Factory as Icon

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... factories, the reassuring first fruits of the new age.

Le Corbusier'

The sense that there had to be a new approach to building, efficient, functional and unconstrained by tradition and historic style, led to an energetic search for fitting examples in the early years of the twentieth century. Logic and ideology suggested that the prototypes ought to be industrial structures - icons entirely suited to their proselytizing role.

The urgency of this mission engaged the promotional and editorial skills of a small, closely linked group of architects, photographers and critics who ensured that a selection of key buildings was widely published, each image carefully selected and, on occasion, manipulated to illustrate the point better. In fact, the Architectural Review's roving editor, Philip Morton Shand, went so far as to wonder in early 1934: 'did modern photography beget modern architecture, or the reverse?'

By the time of the International Style exhibition of 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the organizers could confidently assert that the modern factory was, at best, a perfect architectural model. 'American factories admirably illustrate how building is becoming more and more impersonal and scientific. The best European factories illustrate, however, that in the field of industrial construction there are real architectural possibilities.'2

No avant-garde group could have been more passionately engaged in the worship of new technology and contemporary processes than the Italian Futurists, yet there was scarcely an architect among them and not a single Futurist building was ever erected. In a brief interval before the outbreak of the First World War, a fringe member of the group, Antonio Sant'Elia, a 25-year-old architect, produced perspectives of subjects such as electricity generating stations, factories and airship hangars. Two years later he was dead.

Despite their opening intemperate blast against 'Big Business architecture and reinforced concrete contractors', the Futurists

Antonio Sant Elia

Antonio Sant'Elia, study for a Futurist industrial structure, 1913.

were quick to celebrate the hurtling world of the 'great humming power station' and its 'control-panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators' (Marinetti) as an abstract, theatrical vision. The idealization of the machine itself was inchoate and largely symbolic, expressed most tellingly in film and photo-gra-phy, but the search was on for an appropriate architectural model to fit the tides of polemic washing around the subject. Marinetti wasted no time in claiming the Fiat Lingotto factory as 'the first invention of Futurist construction',3 for it was the automobile that carried the hopes of the Futurists.

Precedent and inspiration could be found in Detroit, Turin and Orly - where innovatory structures designed for the production of the motor car and the aeroplane were to be found, designed by tough-minded architects and engineers who, at the service of these new, technically driven industries, continually pushed at the frontiers of materials, forms and, above all, scale. The self-conscious father of modernist architecture, Walter Gropius, illustrated Highland Park in 1913, alongside North American grain silos and railway coal stores, as an example of the 'modern industrial hangar' that bore comparison in 'monumental force, to the constructions of ancient Egypt'. The same structures that had horrified Rudyard Kipling as he passed through Buffalo in 1889 delighted the modernists - to a man.4 Le Corbusier would later borrow the images without attribution or acknowledgement, adding Fiat Lingotto to argue his case for an aesthetic of engineering.

Gropius's choice of models emerged from his own experience; he had already broken with precedent in his solution to the new factory. The Faguswerk in Alfeld-an-der-Leine, designed and largely completed before the outbreak of the First World War, was to become an icon, a skilfully presented image of precision and craftsmanship upon the most advanced lines. The production of beech shoe lasts, a perfect pattern for every variation of the human foot, took place in a substantially glazed building that could be demonstrated - by its clients, architects and even the contractors - to have broken the mould entirely. Intriguingly, as Annemarie Jaeggi has argued, each was exaggerating for their own ends the case for the progressive credentials of the Fagus factory, largely a masonry-built structure. But at the time it came 'nearer to an integration of the new style than any other edifice built before 1922'.5

Yet, ironically enough, had the rebuilding of the clicking-knife department of the Faguswerk that Gropius and his office designed between 1923 and 1925 not fallen victim to recession, there would have been an extensive glazed curtain-walled structure on the site, entirely overshadowing the earlier buildings. In 1927 the client, Carl Benscheidt Sr, acknowledged that some of Gropius's ideas had been too extreme for him and, potentially, too costly, but 'were I to build Fagus again today, I would build more extremely than I did then. Today I recognize that I would have done well to adopt more of Mr Gropius's ideas.'6 Gropius's strenuous advancement of the Faguswerk as an iconic building implicitly included those radical unbuilt designs.

