Commodities flowed from them, along with money for their owners - but the factory also produced new ways of living, of thinking, and of designing
If one building can be said to have produced modernity, it is this. Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, built in 1771 near Derby, supplanted the workshops of feudalism and brought workers together in great numbers. Earlier buildings such as Venice’s Arsenale had amassed labouring bodies, but they lacked powered machinery. This innovation concentrated wealth in the hands of the mill owners (Arkwright died the richest untitled man in Britain), but it also created the proletariat as a self-conscious class. Marx predicted that the bourgeoisie had thereby dug its own grave, as the united workers would inevitably revolt; they did, but that grave still lies empty. The factory has filled plenty of others since: the dark satanic mills killed men, women and children in their thousands, and they still do in many countries. Those who survived endured unspeakable conditions inside these buildings, and beyond: the factory blackened the landscape, and great grim cities grew around them.
Many early factories resembled Palladian villas, the fashionable choice for building in the British countryside; the contrast between the serene aristocratic facades and the activity within could scarcely have been more pronounced. In Europe, early factories were patronised by monarchs, and were even grander - Ledoux’s saltworks at Arc-et-Senans are a sublimely weird example. However, in Britain flimsy pilasters soon gave way to reveal the brick boxes beneath, as the rationalising mania of the Industrial Revolution extended to its buildings. But rumblings of discontent were voiced regarding its effect on people, and nonconformist industrialists set out to reform factory work, now widely seen as degrading and risking unrest. They provided improved housing and improving chapels (but no pubs) in tweely authoritarian factory villages like Bournville.
Utility and economy have generally remained the watchwords of factory builders, but even this type could not escape the historicist crazes that swept the long 19th century, and the urban factory was turned into a fancy-dressed advert. Revealingly, many of the resulting structures hark back to religious buildings, such as the Egyptian-style Temple Works in Leeds (which had a green roof upon which sheep grazed), the Yenidze ‘tobacco mosque’ in Dresden, or Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin. Behrens combined a Modernist concern with light and lightweight structure with vestigial Doric motifs in an attempt to reform German capitalism. He hoped to restore the community that industrialisation had destroyed via re-mystification. It didn’t quite work out that way: instead, Behrens’ well-honed brand identity helped usher in the age of consumerist spectacle.
In the USA, another factory builder would have an equally profound effect on modern life. Albert Kahn was employed by Henry Ford to house his car plant at Highland Park in Detroit behind severely pared down facades which exposed the structural frame. The development of reinforced concrete (Kahn had patented his own successful system) permitted the rapid spanning of much bigger spaces in response to the voracious expansion of industry. At the same time, larger windows could be inserted, improving ventilation and lighting. This was the ‘daylight factory’. But when Ford pioneered the moving production line in 1913 - making a car in one hour 33 minutes instead of 12 hours 38 minutes - the vertical building became obsolete. Instead, long low sheds were needed, extendable in every direction.
So production moved to the vast River Rouge plant outside the city. At its peak in the 1930s its steel-framed buildings covered two square miles, housing 100,000 workers, and producing 4,000 cars a day. Ford boasted that his factories didn’t just make cars, they made men. He meant this in the established paternalistic sense, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline saw it differently: ‘When at six o’clock everything stops, the noise stays with you, and it stayed with me through the night - the noise, and the smell of oil, just as if I’d been given a new nose and a new brain forever. It was as if by yielding, little by little, I became someone else - a new Ferdinand.’ The production line didn’t just speed up work, it sped up the worker, and disintegrated the human into its components. Later, Detroit’s industrial rhythms would also give birth to Motown and Techno, transforming leisure as well as work - but in the meantime it sowed its wild oats overseas.
In 1913, Walter Gropius included a photograph of Highland Park in an influential essay on industrial buildings. The craze for ‘Americanismus’ - understood as comprising efficiency, rationalism and technological advance - would transform advanced European architecture, so that houses, hospitals and schools all became little factories in imitation of the great concrete atlantis over the water. The Europeans also transformed the factory itself, so that it self-consciously represented the speed and technology of modernity, as in Gropius’s Fagus Factory, the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam with its much-photographed transparent bridges, or the Fiat Lingotto Factory in Turin with its rooftop test track.
Source: Edward Burtynsky/Flowers London
This tradition has continued in Germany, where prominent architects are still hired to build representational structures such as the Transparent Factory for Volkswagen in Dresden - its transparency rather ironic in light of recent events. But elsewhere in the West, capital fled to cheaper labour markets, and, as Mario Tronti put it, the factory disappears as society itself becomes the factory. We all beaver away on our laptops precariously ‘creating value’ in a refeudalisation of work, while the High-Tech craze saw the factory look applied to universities, offices and financial institutions like Lloyd’s. This was the Postmodern era for the factory, when it came to signify anything - from record labels to artists’ studios - except sites of industrial production.
Industrial production hasn’t gone away, of course. China, still the new workshop of the world, has crammed in 200 years of industrial development since 1949. The heavy industry of the early Five Year Plans now lies rusting in the north, while garment and electronic factories thrive in the south. China’s industrial record has mirrored our own in terms of ruthless exploitation of humans and ecology, not without Western complicity - where would we be without the cheap Foxconn-manufactured devices on which we work? But it’s not all terrifying vast sheds of the kind depicted in Edward Burtynsky’s photographs, as a new reforming generation of Chinese industrialists has begun to build.