Architect Carol Wilson Finds New Sense of Place at CSC


Carol Wilson

Story posted October 27, 2005

It might seem counter intuitive to have an architect teaching a course at Bowdoin's Coastal Studies Center (CSC) called "Investigations in the Maine Landscape."

Indeed, Carol Wilson, this semester's CSC scholar-in-residence confesses: "When I tell people I'm a scholar at the CSC and I tell them I'm an architect, I sort of get this cross-eyed glance.

"And it's not just the look," she continues, laughing. "People say, 'What are you doing there? What's the relevance?' " Anyone familiar with Wilson's work need not ask.

Her attention to place, right down to the impact of buildings on lichen, has earned her numerous awards and the reputation as one of the most environmentally conscious architects working in Maine today. And her contemporary, sun-filled buildings have won Wilson international attention - she recently was elevated to the American Institute of Architects' College of Fellows, an honor only bestowed upon four Maine architects ever (John Calvin Stevens among them).

"People look at a gnarly tree and ledge and think Maine is rugged," says Wilson, "but it's not. Just look at lichens and mosses: it's easy for a person walking on them to destroy them. That's what architects should be looking closely at site before they do anything.

Carol Wilson house
A water view of the Mayor house, in Hanover, N.H. Underpinning Wilson's design are inventive, eco-sensitive details: perpendicular siting assures unimpaired spring runoff; a southern exposure brings pond views - and warming winter sun - inward; and a boardwalk to the pond keeps the path suspended above the ferns.

"Many of the sites I am working with are those that haven't been touched in 100 years - maybe farmland or coastal land - but typically they are very fragile sites. If you want a piece of architecture that has that certain quality of inevitability, that is poetic, the architect must have a thorough understanding of place."

Wilson brings that sense of place to her work with Bowdoin students, who are spending their semester of study with her exploring site ecology at the CSC property on Orr's Island. Much as Wilson would do prior to designing a building for a site, the nine studio-seminar students are investigating the former farmland, examining natural influences such as climate, tidal zones, wind patterns and solar patterns, and botanical species. Their inquiries, she says, extend to the cultural, historical, and even spiritual, avenues as well.

"In education and in technology I take issue with the notion of dividing arts and science, sciences and technology, on one side, and artistic and emotional on the other," says Wilson. "The beautiful thing about architecture is that it demands both. You can't do it without an understanding of structures, materials and mechanical systems - but none of that really makes sense unless you're building for the human dimension. That requires a sense of the cultural, intuitive and inventive - leaving room for the imponderable."

From the students' explorations, a final group project will emerge, to which the public will be invited at the end of fall semester. Wilson will only describe the work-in-progress as "an art installation ... some response that is directly based on the information we have. My hope is that whatever they do, it will be with a light touch, in careful response to everything they know. And they probably know a lot more than they realize."

Wilson will be giving a public talk on Nov. 10 entitled, "Revolution / Evolution: Architecture, Culture and Maine, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the VAC's Beam Classroom.

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