Cities have a way of using their islands to isolate the undesirables of urban life. New York City has Hart Island, its public mass grave for the unclaimed, and Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex. San Francisco has its Alcatraz, the former prison island; Cape Town has Robben Island, an exiled place of apartheid imprisonment. In Boston, there is Deer Island, which has over the centuries been used as a 17th-century prison for indigenous people, a landing point for 19th-century Irish immigrants during the Great Famine, a 20th-century prison, and, now, a wastewater management plant.
Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture, was drawn to this incredible feat of engineering, the second largest such plant in the United States, in the context of the island’s overlooked history. “I think if you ask most people where their water comes from and then goes to, they probably don’t know, and I’m interested in revealing those infrastructural systems that make modern life possible,” Lamster told Hyperallergic. “But from a purely aesthetic perspective, I just found the physical plant captivating, as a work of infrastructural architecture. With its endless corridors and machinery and uniformed men in colorful electric vehicles, it really does feel like some kind of lair of a James Bond villain.”
Lamster’s photographs are on view in The Island That Nobody Knows at Pinkcomma Gallery in Boston. His images, taken last year while he was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, frame architectural details of the Deer Island Wastewater Management Plant, which is most recognizable for its twelve 130-foot-tall sludge digesters. These process sewage at all hours, converting it into fertilizer, and returning cleansed water to the Massachusetts Bay. “The egg-shaped digesters are visually really striking, and of course there’s something ironic about the idea that there is great beauty to be found in this machinery for cleaning shit,” Lamster stated. “I’m sure Freud would have some interesting things to say about that pleasure.”
The long halls of vibrantly hued pipes, the round shapes of the digesters, and the island setting all contribute to an air of mystery. Deer Island, opened to the public in 1999, now has walking trails and facility tours. The island itself is actually connected to the mainland — thanks to a 1938 hurricane that filled a separating channel — yet for centuries it’s been sequestered from the city’s consciousness.
“I frankly thought I would have trouble convincing the authorities there to let me take pictures, but in fact they were tremendously excited to have the attention and were incredibly gracious and supportive,” Lamster explained. “They are quite proud of the work they do keeping Boston clean, and are anxious for people to learn and appreciate what they do for the environment.”
Mark Lamster: The Island That Nobody Knows continues through October 28 at Pinkcomma Gallery (46 Waltham Street, Courtyard One, Boston).