An Interview with architects Chris Parkinson and Tessa Kelly, of THE MASTHEADS

The Mastheads is a new writers' residency—debuting July 2017—in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, featuring pop-up writing studios designed by husband-and-wife architect duo Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson. Each summer, 5 writers across disciplines (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, translation) are awarded residencies that include a $900 stipend, housing, daily lunch, and exclusive use of one of 5 rustic, open-air studios installed throughout Pittsfield, located in the Berkshire and Taconic Mountains.

The studios are each architectural interpretations of the work of one of five American Renaissance authors who produced work in Pittsfield: Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. The studios are work-spaces only, with electricity but no restrooms (these will be available at a host cultural institution within 300 feet). Residents will be housed in downtown Pittsfield, with on-call transportation to the studios for those who need it.

What makes The Mastheads different from other residencies? And why is it called The Mastheads?

The name The Mastheads comes from Moby Dick, where Ishmael describes the masthead as a place to survey the seas, looking for whales, and a place of solitude to look inward. Similarly, this project is about the environment that surrounds each studio, but more importantly, what the writer inside makes of them.

The Mastheads is different from other residencies in that first and foremost it is an urban experiment. The studios create physical markers in the landscape of a forgotten history. The residency sets up a conversation between the work produced in Pittsfield in the mid 19th century and the work that will be produced there today. We can, and must, continue to produce culture here.

You guys are architects, first and foremost. Why did you want to create a writers' residency?

We want to be architects who don't only design space, but design reasons for space. So with this project, our first design move was to perceive that Pittsfield had an important history—that of American Renaissance authors—that wasn't legible enough in the experience of the city. We wanted to find a way through architecture to highlight that history. The idea to design writing studios based on the authors and to create a residency program followed.  

Why Pittsfield? What do you hope the writers will gain from spending a month here?

Pittsfield is an example of a small, post-industrial city, whose development could tend more and more toward the banal. This project is about envisioning an alternative to that trend, and using Pittsfield as a test subject. Also, we both grew up here.

We hope the program will make the writers feel how powerful they are. John Ruskin says there are only two conquerors of the forgetfulness of men: Poetry and Architecture.

How did you go about designing the studios so that they fit with each writer's sensibility?

We wanted to know how different writing spaces influenced the written work of the five American Renaissance authors when they were in Pittsfield in the mid 19th century. So we looked for all the written material we could find that referenced Pittsfield, and we also learned as much as we could about the structures these writers physically inhabited when they were here.

The overall form of each of The Mastheads studios references a fragment of each original structure, and the particularities of the placement and size of openings, desk orientation, etc. has to do with the types of views, exposure, or concealment referenced in the written work. And thinking about the writers who will be working in there, we included a place in each studio to recline—we got word from writer friends of ours that writers like to work lying in bed!

Along with the writers' residency, you plan on hosting community conversations and lectures this summer. Can you tell us a little more about this programming and its goals?

The goal is to make residents and visitors realize that you can think about a familiar place in new ways. The community events are intended to make Pittsfield a good place to live and visit, offer opportunities for people to reflect on where they are, how they live, how they relate to those around them, how they relate to ideas and art.

Two of the lecturers coming this summer include Tess Chakkalakal, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin and and Lawrence Buell, a Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. Chakkalakal has recently brought attention to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House at Bowdoin, and Buell is a specialist on antebellum American literature and a pioneer of Environmental Criticism. We wanted to bring two people who could talk about the importance of place for writers, and, particularly, nineteenth century American writers. 

Are you planning anything else? What should we look for from Mastheads in the future?

We plan to experiment more using The Mastheads to explore and expand on local history. Possible collaborations are on the horizon with dancers from Jacob's Pillow, composers in residence at the Berkshire Athenaeum, and programming at local public schools and MASS MoCA.





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