Tuesday, August 29

love those mills


I love industrial buildings. With no other building type are designs so consistently dedicated to function as with those made for industrial production. The economics of industrialization demand that such buildings be free of any ornament that interferes with production or adds cost.

So perhaps it's a surprise that these buildings bereft of 'pretty' design are so timelessly beautiful. Or maybe it makes sense. The mills of New England, especially those driven by water, are probably my favorite buildings in the world. Built before the advent of electricity, designers knit these structures into the landscape well before Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater made the concept popular. Their open floor plans (to accommodate evolving technology) and huge windows (to facilitate longer working hours) define the aesthetics of modern architectural design. Even as the global economy rendered them obselete for their original purposes, many of the sturdy mills survived.


Since the 1960s, western society's emerging creative economy has encouraged the conversion of many post-industrial buildings to artists' lofts and galleries. One of the most ambitious conversions started in 1986 when a collaboration of elected officials, private donors, and the Williams Art Mafia began planning for a renovation of the recently abandoned Sprague Electric factory. Several designs, a failed Dukakis presidential bid, and about 20 years later, I got to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art last weekend.

As stunned as I was by the scale and impact of the spaces made possible by the building's industrial origins, I was equally struck by the inability of most of the art in the museum to fill it. It's not that the art at Mass MoCA was particularly bad or small, it's just that it's tough to find a football-field's worth of museum-worthy art. Over and over, the spaces themselves overwhelmed the art -- the best pieces were those that worked explicitly with space itself (and, accordingly, failed to transcend that same space.) On the one hand, this may just be a paradigm shift for curators, but I suspect that a more powerful underlying force may be at play.


Years ago, when I first started reading about the adaptive re-use of post-industrial buildings, I saw SoHo as both the prototype for the process and case-study for challenges of making such arts-based re-use survive. Today, SoHo is an arts district in name only -- very little, if any, cutting edge art is being produced there now. Once, I saw this as a sign that such neighborhoods needed protection, but after my experience at Mass MoCA, I began to wonder: is arts-based adaptive re-use sustainable?

With this thought swirling in my mind, I looked more closely at the numerous post-industrial buildings scattered about the Berkshire landscape. Galleries, museums and artsy shops all filled post-industrial buildings... on the first floor. Upper stories remained shuttered or filled with cobwebs while ground-level retail thrived. Yet there were some mill buildings which were fully occupied. Some even had functioning mill ponds and dams -- and all these had something in common. They were being used for industry! Globalization be damned, they're making paper in New England! And pre-fab concrete! And baked goods!


The above photo shows the Hurlbut Paper Company's Willow Mill, established in 1806. This facilty's mill pond and turbine are now components of the Massachusets Technology Collaborative's Clean Energy Project. Electricity not needed for the paper recycling operations that take place in the mill is added to the regional power grid, reducing the drain on fossil fuels and nuclear power. For lack of a better description, that's frickin awesome.

I don't have any concrete conclusions, but it's my blog so I don't need any.


Unknown said...

Quick comment regarding Mass MoCA. The current set of exhibits (as of August 2006) are certainly the least interesting i've seen there since the museum's opening, and I've seen almost every one. Usually there at least 1 or 2 incredible pieces that play off and/or require the massive, wide-open mill spaces. For example the largest gallery, which has a mile of wall space and currently contains a bunch of old amusement park rides has at various times held: 5 or 6 huge bladders with long horns, all connected to a player piano which, based on the movement of people around the room, tells random bladders to expel air through their horns causing incredible loud booming noises to echo across the chamber; an interpretation of the 14 stations of the cross where each station was inside its own small wooden house about the size of a woodshed, an entire room of constantly falling paper, beautifully lit by pink tinted windows, alongside naration from speakers that slowly come down from the ceiling and back up again; a car slowly flipping over and exploding in air, represented by 5 or so of the same model vehicle. Sadly you happened to see Mass MoCA at a lowpoint, though in general I agree that it will be hard for them to consistently find artists who know what to do with all that space.

Lisa Chamberlain said...

Hi Jackson ... I found your blog via curbed. I wrote a story about converting old mills in Western Mass to large mixed-used communities. You can find the article on my blog: www.polisnyc.wordpress.com and click on the page NYT Articles, and scroll down. I linked your blog as well. Feel free to email me and tell me a little about yourself. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

In NYC there are also thousands of multi-story buildings still being used for manufacturing. It seems that industry will pay top dollar for less-than-ideal space if they can be close to their market.

Keep up the good work!