Center Panel Discussion Not Run of the Mill
building, ink on denim, by Nancy Howard Smith
a group of seventy Chinese laborers undertook an epic journey,
travelling by the newly completed transcontinental railroad to
take the place of striking workers in a North Adams, Massachusetts,
shoe factory. But the social journey they took after their arrival
was even more remarkable. Over the course of ten years, living
in a room in the back of the factory originally meant for a steam
engine, these workers fashioned not only shoes, but new identities
for themselves in a shifting social order. Their story was told
by Anthony Lee, associate professor of art, as part of a panel
discussion, "The Many Lives of Factory Buildings" October
25. The discussion was the second in a yearlong seriesBuilding
Meaning: Architecture and Public Space in the Third Millenniumsponsored
by the Weissman Center for Leadership.
of the past and future lives of factory buildings were Simeon
Bruner, who helped design the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary
Art, or MASS MoCA, and John Mullin, a professor of urban planning
at the University of Massachusetts and an authority on New England
mill towns. Karen Koehler, Five College visiting scholar and professor
of architecture, moderated the discussion.
For the Chinese
workers, "the self-consciousness of inhabiting a factory
building and having that factory building overwhelm their social
sense of self played out in photography, something that interests
me," Lee told the audience of about 200 people. He displayed
a slide of a photo taken soon after their arrival, in which the
workers, lined up in front of the factory, stare back at the camera
"in a deer-in-the-headlights sort of way." In a later
photo, also taken outside the factory, the same workers are "much
more self-conscious. What they were going to do was not simply
allow themselves to be specimens for the factory, or part and
parcel of the machinery. They were going to lay claim to it."
of portraits taken over the years shows how the workers "could
try to be middle class, working class, even dandies," Lee
said. At first, they pose without props, in the clothing they
had brought from China. Later, they pose with their most prized
possessions, as markers of social standing. Still later, they
begin experimenting with all sorts of elaborate costumes and backdrops,
"as if trying on different kinds of social identity,"
Lee says. A final photo shows a worker dressed in the substantial
outfit of a prosperous industrialist.
If a mill
worker could fashion his own place in the social order of the
nineteenth century, so too can the role of the mill itself be
reshaped in the twentieth century. Bruner, a principal of Bruner/Cott
& Associates, a Cambridge architectural firm, took the audience
on a photographic tour of MASS MoCA, the former North Adams mill
reborn as a museum in 1999.
is not always what it seems to be, Bruner explained. "If
I have one concern about MASS MoCA, it's that we may have romanticized
the building too much. Because, ironically, all of the beautiful
places you're going to see were spaces we created. The building
as we found it was a rabbit warren of small, really rather nasty
spaces. So what you see is really a reworking of an old building
into what people see as an original, but it's not."
A case in
point, Bruner said, is the rest rooms. When Time Out New York
reviewed the building, it congratulated the architects on leaving
the rest rooms in the basement. Yet the rest rooms had never been
in the basement when the mill was in operation, Bruner said.
If MASS MoCA is rich in nineteenth-century industrial character,
that's by design. Flaking lead paint was covered with sealant;
wooden flooring was removed and reinstalled after major structural
work was done; rotted floors were simply torn out to create two-
and three-story gallery spaces. The largest gallery, two stories
tall and 300 feet long, did not exist as a single space before
had "the luxury of having no money," Bruner said. For
that reason, plans changed as the work went along. A one-story
building that was to have been preserved was too badly deteriorated
and had to be razed, while its neighbor, a two-story structure,
was saved from demolition. In the end, the reconstruction was
accomplished for $70 a square footequal to the architect's
fee for the new Getty Museum, Bruner said.
as old as the Bible and as recent as Bruce Springsteen, Mullin,
who is now writing a book titled The Once and Future New England
Mill Town, argued that the mill has long been regarded with fear
and revulsion. "We, as a New England culture, will put our
economic capital into mill towns and factories," Mullin said,
noting that in Holyoke, first-floor, Grade A mill space is completely
occupied. "But we will never put our social capital in. In
fact, there is a separation in New England, in that we take these
places and we look at them and we may even say they're magnificent,
they're strong, they're powerfulbut will we live there,
given the choice? No, we won't."
himself as the descendant of "a family of mill rats,"
beginning with a great-grandmother who arrived from Ireland and
went to work in the mills of Maynard, Massachusetts. He, too,
worked in the Maynard mills, when they were home to Digital Equipment
Corp., and, today, his brother Joe is a part owner of one of the
represents not only the New England dream, but it also shows,
I think, real progress in the cultural sense," Mullin said.
Center series continues with the third panel discussion, "Contested
Ground: Meaningful Landscapes and Cultural Conflict in the Past,"
Wednesday, November 14.