When Peter Behrens became the industrial design consultant for the Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft (AEG) in 1907, he was handed the job of reconfiguring their factory complex in northern Berlin, as well as considering every other visual aspect of the enterprise, from typeface to product design. The company had taken on Edison's patents for electricity in Germany in 1883 and was in pole position to become a company of unsurpassed modernity. Yet AEG's identity was signalled by its polychrome-brick main gate, built in 1896 in the castellated Gothic Revival style beloved by northern European industrialists, with its peculiarly inappropriate imagery, harking back to candlelit great halls and the nobility. Like their

Bruno Taut Glashaus

American counterparts, the directors chose to put their as yet commercially unfamiliar product in fancy dress.

By the first decade of the new century, confidence had grown and it was time to replace the ramshackle collection of factory sheds behind the fairy-tale gateway with something more appropriate. Behrens understood the potency of image, whether applied to the detail of a typeface or the larger effect achieved by the principal elevation of a building. He was neither an architect nor an engineer, but his assistant was the young architect, Walter Gropius. Other junior members of his office at this time included Mies van der Rohe and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret - after 1920 known as Le Corbusier.

The handsome dimensions and impressive structure of the Turbine Hall were designed to signal (and effect) change. The immense engines for the new centralized electricity industry were

The simple lettered tympanum and concrete rusticated plinths on Behrens's AEG gave it a monumentality that was largely an illusion.

housed in a prominent building placed gable-end on to the street, with the company name lettered on the tympanum. Here the formal essentials of the Classical temple were confidently equated with the scaled-up industrial shed. The dominant elevation masked considerable ambiguities, in particular the heavy-looking reinforced concrete pylons, which were actually of little structural use. Behrens continued to extend the huge plant behind over many years.

Behrens's and Gropius's powerful position in one of the major movements of the pre-First World War years, the Deutsche Werkbund, ensured that the AEG Turbine Hall rapidly achieved its iconic status, being published in the group's yearbook of 1913, alongside Argentinian and North American grain silos and 'daylight factories' built of reinforced concrete, all arguing for a new architecture that reflected the spirit of the age, that is, mass production.7

Peter Behrens, AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft) factory complex, Tiergarten, Berlin, 1908 onwards. The overlay of classical elements on a rational brick core was a clear challenge to the conventional 19th-century German factory, styled in either Romanesque or Gothic Revival.

Also involved in the Werkbund was Carl Benscheidt Sr, the client for Fagus (Latin for beech), one of a number of enlightened industrialists who adhered to a socially and technologically advanced programme in their works. In 1911 his son, Karl Benscheidt Jr, worked briefly for the United Shoe Machinery Company at Beverly, Massachusetts, learning American works management in the company that was providing most of the finance for Fagus's current new development at Alfeld-an-der-Leine. The reinforced concrete daylight factory built for the company between 1903 and 1905 by the English-born agricultural engineer Ernest Ransome was currently the best known building of its type. Benscheidt may well have been the source of Gropius's photographs of American industrial buildings. Ransome's building was not among them.

Benscheidt followed the model of AEG in his approach to creating a corporate identity, but, as Annemarie Jaeggi points out, at Fagus the task was carried out collaboratively, by a group of

Industrial Architect
Clean, functional lettering on the Fagus shoe-last factory, Alfeld near Hanover, indicated a break with the past. 1911 onwards, architects Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer.

experts, chosen and guided by the architects. Later the building would come to exemplify the objectives of the Bauhaus: colour, graphics and all furnishings were considered of a piece. The headed company stationery showed the main building set amongst sans serif lettering. 'The Fagus factory was a unique expression of both Bauhaus ideals: the Gesamtkunstwerk of the "great building" formulated in the founding manifesto of 1919, and the motto that followed after 1923: "Art and Technology - a New Unity".'8

The organization and internal planning, which combined manufacture and administrative offices, had already been drawn up by an experienced architect, Eduard Werner. The task for the young Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, commissioned by Benscheidt in the spring of 1911, was to replace Werner's exterior elevations with an image of arresting modernity, the face of a progressive company, to be clearly visible from the trains that hurried past between Hanover and the rest of Germany. Alfeld-an-der-Leine was a small provincial town, but its railway line provided a useful window to the outside world. On a more parochial level, Benscheidt was also eager to compete with Behrens, the shoe last company that he had formerly managed and which was now his competitor. The factory stood just across the tracks, inside a model of enlightened working practices but outside conventional enough, designed by Werner in 1897.

In the second phase of the Faguswerk, begun in autumn 1913, Gropius and Meyer - now in full charge - were asked to double the factory area. The emphasis was on the production hall and the expansion of the main building, which would be extended to present a suitably commanding entrance on the street side, from which most visitors approached. Their achievement was to delineate this façade strongly, marked by the emphatic brick two-storey entrance, a muscular counterpoint to the haze of glazing behind

The emphatic brick entrance to the Fagus factory, added 1913-14, serves as contrast to the apparently unsupported glazed corner and the cantilevered stair behind it.

and above it, with the staircase seen 'floating' through the glass corner.

If the Fagus factory exactly reflected the requirements of an ambitious and far-sighted industrialist, it also enabled Gropius and Meyer to use the building (unseen during the war years and extensively photographed and published only in the late 1920s) as the face of the new architecture. Photographed with editorial care and published in the right quarters, an icon of the International Style was assiduously created.

As the visitors filed through, a Who's Who of the international avant-garde from Russia, the Netherlands, France and elsewhere, and as magazine articles proliferated, Gropius put new emphasis on the use of glazing and on the structural innovation of the pierfree corners (the first of which was awkwardly engineered by means of the so-called Gropius knot, a decidedly crude junction of two iron beams at the corner). In truth, little more than a single corner of the original 1911 building actually confirmed its status,

The Fagus factory, Alfeld (1911-14), photographed in the early 1920s, with the boiler house and pebble-dashed warehouse behind the original glazed block, with its world-famous unsupported corner.

that of a glass and steel structure that had thrown away all precedent (and visible means of support), that 'seminal concept that [had] lurked in the mind of the Modern Movement since before the first World War'.9 But the imagery remains impressive, while the modern visitor is as struck by the resolution of the brickwork as by the tentative steps towards a curtain wall. The carefully renovated building is still in full working use.

The fact that Gropius discarded conventional structural support, in the form of pier, post or column, and cantilevered the structure out upon a steel frame, nonchalantly and transparently turning the corner with an expanse of clear glass broken by slender glazing bars, blinded observers to the overwhelmingly conventional masonry structure, with its solid brick footings and recessed piers. Images of the building to be used in any architectural discussion were controlled by Gropius: the glazed corner was photographed and published around the world. Few were, or even are, aware of the large pebble-dashed warehouse, which was the most sizeable building from the first phase. As Peter Reyner Banham argued more than 40 years ago in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Gropius's friendship with the historians of the Modern Movement and the selective use of photography allowed him to overstate the case for the pioneering importance of the Fagus building.

Banham argued for Hans Poelzig's place as the man who most consistently worked towards 'new forms for new needs', using an Expressionist/organic vocabulary that was developed in order to support progressive notions of dignity in labour. These went far beyond the limitations of the Arts and Crafts movement with the proposal that the quality of product and work could be sustained into a modern era with new methods.10 In the early 1920s Behrens himself tended to work in increasingly monumental and expressionist form, playing with colour in brickwork and even the mortars.

His corporate headquarters (1920-25) for the chemical giant Farbwerke Hoechst in Frankfurt am Main included a brilliantly stained interior, conjuring up the dyes that the company produced.

In the Deutsche Werkbund exhibition of July 1914, Gropius and Meyer had shown a model factory, the brick core of the administration block entirely housed in glazing, alongside a medium-sized single-storey work shed with a wide central nave. The unfortunate timing of the exhibition ensured that further discussion of the new architecture was long deferred, but the unbuilt designs for Fagus in the 1920s and the tantalizing but abortive collaboration between Gropius and Benscheidt Sr for a factory in the Soviet Union in 1930 point to Gropius's continued investigation of the factory as a pioneering building type, largely through the enthusiasm of a single client with exceptional vision.

More generally in the years following the First World War, there was a mismatch between the ambitions of European avant-garde architects, eager to wipe the slate clean, and post-war economic reality. The German Erich Mendelsohn had passed his wartime service as a military engineer. While on the Eastern front he filled sketchbooks with Expressionist charcoal freehand drawings which he described as railway sheds or hangars on some sheets, or factories or grain elevators on others. With their swooping lines and distinctive, hunch-shouldered mass, they supported Frank Lloyd Wright's later impression of Mendelsohn - that he was more of a modeller and sculptor than a builder and architect.

Yet Mendelsohn was optimistic for the future and as polemical as Le Corbusier in attitude. In his Berlin lecture of 1919 entitled The Problem of a New Architecture, he observed that 'the shifts in the mood of the age mean new challenges set by the altered building tasks of traffic, industry and culture, new possibilities for construction in the new building materials: glass - steel - concrete'.11

In ringing tones, he declaimed the marriage of old and new. 'Out of the posts and marble beams of the Greek temples, out of the piers and stone vaulting of the Gothic cathedral, develops the girder rhythm of the iron halls', while 'after the load-equilibrium of antiquity, after the upthrusted loads of the Middle Ages, comes the dynamic tension of reinforced concrete construction'. He spoke in a restless post-war spirit, more than ready to dust away the castellated factory gates and the old order.

Mendelsohn was also fortunate in finding steadfast clients in post-war Germany. The Luckenwalde hat factory (1921-3) in Brandenburg was his third commission for the Hermann brothers, who needed a new factory after joining forces with their competition. The expanding Steinberg Hermann company offered the young architect the opportunity to look again at his wartime sketches and think of an appropriate form for a very specific manufacturing process. There were a number of constraints. The process meant that the power house had to be central on site,

Luckenwalde Hat Factory
The Luckenwalde hat factory, 1921-3, architect Erich Mendelsohn. The form, strangely like his own Expressionist drawings of indeterminate structures, was driven by the need to provide huge vents above the workspace.

providing electricity for steaming the hats into shape. More importantly, noxious gases from the dyeing processes had to be removed efficiently. Turning these requirements to his advantage, Mendelsohn fashioned an abnormally steep roof, which functioned as an exhaust outlet.

Mendelsohn was concerned to present the building for publication and to point out the novel points of his design. He organized - even cropped - all photographs of the exterior to accentuate the oblique, shorn angles of the parallel sheds and the free-standing dye works. In fact, internally the reinforced concrete post-and-beam construction was not particularly novel, being made up of pre-cast angled frames, while the external treatment was in tiered and banded brick and concrete. Mendelsohn's real inventiveness was less obvious. In the spinning room he ran the power transmission shafts along hollow girders and perfected a complex system of ventilation for the upper-level drying lofts, extracting the noxious and toxic gases via a number of vents, grilles and a chimney, backed up by mechanical extractors. The novel building that resulted was quickly taken to epitomize the Expressionist approach to materials and form, in which, like Hugo Haring's lauded farm buildings and sausage factory, the function was overtly stated.

After its completion, in 1924 Mendelsohn travelled to the United States. On the Deutschland he met and became friendly with the architect-turned-film director Fritz Lang; each was to make good use of his early impressions. In Lang's case the result was the filmed urban fantasy Metropolis (1926), in which the workers and their places of work remain well below ground until they can be replaced by robots, and in Mendelsohn's, a photographic essay, Amerika.12 His onward journey included Detroit and Buffalo, where he saw for himself the celebrated grain silos, the Greek temples of their moment. He described them to his wife: 'stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light. I took photographs like mad . . . Everything else was merely a beginning.'13

The critic and theorist Adolf Behne rightly saw the hat factory as a mechanism in itself. From the 'expedient organization of the production process' came 'a form intended to follow and be appropriate to the functions of the business, to the production sequence, like the parts of a machine'.14 Mendelsohn's understanding of manufacture (and, in particular, his architectural solution to the need for effective ventilation) brought him to the attention of the Leningrad Textile Trust, who in 1925 visited the Luckenwalde factory, and commissioned him to design a massive knitwear and hosiery factory, the Red Flag Factory.

The Soviet factory was for 8,000 workers and would extend a mile (1,600 metres) in length. Mendelsohn was required to design the production process, specify the machinery and to procure the

Red Flag Textile Factory
Model for the Leningrad Textile Trust 'Red Flag' factory, an impossibly ambitious commission that Mendelsohn was given in 1926 on the basis of his widely admired factory at Luckenwalde.

building materials from Germany. Despite an exemplary plan, in which three immense dye sheds (with his characteristic ventilated lofts) were wrapped on two sides by vast multi-storey factory buildings and an engine house, which with its tiered corner block recalled his Einstein Tower at Potsdam, the eventual outcome was a demoralizing failure, brought about by the use of an unskilled, badly managed labour force and inadequate materials. The exercise finally brought together the European architectural avantgarde and the Soviet social experiment.

With the introduction of the Soviet New Economic Policy (of 1921-8), the Soviet's urgent need for imported technology and expertise met the wilder shores of architectural theory. The experiment borrowed the language of the Futurists, with Soviet central planning replacing their iconoclastic romanticism. During the early years of the first Five Year Plan (1928-32), the project appeared to gather momentum. By 1930 there were some one thousand foreign architects employed in the Soviet Union engaged on numerous vast schemes of industrial and urban development, few of which achieved their immense ambitions.

Books and magazines detailing European experimental projects were eagerly imported and translated into Russian. The leading architects and their key buildings were known from the literature, from exhibitions and from their visits to Russia. When Bruno Taut moved to Moscow in 1932, he found that Soviet architects had assumed that their Western counterparts had already created the new style and enjoyed the irony that they were 'surprised to learn that there is no such architecture in Germany'.15

Far more ironic, however, was the fact that Soviet delegations to Detroit had long since secured the services and expertise of Albert Kahn. As the Depression took hold, a complete bureau, headed by Moritz Kahn, was set up to design and organize the building of hundreds of factories across the Soviet Union, including massive plants at Stalingrad and Cheliabinsk. In the early days, the steel was prefabricated in the USA, and virtually the entire structure, as well as tools, equipment and machinery, imported to be assembled on site. When the Kahn Soviet office was disbanded in March 1932, being unwilling to accept payment in roubles, all their design drawings and specifications were left behind, together with a growing number of Russian-trained technicians and professionals. Similarly, when Ernst May and Mart Stam were forced to leave Moscow in 1936 just before the end of the second Five Year Plan, they too were forced to hand over everything. The Soviet Union had, like the USA a century before, offered a perfect test-bed for a new version of industrialization, in which architecture and idealism would meet fleetingly on equal terms.

Unsurprisingly, Albert Kahn found little to admire in the puny efforts of his European counterparts. He had little curiosity about the Soviet experiment and a continually stated dislike of 'ultra modern' architecture. He was happy to turn his hand to heavy revivalist architecture for the mansions of his motor-manufacturing clients, Dodge and Ford, and in his view 'probably no one has done more injury than Le Corbusier and his followers'. He laid blame at the feet of writers and critics 'who too often laud their abortive attempts to the skies, form wrong public opinion and cause an era of misunderstanding' and but for them 'their sad creations would probably receive little notice'. Kahn made no claims for the modern factory building beyond it being 'sound engineering'.16 Kahn reserved his own admiration for Peter Behrens and Auguste Perret.

Another building that was featured widely in progressive publications was the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, begun in 1915, in turn rooted in Kahn's work in Detroit and in Ford's introduction of efficient production systems. Giovanni Agnelli had visited Detroit and met Henry Ford, while Highland Park was published in Italy in 1915 and 1916 in the magazine L'Industria. The feature that marked out the engineer Giacomo Matte' Trucco's building was, however, an addition of enormous symbolic significance, the test track that looped around the rooftops of the entire factory, with a steep camber to either end. Photographs of the Fiat factory with vehicles racing overhead quickly made the factory an internationally recognized image with which the endless columns of stationary Model T Fords in Detroit could not begin to compete.

Contrary to the usual notion of a gravity-fed production process, at Fiat Lingotto a ramp spiralled up through the building, allowing the entire manufacturing cycle to occur, incrementally, until the finished vehicles emerged on the extended roof, which provided a circuit a kilometre long. In reality, Fordist efficiencies and economies were to prove far less viable in Europe, and especially in Britain where traditional craft unions and wide distrust of mechanization at all costs meant a slow and troubled introduction of moving assembly lines and standardized components. But such difficulties were of little concern to modernists in search of a model. Fiat Lingotto's apotheosis as an icon came through its publication, first by the magazine of the De Stijl group, G, in 1922, and then by others, in particular Le Corbusier, in Vers une architecture, who considered the Lingotto factory the ultimate temple to progress and speed, visibly exemplifying the aesthetic triumph of engineering.

When the young Alvar Aalto was brought in, in 1930, to consider the external details of the Toppila paper and pulp mill in Oulu, Finland, it was sheer good fortune that his friend Laszlo Moholy-Nagy should happen to pay him a visit the following summer and take a series of monumental black and white photographs which

Library Etienne Louis Boullee

Wood-chip container at Toppila-Vaara pulp mill, Oulu, Finland, 1930-31, the most prominent contribution to the site by architect Alvar Aalto. Commissioned by a British company this plant closed in 1980.

played upon the mass and juxtaposition of the elements. Like huge monochrome paintings by Fernand Léger, who was, like Walter Gropius and the influential critic Sigfried Giedion, a friend of Alvar Aalto, the images burned themselves into the avant-garde architectural imagination. Philip Morton Shand completed the process by publishing the building and including it in an exhibition, thus ensuring the remote plant its iconic status.

Then, as now, an appropriate showcase in an exclusive architectural periodical ensured the uncritical admiration of the profession. In fact, Aalto had been consulted well after the main elements of the mill had been sited and designed, according to the engineering and technical requirements of the process; rather like Gropius at the Faguswerk, he was required to confine his attention to the outer shell of the building. He was given hardly more freedom when he was called in to 'design' another paper mill, Sunila, three years later. Yet Moholy-Nagy's carefully oblique angled photographs, which show the looming carapaces of the main buildings, linked by the spidery forms of the gantries and pipes (very similar to Charles Sheeler's series of photographs of River Rouge), are a celebration of the spirit of modernity and are implicitly linked to Aalto, establishing his architectural credentials in the age of the machine.

The irony was that many leading architects of the Modern Movement would simply remain with their noses pressed to the glass. European economics and politics were not conducive to major industrial expansion and certainly not to architectural risk-taking. Le Corbusier scarcely designed an industrial building in his lifetime - and then for Olivetti in 1956. Europe had no Henry Ford, Le Corbusier's hero: 'With Ford, everything is collaboration, unity of vision, unity of intentions, perfect convergence of the totality of thought and action.'

For Mies van der Rohe and others who, like him, believed that 'what Ford wants is simple and illuminating', it suggested a sort of Model T Ford production line for buildings in which the useless is progressively eliminated and the useful becomes increasingly efficient - the rational face of construction. The function of the building was, however, best expressed by its wider purpose within society. Once Mies reached the USA, he put his ideas into practice, from 1940 onwards building the svelte university campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The model for the new research and development campus for industry and (later) information technology was set by Eero Saarinen's spectacular General Motors Technical Center (1950-56) at Warren, Michigan (see illustration on page 199), which pointed ahead to a post-industrial era that would have little need for either heroes or icons. Borrowing technology from the automobile industry itself, it thus moved from 'the European modernist preoccupation with the image of technology [to] a typically American concern with process'.17

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