The role that industry played and continues to play in molding American society was a hotly contested topic this political season. While talk mostly centered on workers and the economic forces that engulf them, little was mentioned about the actual factories where they work and how these structures shape our cities. The interconnection of factory buildings with urban landscapes and the position they hold in the lives of cities are topics that Nina Rappaport, an architectural historian, curator and educator tackles in her latest book, Vertical Urban Factory (2015, Actar Publishers, New York). In nearly 500 pages and 400 photographs and illustrations, she investigates the history of the factory building, manufacturing processes and the integration of industry within cities.
The book lucidly chronicles the history of industrial production and the various approaches to the design and form of factory buildings. This is, however, a book with a moral to tell: factories and manufacturing centers should have a place in today’s metropolises. She strongly advocates for mixed use and diverse streetscapes to enliven our cities and make them economically vibrant. Or, as she asks in the Introduction, “Why can’t factories be in cities?
The Factory Building
Whether the answer to this seemingly simple question is “yes” or “no” or “maybe” is one that cities confront on an ad hoc basis, subject to zoning, types of industry and economic development goals. The book’s title provides Rappaport’s answer, but charting the way forward is more complicated and elusive than chronicling the past. She responds by saying that, “While some might say the idea of a vertical and urban factory is limiting, for me it has become a broader metaphor for an ideology of making places for working people in cities.” Much of her argument focuses on design and form, and discussions about real estate values, government policies and demographic changes are tangential. Because the urban response to industry is not solely one of form, parts of the equation for incorporating industry into cities are anecdotal or missing.
To understand the future, the book delves into the past and charts present-day developments. The arc of industry – from its rapid rise during the Industrial Revolution that created the important urban hubs throughout the West and its subsequent dispersal throughout the world – is a complex subject. The book focuses on the factory building and its physical relationship to cities, but especially on the building type itself, the result of “relationships between technology, architecture, and industry.” Timelines, diagrams, photographs and plans, copiously document the ways that factory buildings accommodated themselves to their sites and functions.
Creating a Modernist Aesthetic
The book is organized in three sections: “The Modern Factory,” The Contemporary Factory,” and “The Future Factory.” The first section documents the way architects harnessed new materials in daring ways to combine efficiency and beauty. For those who love buildings, this section is a wonderful refresher about the joy of design exploration and the beauty of utility and efficiency. The development of this building type is meticulously reviewed and annotated with photographs, diagrams of the manufacturing process as well as anecdotes and advertisements. Structures such as the Lingotto Auto factory, the Starrett Lehigh Building and Albert Kahn’s Ford Manufacturing Co. facilities evoke for the reader a time of optimism and feverish activity, of the irresistible combination of technology and aesthetics.
With in-depth discussion of specific buildings, we appreciate the ingenious workings of how some buildings became one with the whole industrial process—the delivery of raw material, the manufacturing of goods, the distribution of finished goods, the integration of mechanical systems—and adapted to their urban sites. All this contributed to creating a Modernist functional expression. As important as these design discoveries were and how influential they became within the architectural field, factory buildings were seldom given their fair due.
The demise in the West not only of urban manufacturing but of industry itself is well documented. From the creation industrial zones to isolate the sometimes noxious byproducts, these areas have continuously shriveled in size and economic importance to cites. Manufacturing was at one time everywhere, virtually defining many cities. Today, these areas have been squeezed. Some of this change is providential as when deteriorating places and buildings are transformed into other uses. For instance, New York City – whose entire waterfront was once chockablock with warehouses, factories, slaughterhouses, etc. – is now ringed with city parks fronting cleaner rivers.
Bringing Industry Back
The forces that push industry out of urban centers are sometimes global in nature, but often revolve around the cost of real estate, the difficulty of moving goods and people in congested areas as well as the modes of transportation itself. As the industrial aesthetic becomes attractive, many industrial areas are gentrified not only by artists who can use the large column-free spaces, but by developers who can make more money with residential development than industrial. Industry, though, needs to be retained and brought back to support employment opportunities and instill a raison d’etre for their cites. Various dynamics such as the desire for local and artisanal goods, reshoring and the judicious reuse of existing industrial buildings are now helping to maintain or create industrial centers. Whether these forces will counterbalance those that push industry out remains to be seen.
Ms. Rappaport’s main point is that “there is a social and cultural value today in the multi-storied urban factory.” Her emphasis on the verticality—with different factories on each floor or used by a single company—is a way of showing that there is still room in cities for these buildings rather than banishing them to the fringes. There are also hybrid buildings in which manufacturing, commercial and residential all share the same building.
City policies need to be flexible to allow these uses. As a way to maintain a city’s industrial base, however, the emphasis for me on the verticality was not convincing. Despite this caveat, Vertical Urban Factory is a valuable addition to the admittedly meager library about the built side of industry available to the general public and design community. The depth of research and analysis of world-wide developments is impressive.
All photos by permission of Nina Rappaport:
Cover: Van Nelle factory, ca. 1960, Courtesy Collectie Gemeentearchief Rotterdam