Dean Randy Ott_Salt Chapel_AIAdc UNBUILT Award of Honor 2011
The most potent boundary line in nature is the liminal threshold that separates wet from dry. This theoretical project for a Salt Chapel on the dilating edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake explores a landscape dominated by an exceptionally surreal case of this fleeting demarcation line. The widely roaming periphery of the Great Salt Lake exemplifies in the extreme the transience of all wet / dry thresholds. The Lake’s terrain consists of a virtually level plain of endless negotiation between shallow water and salt flats that ring the contemporary Lake—the largest being the Bonneville Salt Flats of drag racing fame. Wet and dry barter starkly along the Lake’s perimeter. An inch rise in the water spreads the shoreline outwards by hundreds of yards. In the flattest areas, the playa may be wetted hundreds of times an hour due to the Lake’s minute vacillations or may be bone dry for months, years, or even centuries, only dampened by a rare storm. The Salt Chapel is intended as a non-denominational, contemplative enclosure that celebrates this landscape peculiarity. The Lake’s severe landscape can provoke sublime feelings of personal transcendence. The distant glimmer of the Lake’s mordant water coaxes occasional motorists from their cars along I-80, drawing them out onto foot across the crisp playa to look down with their own eyes upon this harshly categorical yet endlessly migratory shoreline. Currently there is no dedicated place along the Lake’s edge that helps intrepid visitors internalize such thoughts of nature’s profundity, ferocity and formal power.
The thick salt flats are separated off from the Lake proper by only a low, localized saddle—called the ‘Threshold.’ Once a millennium on average, the Lake swells up, decade by decade, until it tops this modest hump, pouring over and suddenly flooding the flats. The Chapel lies at the current shore near the Threshold opening toward the Bonneville Flats. Here, the terrain is at its most firm, level, white, barren, and—at least potentially or conceptually—epic. The Chapel registers mere seasonal activity while patrolling the boundary zone where the Lake promises (even if just once a millennium) more drastic movement. The desire to celebrate this transient boundary generates the Chapel’s most unconventional characteristic: its literal mobility.
The Chapel’s assembly volume roams on 36 immense ‘landing-gear-like’ wheels. When the volume is properly positioned, half the wheels rest on the moistened playa while the other half touch down dry. A service vehicle tows the volume day-by-day to hover precisely over the shoreline. In addition to the roving nave, the complex consists of a stationary base building that contains the service vehicle and a retractable set of four ramping walkways that roll out to connect to the assembly volume. The ramps bring the visitor up to an outdoor, plateau-like zone on atop the glazed assembly space to encounter a bizarrely claustrophobic ‘sea’ of closely spaced cables. Walkable metal planking and handrails guide the visitor circuitously through these cables.
salt chapel_circulation diagram
The translucent assembly volume consists of scores of glass shelves, spaced inches apart. An angular void cuts through this densely stratified mass. The assembly space is conceived as an ‘anti-crystal’—a geometrical void metaphorically encrusted within the shelves. Halite—common rock salt—is rigorously cubic in lattice structure and grows in diagonally linear configurations. The glass shelves are stacked with rock salt clusters—like an all-encompassing and weirdly compacted rock shop display case. Large, angular openings in the shelves at both axial ends of the assembly space offer vistas of the line of the shore extending into the distance. As the visitor steps down into the center of the space, the ground below can be fleetingly sensed through the grated metal platforms and through diagonal views out each side. One side displays the dry playa, the other the saltwater’s glint. To physically reach the spot where these conditions meet, the visitor exits the assembly space from either end through smaller door sleeves giving direct access into the circulation towers. From these one can descend to find two fragile ship’s-ladder stairs, one on either extremity of the building, that progress in unison down from opposite sides to the shore’s actual boundary line. Here, the project’s genesis—the endlessly shifting demarcation of wet versus dry— is finally made palpable.