Water provides spiritual center
for architecture master’s project © April 20, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications
Dustin Fleming was drawn to an empty, defunct hydroelectric power plant on the banks of the Winooski River.
Fleming, a Norwich University graduate student from Bridport, Vt., was searching for a project that would take up much of the fifth year of the Master’s of Architecture program. The building seemed to provide the inspiration he was looking for. It was close to water and had a beautiful brick facade dating back to the age of riverside mills and factories. Located in Montpelier, about 10 miles from Norwich’s campus, it also had a slightly mysterious history.
“I wasn’t even able to find drawings of it,” said Fleming, who entered the graduate program after earning a four-year degree from Norwich’s School of Architecture + Art.
Envisioning a sort of spa that uses water as a primary source of therapy, Fleming began sketching. He imagined a revitalized building springing from the old facade that would allow participants to appreciate and interact with the river. All was going well until he returned to the site after the early winter break.
The building had disappeared, replaced by a dirt lot and chain-link fence with signs warning of contamination.
Months after that moment of shock, the project continues. Because his bathhouse is imaginary, the loss of the building did not present a serious setback, although Fleming decided to remove the facade from his design. He still sees this as an ideal spot to explore how people can design buildings that help them experience the revitalizing nature of water.
“This is a place to enjoy water and become connected with it,” he said.
Parking his pickup on a rainy March morning, Fleming walked along a dirt road that paralleled the river and paused by a stone bridge that forms a culvert over a stream flowing downhill. Climbing down a rough staircase of boulders, he grasped an I-beam and swung into the culvert to stand on a flat stone where water flowed across in a smooth sheet.
He imagines a walkway leading down into the culvert, with a bench jutting from the walls where people could sit and absorb the sounds and smells of the moving water—a social place for people to gather on the short walk to the bathhouse.
“I was really inspired by the approach,” he said.
Fleming pays close attention to details and exterior features, according to Prof. David Woolf, who leads the master’s-degree design studio. In addition to the restorative qualities of water inherent in a bathhouse, Fleming was interested in pursuing questions about sustainability and situating indoor space near water, he said.
“How do we build near and around water?” said Woolf. “How do we control it, and how do we let it run its course?”
He believes Fleming was inspired by the August 2011 events of Tropical Storm Irene, when much of Vermont suffered severe flooding. Suddenly, people around the state were pondering whether it made sense to rebuild homes and buildings near rivers and streams.
“It’s an important question for Dustin,” said Woolf.
Fleming studied Roman and Turkish baths, looking for design elements that emphasize the spiritual quality of water. His bathhouse visitors would experience water even before they pass through the front doors.
“You’d hear [water] before you see it,” said Fleming. “You can smell it. You can feel the humidity. It just relaxes people.”
He developed a building set partly into the hillside. It would respect the natural contours of the riverbank and collect rainwater on the roof for use in toilets and landscape irrigation. He envisioned a channel of river water running around the building, as well as moving water inside that would greet visitors as they enter. There would be hot and cold bathing tubs and space for massage and other therapies.
For the design, Fleming was inspired by architects Peter Zumthor of Switzerland and American Frank Lloyd Wright. He visited Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house and gardens in Pennsylvania. He was also influenced by a semester he spent in Berlin, Germany, with other Norwich architecture students. Fleming strove for a modern feel, with simple, straight lines and clean edges.
“I want it to feel natural,” he said. “I’m using mostly wood, stone and maybe some concrete and glass.”
Woolf called Fleming’s approach minimalist but fairly timeless. Very little decoration was suggested, but attention was paid to interesting details, such as hidden lighting to bring out water and illuminated handrails that appeared to be carved out of concrete. The bathhouse, he said, would be a wonderful space if it were ever built.
“He really has thought very carefully about how people experience space, and how we move through a building,” said Woolf.