Two kinds of architecture prevail in the Massachusetts Berkshires—the manmade and the natural. The skyline profile of the forested namesake mountains undulates for many miles, with the range culminating in North Adams at Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak. But there is an equally dramatic and nuanced architectural presence at the very center of the New England town. The twenty-eight redbrick buildings that make up the complex of MASS MoCA, the acronym for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, are so emblematic of America’s past industrial might that they are listed on the National Historic Register.
What now functions as the nation’s most cutting-edge venue for large-scale conceptual art, as well as musical, theatrical, and dance performances, is so dense and complex in its configuration that to wander the sixteen-acre campus is to be immersed in a city within a city. An entire cityscape—or industrialscape—of bridges, tunnels, internal courtyards, streets, towers, waterways, power plants, elevated viaducts and walkways cohere into an architectural assemblage so compelling that the buildings themselves function as a kind of artwork.
All of the buildings on the site are now in use, with the exception of a triangular edifice that MASS MoCA director, James Thompson, says “sits like the prow of a ship at the confluence of the Hossic River”; it, too, is poised for its renovation into another 200,000 square feet of gallery space. From the exterior, the buildings, almost all of them from the 1890s, present themselves in a haunting rhythm of repeating redbrick facades, evenly cut with double-hung windows, while the interiors are often vast columned expanses that appear to continue into infinity. These spaces are able to house some of the largest artworks in existence. When any of us speak about Modern buildings, we often haughtily think that only spaces of our era could be of this scale, bathed with this much natural light. But these structures prove that America’s nineteenth-century industrial spaces, when built well and thoughtfully for their workers, really are our nation’s first modern buildings. Their builders understood ways to exploit masonry, steel, and wood to fashion vast, well-lit spaces imbued with architectural integrity.
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WRITTEN BY DAVID MASELLO
This story appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of MILIEU.