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Billboard Bunkers

2021 | Academic

Professor Tom DePaor, Harvard Graduate School of Design

An island sets up an idea of viewing, one that is isolated and pointed, across the water, by the bridge, onto a new mound of stuff; An island an easy and obvious tool for drama, for separating from reality: theater. But in most cases, an island is also part of a much larger project. Boston began as an island, with a narrow isthmus connecting it on the south to the mainland. It was not only an island, but a series of major hills, which then saw a series of flattening, and of filling. This billboard bunker serves as a cinema, sited on an island that is all about the making of cinema, of theater itself, consisting of five film sheds and rolling landscape. In the project of Boston, our island and its hills aren't really anything new. In this project, rather than the mounds being of importance, it is the act of moving material, moving an ocean's boundary, and depositing something somewhere else.


Hills provide a variance in ground, view, structure, and procession, all pivotal parts of theater, and so they are used to create the set our island. Rather than trucking in sand, it is waste that forms these hills, something we actually don't have a good place to put. So in effect, the double hills serve a double duty in creating a viewing apparatus and a holding for discarded pasts. The dialogue, here, then shifts from what is real or fake or natural ground to what is useful ground. A tool deployed for a specific architectural program, a prominent social site, and practical resource management.

Burrowed into a mound on the southeast part of the island, the cinema is about billboard and bunkers, two important mediums of viewing, and the buffering that happens between them. The ground of the whole site builds on existing layers of hard strata, piled infill, and existing top layers of hardscape. In the shaping of the island the ground now bears a rolling landscape, holding varying forms of waste, all capped by necessary barrier layers and finally soil. Though the island tricks you otherwise, it is in fact built on the dubious reality of modern engineering and waste management, and builds upon the way we see this drama.


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Part of the larger island is the set of hills. On the north end of the site, is a shed that houses film production: i this hill, the main building becomes fully immersed, disguised even, with a smaller barrel vaulted portion sitting proud of the hill, disengaging in order to provide a front to the harbor. In the case of the cinema, situated on the southern part of the site and in the second hill, the building is a series of smaller forms that bury and emerge themselves in the mound. The shed had two volumes, one buried and one exposed, the cinema, deploying both billboard and bunker, houses forms that do both. Billboards offer everything up front, but tell a shallow story, they are about brief viewing. Bunkers are about seeing but not being seen, and yet they offer, by necessity, a clever means of exposure, an extended view and often a quiet descent.

Inspired by both billboard and infill infrastructure, this cinema is encased by a steel cage, allowing it to sit on the existing ground layer and to hold the fill of the hill. From the interior this cage floats the structure and the theaters in the mound, from the exterior it provides a scaffolding of which to expose, and expand, the viewing experience. You begin by traversing the hill to a small entrance, where you are greeted by a series of buffers and turns ,rooms expanded to guide your path. As you continue through the entry you descend into the bunker via a long viewing ramp. You land and immediately turn, re-orient and continue until you are deposited into the grand hall of the bunker. From here, you find your destination, either archive, bar, or theatre, and enter in through the doubled partitions used to create a buffer zone between sound and view. The spaces are oriented so that half of their sides are exposed, constantly causing oblique views and- on occasion- slips out to the water, the other side of the bunker.


The theaters themselves remain conventional, a medium-sized group watching together, the way of seeing is instead transformed in the in between. All paths out of the theater, bar, and archive lead to an exit on the northeast side, depositing you again through and out onto the hill. Each box, or room, has a different relationship to exterior and interior, all held within the cage.


In this sense, the cinema offers not only a bunker-like exploration of theatre, but a billboard for the island.

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