Writers Work in Mobile Studios at This Incredible Residency in Massachusetts

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By Marissa Hermanson
Inspired by literary greats from the Berkshires, five mobile studios comprise The Mastheads, a progressive writers' residency that's now taking applications.

Drawing inspiration from the Berkshire area’s great historic authors, The Mastheads writers’ residency in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has created five mobile studios for writers to call their office for an entire month in the summer.

The studios were created with the historical narrative of five area writers in mind—Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Henry David Thoreau. Taking cues from the past, the five studios replicate fragments of the structures in which the authors wrote their most moving works. 

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"This is the sort of duality we were trying to evoke with the studios—a view outward and inward for the writer." -Tessa Kelly

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For instance, the Melville Studio draws inspiration from the top floor of his Arrowhead farmhouse where the author wrote Moby Dick. And, the Thoreau Studio takes cue from the tall wooden square observation tower atop Mount Greylock, where the poet viewed the surrounding countryside during his transcendental meditations. 

"The thing I was interested in was: how do you preserve a use?" says Tessa Kelly, co-founder and co-architect of The Mastheads along with her husband Chris Parkinson. "I wanted to bring back this action of writing about Pittsfield and reference the types of spaces that were inspiring their writing." 

The Design

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The writing studios were created with mobility in mind, so the dimensions of the 8-foot square structures were determined by road and bridge clearances. For instance, 8.5 feet is the widest load without being consider a "wide load" on roadways. And, each structure is around 13 feet high so that they can squeeze under 13.5-foot underpasses. All structures are built directly on a trailer bed, so they can be hitched to a truck. 

Built out of cross-laminated timber (CLT), each studio required only five to eight 10- by 40-foot sheets of wood for construction. All the wall, floor, and roof planes of the structure were milled and delivered in a bundle ready to be assembled. 

"We wanted to reference the historic structures, but we also wanted them be abstract, curious forms," says Kelly, who had the exterior of the studios painted in a stark black pine tar, which was originally used to waterproof Viking ships. "We wanted them to look like anonymous black boxes."

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Inside, the structures are minimal with a CLT bench and desk, which were essential structurally for lateral bracing. Within the limited footprint of the space, the architects were looking to create an array of perspectives for the inhabitant. Kelly and Parkinson achieved this by creating rotating window panels so the writer can control the airflow and views by opening different portholes in the wall. "It feels a little bit like you are on a ship," says Kelly. 

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"We wanted to reference the historic structures, but we also wanted them be abstract, curious forms." -Tessa Kelly

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While the structure pays homage to boats through its pine-tar sealant and portholes, the name The Mastheads also draws inspiration from boating and the sea. In Melville’s Moby Dick, crew members of the Pequod ship take turns in the masthead, where there is only room for one person to view their surroundings. "This is the sort of duality we were trying to evoke with the studios—a view outward and inward for the writer," says Kelly.

The Program

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The Mastheads began years ago as Kelly’s master’s thesis when she was studying architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. While cultivating her thesis, she had her hometown of Pittsfield in mind, wanting to embrace the area’s history while also creating something that could be realistically implemented in the city. 

"I wanted to do something about the city of Pittsfield because it’s a de-invested city that is losing population," she says. "Designing very expensive transit hubs or art museums didn’t feel like a reality for the place I came from." 

After grad school, Kelly presented her project for The Mastheads writers’ residency to the Berkshire Museum, and after her talk she was approached by the city’s director of cultural development who encouraged her to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. 

After receiving NEA funding to launch the writer’s residency, Kelly and Parkinson moved to Pittsfield in 2015 to start their architecture practice Arcade, which is centered around The Mastheads. The firm, which also includes a landscape designer, has a goal of creating economic vitality for de-invested cities through design and urban planning. 

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In addition to building a writers’ residency program, Kelly and Parkinson wanted to design and build writing studios that supported writers of today, while also paying homage to the rich literary history of the Berkshire region. 

"We also wanted to figure out ways that the project could impact not the five writers who come every summer, but function as a community celebration," says Kelly. With community in mind, The Mastheads partnered with area public schools for poetry programming centered around the local literary history. In June, the studios will be transported to Pittsfield High School for The Mastheads’ poetry-in-schools program.

After securing NEA funding to support the soft costs of the program and raising $200,000 for the construction of the writing studios, The Mastheads kicked off their first writers’ residency in July 2017. 

While the residency runs during the month of July, Kelly and Parkinson are considering programming for the writing studios in the meantime — ways in which other people can engage with the structures. 

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After their inaugural residency in July 2017, the studios were transported to Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art where, from August through November, the studios were rented out for half-day writing slots. Kelly and Parkinson are currently looking for other venues, like outdoor sculpture parks, to host the studios for a few months during their off-season. 

Each year, The Mastheads plans to move the five studios to different sites with the goal of offering new perspectives of the Pittsfield area. 

The Residency

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The residency is open to any and all writers. There is weekly programming alongside the residency, which includes community conversations with a scholar or thinker who can impart knowledge on a Berkshire-area author.

While the resident writers are focused on their writing within the studios, they also must have a desire to be engaged with the Pittsfield community. "They are people who want to be part of an urban experiment," says Kelly. The five writers live together in a house, and then go to their private studios during the day to work. 

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Along with co-founders Kelly and Parkinson, there is the director of scholarship, English professor Jeffrey Lawrence, and the director of education, local poet Sarah Trudgeon, who help create the curriculum from year to year. 

Each year The Mastheads produces The Mastheads Reader, which comes out in June and acts as a guide for the current literary project with excerpts from the five historic writers that the program will be focusing on. This July, the five resident writers will explore the theme of social activism.

Applications for the July 2018 writers' residency are due on February 28, 2017. Click here to learn more.


Project Credits:

Architecture: Tessa Kelly with Arcade

Builder: Andy Barsotti

Structural engineer: Bensonwood 

Interior design: Arcade

Cross-laminated timber: Nordic Structures 

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