When I think of the Shakers I think of a kind of homespun simplicity: ladderback chairs, straw hats, an unfettered (if somewhat loopy) relationship with the almighty. “Tis the gift to be simple,” as the song says.
Like most stereotypes, the trope of Shaker simplicity is deceptive, a reality with which I was confronted this past weekend at Hancock Shaker Village, a preserved Shaker community outside Pittsfield, in the Berkshires. I had come, along with my family, to hear our friend Ilyon Woo read from her new book, The Great Divorce, which itself should forever disabuse anyone of the notion that the Shakers were naive innocents, unsophisticated as to the ways of the political world around them.
The Shakers, it seems, could be as cynical and manipulative as any interest group. (They bare particular comparison to today's Hassidic communities, which may also appear quaint but quietly exert enormous and not always beneficial political influence in New York.) These days, the Shakers are best known for austere, well-made design. Touring the village, however, I was impressed not by the simplicity, but by the extraordinary complexity of their architecture.
The Hancock roundhouse [see above], for all its geometric clarity and meticulous stonework, is a tour-de-force of programmatic and circulatory inventiveness, with multiple entry levels for livestock, feed storage, and waste removal. You will find nothing more radical in the work of Rem Koolhaas. The entire complex unfolds with a controlled asymmetry that looks like it might be the product of the International Style, but precedes it by decades. It is a study in formal contrasts: color, shape, scale. I don't think there's anything simple about it. A few images after the jump.