PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Across New England they stand as testaments to a time when the United States was a place of untrammeled confidence. The air was infinite, the water clean and abundant. At least for those in the ownership class, life was good and getting better.
They are the great textile mills of New England; magnificent stone and brick structures, in their way as beautiful as basilicas, found along the streams of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and elsewhere.
Water, as a motive power source, drew them to the streams. Then they added steam, hence the mills’ magnificent smokestacks: sentries standing lonely guard over the memories of a more confident time.
Mostly the mills are abandoned now, waiting a new use or the wrecker’s ball. Some have been saved by being converted into residential lofts and art centers. None will again make cloth, or provide thousands of jobs.
Before critics and designers began linking form to function, the mill architects of New England, these designers of castles of production, did so, using great stonework and imaginative engineering. They are stunningly handsome, the way that great bridges are; the spirit of enterprise encased in stone and brick lovingly.
So when and why did we develop a penchant for ugly buildings? Was it the downside of cost accounting? Why are so many modern schools dumpy and deformed? Why must we put our children to study the classics in structures that implicitly deny the classics?
In the second half of the 20th century, did we hand human aspiration over to cost-cutters, put it through a calculating machine and turn it out bent and spindled? Must we learn to appreciate the economics of urban blight, the strips of chain outlets that presage our arrival in any town or city?
One can weep now over the beauty of a mill in Rhode Island or a grain elevator on a Virginia farm. But will we weep in a century over the golden arches? Shed a tear for the mall? Swallow hard for Public School 19 somewhere?
If the abandoned mills of the Industrial Revolution were just a little older, we would characterize them as archeological sites — perhaps U.N. World Heritage Sites — and assure their survival for generations to come to marvel at.
Of course the history of New England industrialized weaving was not without strife and folly, greed and cruelty.
The loom technology was smuggled out of Britain by industrial espionage, labor conditions wereterrible for much of the life of the mills, and labor unrest continued through all the days of the textile industry. Royal Mills in West Warwick, R.I., for example, the former home of Fruit of the Loom, was the scene of a bitter strike in 1922.
Powering yesterday, charming today
Incidentally, this giant mill has been preserved. In a stunning piece of imaginative restoration, it has been converted into 250 apartments, keeping the feel and preserving some of the artifacts of the old mill. It is a restoration that deserves global recognition for showing how the 19th century’s relics can find life in the 21st century, just as the restored power plant on the South Bank of the River Thames in London now houses the Tate Modern art gallery.
When old beauty meets new high purpose, something thrilling happens.
The trick in urban architecture is to remember the people who are outside of the buildings as well as inside; those who can glory in the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower by looking up as well as going in.
For this full enjoyment, great architecture needs great public space.
Would the skyscrapers of New York be as glorious without Central Park to view them from? Would the new "Shard," the extraordinary glass-clad building in London, the tallest in Europe, be as great if it could not be viewed from the city’s abundant public spaces?
Yet urban design today, in an age of public austerity, makes no allowance for public space and has come accept the myth that economics are at odds with great city design.
I am comforted to know that the great squares of London, the avenues of Paris and the mills of New England were built for profit. It can be done. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate