Vertical Urban Factory at the Skyscraper Museum

Architectural Review, March 2011, Review

In the days following the financial crash, a British Second World War poster bearing the comforting advice ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ became the ubiquitous survival slogan for the developing crisis. Almost immediately, it spawned a dozen imitators, not least a cheery green version with the British crown drawn from nuts and spanners and the message: ‘Get Excited and Make Things’.

The recession has awakened a passion for making, seen in the proliferation of hacker spaces and domestic 3D printers, in DIY conventions and books on how to ‘make do and mend’. And not least in calls for manufacturing – long exiled to soulless suburban industrial parks and sweat shops in the Far East – to retake its place at the heart of our cities.

This agenda underpins a new exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum in New York City. Vertical Urban Factory, curated by architectural historian Nina Rappaport, celebrates the factory in the city. Not the single-storey, windowless sheds confined to out-of-sight, zoned ghettos. But innovative, multi-storey buildings, existing alongside the places where we live, work and play.

The modernists had great fun with the factory, and their achievements provide the substance for this heavily researched show. Photographs, drawings and commissioned models tell the stories behind a clutch of exemplar projects, among them Sir Owen Williams’ Sainsbury’s factory in London’s Blackfriars (1934–36), Johannes Brinkman and Leendert van der Vlugt’s Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam (1925–31) and Corb’s Usine Duval (1946–51), as well as the socially conscious shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata’s utopian workers’ town.

Highland Park, the factory designed by Albert Kahn for Henry Ford’s motor company, came to house the first moving assembly line, ushering in the era of mass production. Its numerous Crittal windows set within a gridded concrete frame, earned it the nickname Crystal Palace. There’s a photograph here of thousands of car chassis lined up outside the factory, produced during a single nine-hour shift. Kahn, himself a mass producer of buildings, ran his office like one of the factories he had designed. ‘Architecture,’ Kahn said, ‘is 90 per cent business and 10 per cent art.’

For factories to thrive at inner-city densities, they need to function vertically – to create production flow over multiple levels. One of the better-known examples here is Giacomo Matte-Trucco’s Lingotto Fiat factory, with its rising, spiral assembly line culminating in a banked rooftop test track.

A lesser-known example and a highlight of the show is the 1949 design for an automatic cotton mill by Buckminster Fuller, developed with students from North Carolina State University. Fountain Factory, based on his prototype Dymaxion House, contains a central mast core with a series of catwalks suspended above the factory floor. The cotton would be moved up through the building by means of a pneumatic tube set inside the core. This is the first time the project has been shown in recent years; when the Whitney Museum held a Buckminster Fuller retrospective in 2008, it was unable to find the original model for Fountain Factory, so omitted it entirely.

Not all the buildings here are vertically integrated, however. There are also examples of layered factories, like the stacked lofts in New York City’s Garment District, where different manufacturers function independently on each floor. Another example, displayed in a section of the show devoted solely to factories in New York City, is the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan. Conceived as a vertical street, it enabled trucks to drive straight into vast lifts that would carry them up to higher levels. ‘Every floor a first floor’ was the tagline used to attract tenants.

But while these 20th-century buildings answered the concerns of their time, today’s challenges require a fresh response. At the end of this concentrated show, which also contains archival film footage and a dense timeline charting several centuries of factory development, Rappaport presents her own mini-manifesto for the urban factories of tomorrow. She calls for less stringent zoning laws to bring small scale and high-tech manufacturing back into the city. And for architects to create efficient, environmentally responsible, spectacular spaces in which to house them. Through a series of contemporary projects – presented on boards laid out on reclaimed rollers from the Paragon Paint factory in Queens – she looks for early shoots of such factory architecture. Some of the examples here, including the ambitious redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard or Abalos and Herrera’s Madrid recycling plant, are more inspiring than others, such as the poor conditions in Hong Kong’s vertical factories.

Missing are the contemporary equivalents of Buckminster Fuller’s Fountain Factory, the sort of architectural visions that could bring her manifesto aspirations to life. There is welcome talk of another exhibition that would do just that, picking up where this one trails off. For Rappaport’s part, she imagines the new factory as a flexible, transparent space, where skilled workers put their talents on display, and where making proudly comes back into the open.

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