It's tempting to spend an hour or so musing about the well-executed Bain Project in south Raleigh. You can read about the history of the Ernest B. Bain Water Plant at the Bain Project website, so I won't bother to repeat it here. All I will add is that the sheer massive size of the equipment is probably the main reason this building has been left untouched for 20+ years. It's not easy to take down thousands of tons of steel.
But change is likely coming, and I don't know how much longer the space will remain so strikingly Deco, so ardently inefficient. Empire Properties now owns the space, and is positioning it as an office and retail center. From a historical reuse perspective, it's good to hear that the site may one day come back alive. But from an aesthetic viewpoint, Bain's current incarnation is clearly the most sacred. Asbestos and lead paint included.
If you visited the exhibit, you'll know what I'm talking about. It's great to hear that several thousand people checked out the complex during its month-long run.
If you didn't go, you missed an excellent opportunity to see just how mid-sized cities like Raleigh (and Durham, Richmond, etc.) can execute art projects that match -- and often exceed -- those of New York City and other art meccas. Affordability is key. That is, artists can survive down here. It's much harder to make a living as an artist in Brooklyn anymore. News flash, right?
So both Natives and Northern Flights made amazing, memorable art in an amazing, memorable iconic building. They showcased the grandeur of a municipal project. Created rumbling bass from rotors; living water from liabilities.
It was a study in the classic theme of contrast.
Twigs emerged from old faucets in a lab room, evoking the dualism between industry (the physical plant) and nature (water itself).
Permit processors issued letterpressed passes and typed on old-school typewriters.
The building itself was transformed from works progress to progressive art.
The (well-deserved) publicity and attention to this project speaks volumes of our modern desire to get the hell out of our soft cubicles. To ache beyond Carpal Tunnel and Restless Leg. Modern man and modern woman both pining for a connection to a more physical, authentic past. All that was missing -- and they could have been there for all I know -- were former employees to narrate and navigate.
Left in less competent hands, the Bain Project could have been precious. A Disneyfied hands-off industrial art show. But somehow it managed to be authentic. The retro touches like lab coats, industrial music, and the art installations seemed more like an homage to an era past. Of optimism, physical labor, largess (not obesity), and works progress. If you know a little about Fullsteam's aesthetic and mission, you can probably tell why I liked it.
(It was fun to run into Dave of Horse & Buggy Press and his wife Annie. Dave said, "I thought I might see you here!")
The question for Bain, of course, is "what next?"
If art can happen here because it's affordable, what happens when Bain is no longer a temple of industry?
Will Works Progress give way to Subway?
Then again, how many of you have ever been to this building? I almost missed out, waiting until the last hour to see the space. For the first time.
I pose no answers. Just musings. And thanks. Thanks to Daniel Kelly and the organizers, sponsors, and owners of the Bain Project.
A final plea to those who will answer the "what's next" question. Just as the Bain Project artists made the most with the site, do good with the opportunity before you. Honor your own citing of Hugo on the Bain sales sheet:
“Let us while waiting for new monuments preserve the ancient monuments.”
So much for not spending an hour reflecting.
Read more on the history of the Bain Water Plant.