‘Human Construction’ by Carlos Dorrien (commentary)

Human Construction Adds a Detour to the City of Lowell

by Collette M. Marquis

Carlos Dorrien’s sculpture Human Construction sits on concrete piers on either side of the Pawtucket Canal Bridge on Central Street in downtown Lowell. Installed in 1989, it is composed of a series of granite post-and-lintel stones, the largest of which is fifteen feet high and which come to a combined weight of roughly 112 tons. The price tag was $100,000. But why was Human Construction placed there and what does it mean to the city of Lowell?

From its earliest years Lowell was an industrial pioneer. The mills gave it life by producing jobs and creating a melting pot of diverse cultures. As time moved on so did technology, and Lowell’s canals and mills became obsolete. The once prosperous industrial city succumbed to decay and abandonment. By the time of the recession of the 1980s, the mills had become vacant and run down, jobs were scarce, and the crime rate was on the rise. Who and what would bring back some of Lowell’s historical luster? Senator Paul Tsongas, seeing much of the city in ruins, initiated the Public Art campaign to revitalize the city’s history and bring pride back to its citizens.

The Senator, noticing that the historically important Pawtucket Canal was hidden from Central Street by two large commercial buildings, supported their removal so the viewing public would be able to see the canal and the mills in all their grandeur. Motley and Kimball’s Rialto building (World/Love Furniture) and the Martin’s men’s clothing store building, each set on a concrete platform over the canal, had faced one another across Central Street for decades. To complete the transformation of this site following removal of these structures, an invitation was sent out for artists to submit proposals for a site-specific work of public art to rest on the two remaining piers in the canal and represent the historical mill city.

Chosen unanimously by a committee of twelve for this site, Human Construction by Carlos Dorrien is a universal symbol of building and construction. Born in Buenos Aires and currently residing in Barre, Vermont, the artist is often inspired by ancient history and specializes in public art installations. He described his piece for Lowell as a site-specific evocation of the historical canal city and its hard-working citizens, its “post and lintel stones” and “monumental size” representing “the endurance of Lowell’s people throughout history. The stones, like the city itself, symbolize strength and durability.”

According to Rosemary Noon, assistant director of the Lowell Plan economic development group, Dorrien “felt that the post and lintel construction represented the people of Lowell’s instinct for building. He admired Lowell’s mills, canals, and industrial history. He was impressed with the use of granite in so many of our buildings. If you look up the Pawtucket Canal, you can see that many of the windows have granite sills and lintels.” She also described the reaction of Tsongas, a reaction that echoes my own evolving relationship to this piece: “Paul Tsongas initially did not like the design, but he accepted the selection committee’s decision and eventually grew to like the piece very much.”

Senator Tsongas helped restore pride in the famous mill city. Out of the depths of the canals came the ruins of the mill workers of the past. The late Senator helped bring honor and cultural vitality back to Lowell at a time when the city was in desperate need of salvation. The city continues to thrive with its sculptures and annual celebrations, with Folk and Winter Festivals, that bring the community back together.

Photo: Collette Marquis

Special thanks to John Christ for his generous help in editing this essay.

Principal Sources: David K. Blackburn, Personal interview April 17, 2012; Rob French, “That’s a piece of art? It looks like a highway,” Lowell Sun. April 21, 1989; John H Harrington, “Human Construction,” Lowell Sun. April 19, 1989; Rosemary Noon, e-mail message to Assistant Director of the Lowell Plan, April 18, 2012; Roberta Otremba, Personal interview April 26, 2012.


3 Responses to ‘Human Construction’ by Carlos Dorrien (commentary)

  1. Joe S says:

    What seems to get lost in history is the source of funds to create, protect and maintain such treasures. In this case the $100,000 was the initial investment, but protection and maintenance would likely be of negligible cost. Without compromising the site, it would be nice to record the contributions that make these assets possible in the first place, as that may encourage further benefactors.

    Now, with the initial stages of making public art visible in the reconstructed Hamilton Canal District, it is time to have a long term plan to not only keep the investment funding active, but to also provide for protection and maintenance to keep the treasures and the stories they represent as continuing assets for the city.

  2. PaulM says:

    Joe: Agreed on the long-term maintenance challenge. We’ve been lucky having the National Park Service watching over several of the sculptures from the 1980s-90s. There is a system of plaques or signs for the Lowell Public Art Collection. I think the sponsors of each project are listed but I can’t swear to that. I’ll have to take another look. We need a dedicated fund for maintenance and repair of the Lowell Public Art Collection, maybe an endowment at the Greater Lowell Community Foundation that would generate funds for upkeep. The Kerouac Commemorative could use some repairing where the granite has been chipped on corners of the granite sheets with words inscribed and the benches, which are being ground down on the edges by skateboarders running their boards along the edges.

  3. Joe S says:

    Paul, I think the endowment at the GLCF is a great idea!

    In addition to funds, there needs to be a plan with responsibilities. The NPS would be a welcome partner in such a plan, but it probably should include others such as the City, UML, MCC and civic organizations.

    The reason I included “protection” is the list of tasks was to cover such things as the skateboarders at Kerouac park, as well as potential vandalism.