On repurposing old factories

At least where I live, this has been all the craze for the last ten to twenty years. New England is full of old brick factories and mills — buildings just classical and decorated enough to be considered charming enough for renovation and yet unconventional enough to give their repurpose-rs the idea that they’re doing a wonderful and holy service to humanity be renovating an old mill.

An old factory in Boston, MA.

More after the break.

A particularly careful reader might ask: don’t you often advocate dealing directly with the tougher artifacts of modern life instead of just ignoring them or trying to get rid of them?

The answer is yes. This case of repurposing old factories, however, is a special one for several reasons. Firstly, these old factories are not generally tough artifacts of modern life. In fact they’re generally considered charming, or at least not unpleasant relics of a time long-gone, a time of simple factory life and American greatness. So repurposing them is not always the most effective solution for dealing with the problems they present (occupying swaths of valuable land, going forgotten and unmaintained, etc). Rather, they are often repurposed for the sake of repurposing, because people think that’s a classy thing to do and that it exemplifies a progressive mindset.

Well that’s only the case if a progressive mindset is a narrow-minded one. Real scrutiny of this issue reveals that repurposing these old mills, while often celebrated at the outset, often ends in failure for clients and for building owners. This is because the assumption that repurposing a factory will be a success because, well, it sounds like a nice idea wherein we preserve an old structure and give it new life, is not based on any sort of real analysis.

In dealing with defunct factories, unlike in dealing with serious urban problems like, say, suburbs, we have an actual range of options. We could repurpose interiors, certainly. We could perform larger renovations, including some additions or demolitions. We could also tear down the buildings.

All of these are legitimate options, yet only one of them presently is considered classy and progressive. But the truth is that demolition has its place. A good deal of the time, these old factories are so disconnected from nearby life and so awkwardly laid out for anything other than manufacturing that they simply do not work when repurposed.

This is not to say that they never work. In my experience that’s just very rare.

Take, for example, the renowned Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCa). Housed entirely in a group of repurposed old factories, Mass MoCa is a phenomenal failure. As a piece of sculptural architecture, it goes through all the motions without much spirit — seeing the interiors of old factories has only so much appeal — and as a museum, it’s even worse. The architecture constantly distracts you from the art in the most irritating of ways. This is not the Guggenheim New York or Bilbao, where the architecture and the art confront each other and produce fantastic, interesting dialogues. Rather, here, you’re bored of the architecture and yet it keeps inserting itself between you and the art you’re trying to enjoy.

This is the predictable result of such an arbitrary design. The real questions at the heart of the matter — What is the artistic identity of our museum? How can that be expressed through architecture? — are ignored.

Architecture as an uninteresting, irritating distraction

Perhaps repurposing a factory for Mass MoCa could have worked. Perhaps a connection could have been made the industrial revolution and the modern art it precipitated. But that would have required a much more thoughtful design process. In the current Mass MoCa, it’s clear that the idea of repurposing a factory took precedence over any kind of real architectural thought.

In conclusion, I just want to reiterate that good architecture isn’t about a singular exact approach to doing something. It comes from a thoughtful mindset; from a willingness to address real problems and opportunities on their own terms. Leaping on the factory repurposing bandwagon is the opposite of that.

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