‘Pawtucket Prism’ by Michio Ihara

What Lies Underneath: The Story of Pawtucket Prism

By Nicolas White

Do not let remissive habits of the public art world fool you; Pawtucket Prism may seem like a godless specimen of plop art, but the story behind its present state of disrepair perfectly mirrors the beleaguered history of Lowell. Lowell is known worldwide for its textile mills’ stake in the American industrial revolution. In time, the textile industry moved south, leaving the city to fester and starve throughout the 20th century. Lowell was famously bolstered in the 1970’s by the establishment of Lowell National Historical Park. At roughly this same time, computer industry magnate An Wang selected Lowell as the home for his burgeoning company, Wang Laboratories.

Wang Labs seemed poised to resuscitate Lowell economically, and it was with this in mind that then-U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas encouraged Wang and local developer Arthur Robbins to build two facilities at the confluence of the Pawtucket Canal and Concord River. Wang Labs constructed the multistory Wang Training Center, a complex to be used in training new employees brought in from around the world, while Robbins set up a Hilton-branded hotel, to be used in part as the temporary living quarters for Wang’s students.

By 1986 Tsongas saw potential for a work of public art beside the hotel, on a small plaza which overlooked the river confluence, and lobbied the hotel’s benefactors to help fund the project. Tsongas ordained that the sculpture go through a public process managed by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a sister organization to Lowell National Historical Park.

Being that the Commission operated under federal jurisdiction, it was at all times pressured to remain relevant to the city of Lowell. It selected an allegorical theme to tie the prospective work in with Lowell’s history and issued a call to artists. Artists from far and near submitted designs; the commission narrowed the field to three artists and requested models, from which it would select one winner. Consequently, Pawtucket Prism conveys a theme of water power.

Unfortunately, the Commission had not anticipated that most artists would respond to a theme of water with ideas for working water fountains; all three finalists required costly and complicated water systems for their proposed sculptures. Not helping matters was the distribution of money; the hotel owners’ contributions went directly to artist Michio Ihara for his artwork, while the plaza construction and maintenance costs were covered exclusively by public money.

Wang Labs soon fell prey to managerial hubris and technological stagnation, which had similarly doomed Lowell’s textile mills a century earlier; the training center was put up for sale half a decade after it was constructed, while the hotel was auctioned in foreclosure in 1990. Left in an under-traveled area and saddled with high maintenance costs, the decision-makers quietly left Pawtucket Prism to cease pumping water. Its aesthetic may seem out of place, but Pawtucket Prism shares a story – if not necessarily a fate – with the city that bore it: “demolition by neglect.”*

* This very apt phrase describing Pawtucket Prism’s history is that of Rosemary Noon, who provided many generous insights that have informed my analysis of this work.