Factory as Laboratory or Laboratory as Factory

Factories should look like what they are - factories and nothing else.

Moritz Kahn

The lifespan of any particular industry has never been predictable and the vicissitudes of politics, products and people add to the air of uncertainty. A brief snapshot of one company, extending over more than 200 years of its history, illustrates the point.

In 1785 John Hall, an apprentice millwright, arrived in Dartford, Kent, and set up in a shack as a self-employed smith. Soon becoming a sought-after and busy mechanic for the various mills that processed corn, paper, oil and gunpowder, as well as for local people and businesses, he soon had to move to larger premises. Around him, his former apprentices and erstwhile business partners formed a network of men continuously pushing at the limits of mechanization and looking out for patents to buy, from home and abroad. They interested themselves in paper-making and canning machinery as well as rotary printing, signalling a tempting world of commercial possibilities through innovative manufacture.

John Hall, a careful man who could see the risks involved in the unknown and untried, concentrated on the field with which he was most familiar, heavy engineering. An early nineteenth-century letterhead for the Dartford Ironworks described John Hall & Sons as 'Engineers, Steam Engine Manufacturers and Millwrights, Iron and Brass Founders' and proudly listed their products, which included 'machinery for plate glass works, roll bars and plates for paper

R. A. Lister & Co., Victorian mechanized disorder. Tricycle factory, Dursley, Gloucestershire, 1880s.

R. A. Lister & Co. workers using machinery powered by overhead shafts. Tricycle factory Dursley, c. 1890.

engines, hydraulic and screw presses, diving bells, pumps, cranes etc.' The powerful beam engines for which the company became best known went down the Thames estuary to every corner of Britain and around the world.

After Hall's death in 1836 the company continued under his sons, trading as J. (John) & E. (Edward) Hall. By the time that Edward died in the 1870s, the firm had become a classic case of a second-generation family enterprise burdened with inadequate, old-fashioned buildings, out-of-date plant, an unchanged catalogue of goods and a shrinking workforce. Fortunately for its survival, the firm's main customers, the local cement and paper manufacturers, had remained faithful.

The arrival in 1878 of Everard Hesketh, a young engineer who had intended to spend only a few months with the company, transformed the future prospects of J. & E. Hall. When visiting the Great International Exhibition in Paris that year, he chanced upon Paul Giffard's cold-air machine and decided to test it. Impressed by its potential, he took out patents on a number of improvements to the original machine. J. & E. Hall developed and then manufactured their own variant. The gamble paid off, for Hesketh had seen the enormous potential in marine refrigeration and dockside cold storage, and he speedily switched from the cold-air machine to the far more efficient CO2 system, transforming the market.

As befitted a firm run by engineers, new technology posed no fears: since 1882 the factory had been lit by electricity. In November 1900 J. & E. Hall became a public company, 'to establish, conduct and carry on ice works, ice stores, meat freezing and chiller establishments', a field in which they had become world leaders. In 1906 they diversified into commercial vehicle production, on an adjacent site, making lorries and buses under the name of Hallford, which flourished with wartime contracts but failed thereafter.

The company then moved, with greater success, into the manufacture of lifts and escalators, always remaining on John Hall's original Dartford site of 1785. As a child living in the East Anglian countryside in the 1950s, the mysterious doings of J. & E. Hall were a continual topic of conversation at home: both my maternal grandfather and his brother-in-law, my great-uncle, were marine engineers and were employed by the company for all of their working lives, my grandfather steering the company through the Depression years. In the 1970s the flourishing business rebuilt its factory and merged with an aluminium company, as a result being renamed APV Hall Products Ltd.

The bicentenary year, 1985, was marked with a book and appropriate celebrations, despite the telltale trickle of redundancies which had begun in the early 1980s.1 When change came, it was with the speed of an avalanche: in 1987 the company negotiated the sale of their valuable town centre site to the B&Q home improvement superstore group, and by 1990 the factory had been demolished, its site to become just another retail park. In 1995 the name of J. & E. Hall was resurrected under the ownership of the McQuay Group, an American air conditioning company, itself owned by a Malaysian banking conglomerate.

At the time of writing, a remnant of the company still operates under this name from an office in Dartford, overseeing a handful of depots scattered around the country. Desperately reduced from a proud history of manufacture and innovation, its business is now servicing air conditioning and refrigeration units made by others, elsewhere. For shareholders in the parent company, watching the financial indices far away in Asia, the historic name and history of J. & E. Hall Ltd means nothing, and the fate of its modern successor of little consequence. This familiar enough story shows how deadly have been the recent divisions between finance, industry and society.

Factories have become far removed from everyday experience. Assembly-line production is familiar only from television coverage of factory closures or sitcoms, films and advertisements. Dagenham and Cowley, suburbs of London and Oxford respectively, might as well be in Taiwan. Even Renault's proud new 150-hectare campus, the Technocentre, inaugurated in its centenary year of 1998, is hidden away in the featureless countryside near Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, a new town to the west of Paris. Few companies welcome interested visitors, industrial processes are arcane rituals to most people, while health and safety considerations conspire to prohibit public access to the factory floor.

Manufacturing is largely invisible, but not as charmingly camouflaged as the wartime Douglas aircraft plant in Santa Monica in California, which concealed its rooftop from the enemy as an imitation suburban street. Most modern factories or 'labour warehouses', the latter dedicated to assembling components made by more highly skilled workers somewhere else, are geographically remote from the consumer. Factories or tax-free assembly zones in the poorest countries of Central and South America and Asia emulate the worst conditions to be found in Victorian mills and come to our notice only when, because of their locked safety exits, a fire claims the lives of those within. The garment workers of Thailand or Taiwan, filling the racks in malls across the developed world; the toy makers of mainland China, turning out the cracker fillers and party bags for Western festivals and celebrations; and the car workers of Mexico and Eastern Europe, ensuring mobility for commuters in the main financial centres, are thousands of kilometres away from the markets they supply -just as, increasingly, are the call centres that field the consumers' calls for help or complaint.

Naomi Klein wrote her angry book No Logo in a disused factory in the former garment district of Toronto. While on a research trip, she visited a Jakarta textiles factory where the women were making raincoats, and discovered that the label that they were supplying, London Fog, was the one that had been manufactured in her Toronto block, even in her own apartment.2

The factory, with its emphasis on the repetitive and organized processes of manufacture, in the dictionary definition of 'a building, or buildings, with plant for the manufacture of goods', has altered beyond recognition. The state-of-the-art factory in its campus or landscaped Science or Business Park, close to a motorway intersection or university, is more likely to be concerned with research and development than assembly or manufacture, in a setting as green and attractive as money spent on careful planting and a budget for high quality maintenance can make it. While Frank Lloyd Wright's office and research headquarters for Johnson at Racine, Wisconsin, emphatically turned inwards, to ignore the unpleasant surroundings, many modern locations have been chosen for their landscape - a reaction to an atavastic memory of the Victorian mill town or the inter-war trading estate.

The setting of the landed estate is as congenial to the biotech industry as it was to the manufactures royales, an image of reassuring and established order in the face of the unknown. Mature eighteenth-century parkland, oaks, lawn and a generous lake provide the impeccable surroundings of the campus outside Cambridge where the Human Genome Project has its home. The administration lords it in a restored Georgian mansion, the stables and outbuildings provide conference and meeting areas and the research laboratories and staff facilities nestle in a series of carefully staggered blocks, pristine in their uniform of burnished metal and glass, at the other side of the park. The world of work here is as closed and obscure as the world of manufacture or academe.

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