Unlike most journeys that have a beginning, middle and end, my trips to MASS MoCA have felt more like journeys through time and space.
A Journey Through Time
First, a bit of back story: I started working for Bruner/Cott & Associates in 1995, right after they were awarded the contract for the design of MASS MoCA’s sprawling, historic, 26-building mill complex in North Adams, MA. I had never even heard of North Adams, let alone an abandoned mega mill in the very upper western part of the state.
The buildings were constructed in the 1860’s for Arnold Printworks, a fabric printing factory. In the 1940’s the sprawling complex was occupied by Sprague Electric Company. Sprague closed operations in 1985, and the factory complex remained essentially empty until its official opening as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999.
If you enjoy history, that’s reason enough to make the trek to North Adams. My trip from the Boston area is always along Route 2, which turns into the historic Mohawk Trail, one of the oldest designated scenic routes in the US, and a top honeymoon destination in the early days of motoring. It’s a beautiful drive, meandering alongside the Deerfield River. There are plenty of distractions along the way, including Freight House Antiques in Erving; the stunning Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls; the Mohawk State Forest campground; Zoar Outdoor Rafting and Ziplining for active folks; and the Mohawk Trading Post for retro kitsch. Something magical always happens along the way: the further I get away from Boston, the more I feel I’m journeying back in time, to an era of simple pleasures and tranquil days.
A Journey through Space
Once you reach MASS MoCA, you’ll understand that you too are on a journey through space! It’s massive. I was able to see the buildings ‘pre-museum’ when they were forgotten shells with distressed floors and broken windows. Touring each gallery is its own adventure now, and with 280,000 sf of indoor space, there is a lot of room for meandering and discovery. The Sol LeWitt and James Turrell galleries are among my favorite, but every trip there offers something new to appreciate, including indoor and outdoor performances.
So let’s take a deeper dive into space, with a few of my Acentech colleagues. Meet Nicole Cuff and Ben Davenny, Senior Consultants for Acoustics; John Lloyd and Kristen Murphy, Acoustics Consultants; and Kat Sanford, Administrative Assistant.
Q: Ben and Nicole, you worked on MASS MoCA’s Building 6, the final phase of the museum’s transformation. How did Acentech help Bruner/Cott shape the acoustics in this very large volume?
NC: Bruner/Cott and MASS MoCA enjoy the acoustically-live character of the open galleries in the existing buildings, and wanted Building 6 to have a similar acoustic quality. The existing building is naturally fairly live, so this is a natural and straightforward condition. We focused on increasing the sound isolation between galleries and reducing the HVAC background noise level. We increased the sound isolation of the existing wood floors, and improved the overall acoustical comfort of the space; I did not hear people walking overhead during my visit. In particular, the Laurie Anderson exhibit had notably low-background noise levels, which I was pleased to hear. It increased my enjoyment of looking at the art to be in a quiet space.
BD: The mill building aesthetic, at first glance, seemed at odds with the space-intensive methods we would typically recommend for sound isolation of amplified music and for low HVAC background sound levels. For example, a 4-inch floated concrete slab over a 2-inch isolation layer, a reliable way of increasing vertical sound isolation, was not going to fit or be affordable. We borrowed from our experience in mill building residential projects for alternative methods. We enjoyed the process of working through these challenges with Bruner/Cott and the rest of the design team.
Q: What were your impressions of the finished galleries once you got to see them in person?
NC: I thought the galleries on a whole were fabulous and I was especially impressed by the James Turrell “Into The Light” exhibit. There is one particularly large exhibit (think small movie theater sized) where you are completely immersed in one single color only. I think that’s the only time I’ve had that happen, where I’ve only seen one color in my direct line of sight and periphery. It helped that the background noise level was so low in the space as well, because it allowed me to be truly present in the moment, and not focus on anything else; I honestly really lost myself in the space.
Q: John, you recently made the trek to MoCA for the first time. What were some of your favorite sights and sounds?
JL: I think we only thoroughly explored one building in our several hour visit, but the James Turrell exhibition was going to be my favorite no matter what else we saw. I feel a personal connection to Turrell’s work. One of his skyspaces, “Twilight Epiphany,” was built on campus while my partner and I were undergrads at Rice University. That space conjures warm memories of a formative time in our young lives, and of the beginnings of our relationship. It’s my desktop background. Despite this connection with Turrell, this was my first opportunity to see, or rather, experience a sampling of his other works. I knew they would all involve the light, but I was surprised by the variety of ways he uses it to subvert not just our expectations, but even our perception of the space around us. It was exciting to consider how his immersive light works are not so different from auditory experiences we create using 3DListening. What might we be able to create if instead of simulating real-world sounds, we developed more abstract listening experiences?
Q: Kristen, what were your most memorable sights and sounds from your ‘journey through space’ at MoCA?
KM: This space seemed to resonate with many aspects of my personal history at once: As a former architecture student and rust-belt resident (growing up in the Detroit suburbs and getting my master’s degree in Troy, NY) I loved the story told by preserving the bones of the building. Seeing the juxtaposition of modern art against the historical elements of the building really added to my experience. I also enjoyed how the museum really took advantage of using the large spaces they had available—being surrounded by the individual elements of Nick Cave’s exhibit was so impressive.
As an acoustician, I can attest to Nicole’s and Ben’s excellent work. The space sounded lively without being overly noisy, and the isolation was excellent, which is quite a challenge with old wood floors! One last acoustics-related anecdote: while going through James Turrell installations, I used my ears (by listening to hand-claps) to appreciate the large amount of space used to create the amazing light displays.
Q: Kat, you graduated from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams. Were you a frequent visitor to MoCA during your time there? I know you visited recently. How have things changed since you left?
KS: When I wasn’t studying in college, I was dancing. While my college theatre was lovely, it was also antiquated and not what you would call dance-friendly – I had the bruises to prove it – so we always held our Spring Performance at Mass MoCA.
Stepping into the museum’s performance space for the first time – all black, velvet curtains and industrial concrete – was awe-inspiring. I was used to threadbare, local theatres – nothing like the professional and modern Mass MoCA stage.
Throughout my college years, I became more acquainted with the museum – visiting when I heard about a noteworthy exhibit or concert. And when spring came around, I was often setting up costume racks and hauling equipment around the backstage area when no one else was there. Deep in the secret guts of the old mill buildings, I felt completely at home. It will always have a place in my heart as one of my favorite performance spaces.
In the years since I’ve graduated, I’ve revisited the museum a handful of times – most recently with a fellow Acentech employee, Kristen Murphy. The upside down trees in the courtyard still take my breath away, my old housemate is still working at the reception desk, and the performance space is still as it was when I first stepped onto the stage, hands poised and heart racing – yet Mass MoCA is ever shifting & changing. Since Phase III had recently opened, it took us four hours to fully explore every nook and cranny of the museum – and even then it turned out that we had missed a whole exhibit!
I am so grateful to be working with people who love MassMoCA as much as I do and knowing that that Acentech had a part in ensuring that the museum will continue to be enjoyed and loved for many, many years to come.