Did mill architecture influence Frank Lloyd Wright? Writing about Field Farm this summer, and David Smith’s sculpture at the newly renovated Clark Art Institute, I’ve kept running across Wright. His theory of organic architecture led to grass roofs and inner waterfalls, but it also seems to have led to a lot of long, low cement walls.
This mix of industrial materials and the outdoors keeps cropping up. Smith filled his Adirondack fields with welded steel sculpture. Field Farm, built by a local architect influenced by Wright’s designs, has walls the color of concrete and a meadow full of bobolinks.
It seems fitting for the Berkshires, a lot of people would say. Wooded hills, limestone in the streams, moose and striped maple on the ridge lines — and brick buildings along main streets, and flood chutes sealing the Hoosick. We have industrial sites planted on the river banks. As I write about Pittsfield’s Arts + Industry art show opening this week at the Litchtenstein, I’m asking myself how they reconcile now.
Art and industry may meet in the design of the buildings, in the look of the spaces. Wright seems to have combined art, industry and outdoors by designing an industrial-style building with the outdoors growing in it or opening wide windows on it.
But I would not have called his style organic. Low-slung, snug against the ground, involving elements of natural designs, all that. But materials can have both a manufactured durability and a natural feel — slate, cedar shakes, stone blocks — the Clark’s granite walls. Imagine in this day of fractals how the practical physics of nature could map to architecture? (I’m borrowing this idea from Douglas Adams, who played with it in columns and his last half-finished book, “The Salmon of Doubt.”) How could the veins of a leaf, the geometry of a nautilus, the facets of a geode shape buildings? Or honeycomb, sedge, horse-shoe crabs, snow banks, birch bark.
(Not all manufactured materials have to look flat, steel-grey and uniform, and not all of them have to have toxic side-effects. I have seen barns with siding that looks very much like red-painted wood but lasts, I’m told, longer than clapboards in New England weather.)
What I find most beautiful in the look of our old mill buildings comes with age. The patina on Mass MoCA’s walls, the mottling on the bricks, the striking metallic shapes of old machinery all can have beauty. Seven years ago I got to tour the A.H. Rice Silk Mill not long after it had closed, and two knitting machines remained on the second floor, spidery and weirdly compelling. The man who then owned the buildings said when he bought them the room where the mill workers tested the dyes still held a rack of assorted glass jars and beakers.
We have also, of course, seen art meet the mills simply by moving into them. Mass MoCA has shown that our old mill buildings can offer compelling gallery and studio space. And exhibits have filled their brick chambers with tiny fern-filled green-houses (with holes in the floors to stick your head through, to put you at eye-level with the leaves and nose-level with the earth) — or images of life-sized bison, picnickers seen from tree-climbing height, cherry trees in bloom, moonlight on water.
And then again, we have seen artists draw on the lives of the people in the mills. In my column this week I talk about Tracy Winn’s “Mrs. Somebody Somebody,” one of my best dicoveries of the last year, stories set among the Lowell cotton looms. Her people, her mill girls sweating in the summer night, popping tar bubbles in the road, tired and scared and laughing, bring that time alive.
Industry comes with a lot of costs, and with a lot of ugliness. We are still trying to clean our poisoned rivers, and those massive machines could be deafening and dangerous. Industry allows me to type this right now on this computer. As Xu Bing’s colossal Phoenixes make clear, the costs and benefits come together.
So when I heard about the Berkshire Arts Association’s challenge for the art show that will open this Friday — to create art involving industry, only that — I wondered how I would have answered it. My usual artform is this one, and so I am drawn to Tracy Winn’s answer, to telling stories out of the mill towns and families, and I love her stories in part because she makes the people as real and varied as their work is not. Working 10 hours a day at hard physical labor can leave you too tired to think. She does for her characters what some of them can’t do for themselves.
If I wanted a visual medium though … maybe I would think about the industry of ants and bees and tides. Maybe I would wonder what the repetitive motion of a large, coordinated group could do, if it evolved within a real organic system.