RFP called for a cabin, capable of housing an artist or two, plus the occasional guests; a studio space; possible water catchment; renewable energy that didn't affect the eagle habitat; all for a budget of $50,000.  

I approached the project with as an exercise in ruin.  I thought of the shelter, in the wind and rain, in the middle of a great lake, perched on bedrock, as more of a long-term installation piece than a building.  To quote from the text in my entry:

β€œOne might regard architecture as history arrested in stone.” // A.L. Rowse, The Use of History

Rabbit Island is a sanctuary for art, a place for intellectual solitude, for isolation, reflection, creation.  The products of the place will not dwell there; rather, the songs or poems or paintings brought to life on its shores will find a home elsewhere.  Their creators, too, will drift on.

The only piece of art to stay on Rabbit Island will be the shelter for these artists and their activities.  Given the geologic scale of time embedded in the stone there, I regard any structure on the surface of the island as a ruin in the making, a long-term installation whose construction is merely the first act in a long sequence of decay, renewal, and eventual dissolution.

To that end, my proposal for the cabin is simple and monumental.  Two stone walls and a set of piers create boundaries and structural support, and will remain after the wood structure cradled between them disappears, a memorial commemorating the creative acts once sheltered within.

One day, a wandering fisherman may find shelter in these ruins, using the old walls to dry his catch and deflect the wind around his frail tent."

Ruin has a long history in the theoretical realm of architecture.  Classic education programs, like the Beaux arts, employed Greek and Roman ruins as semi-living examples of proportion, scale, form, and construction technique.  Architects, most famously Sir John Soane, rendered their buildings as future ruins, imagining a future for the their structures far past their own lifespans.  

Soane's Bank of England, rendered as a ruin.
Traces of some former habitation already on the island.
Art, the mission of Rabbit Island, is another way of extending our lives, creating a legacy, acknowledging the temporal nature of life.  The stone walls will become a part of geologic time, while the cabin structure will be part of human time, built and kept by a series of hands until, one day, the maintenance ends and the decay begins, wood giving way to the whispering winds of Lake Superior.  

Perhaps at the expense of some aesthetic daring, informed by my construction experience and the remote location, I also pushed my design to be very practical to build.  The floor plan is based on a 4' x 8' module, meant to reduce waste by tiling easily in sheets of plywood.  The massive end walls, made of stone, have no penetrations, meaning no lintels or complex masonry.  Lacking skilled masons, and the time to hand-select thousands of stones, I specified slip-form masonry, wherein stones are packed into formwork with concrete, allowing for quick progress.  The formwork could then be recycled into sheathing and framing.  

Rendering, from the south-east.
Huge patio doors on the south side provide a flood of daylight and heat in the winter.  Only two sizes of windows -- patio doors and awning windows on the north -- are easily transportable in small boats, simplify both framing and handling by a small crew.  While the competition brief asked to use native trees, I also prepared for the idea of conventional lumber should milling enough wood be an issue.  To that end, no piece required is more than 16' long, again boat-transportable and on an eight-foot module.  A simple shed roof facilitates rainwater catchment and solar placement.  A massive porch becomes a place for contemplation, relaxation, and performance by musicians.  

As a ruin.

As of this writing, the jury's still out.