Vertical Urban Factory
39 Battery Place, New York
Through June 2011
While 1913 might be thought of as the last year of peace before the guns of August, 1914, in fact, one event of that year was to impact the following decades as profoundly as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: Henry Ford’s perfection of the moving assembly line. The Model T debuted in 1908, but it took Ford and his team at Highland Park five years to achieve continuous flow production, a manufacturing ambition that can be traced back at least to the 18th century. To consider the design of Albert Kahn’s Ford Factory in isolation as a monument of that achievement is to miss the point: The achievement, for better or worse, is everywhere we look. We live, breathe, and work in a world of mass-produced commodities that we pick and choose from to shape our own aesthetic. The modern factory and its operations are the lynchpin of this system, and the improvements in its form and structure were many and dizzying over the course of the 20th century. The Vertical Urban Factory, a compact but impressive exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum in New York, examines the subject of the factory in detail and makes a case for the relevance and reinstatement of the building type today.
Guest curator Nina Rappaport has worked with a skilled team, including Studio Tractor Architects, MGMT Design, and filmmaker Eric Breitbart, to develop an exhibition that is small in terms of footprint but rewardingly dense with content. The show is an outgrowth of a graduate studio taught by Rappaport and architect Mike Tower at Parsons in the School of Constructed Environments in Fall 2006. The curatorial vantage point is grounded in Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command and Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis, two pioneering books with regard to architecture’s relationship to industry, and the exhibition itself reflects the tone of those volumes—a rather delighted relaying of unexpected discoveries. The factory, from Ruskin’s “satanic mill” to Volkswagen’s pristine car assembly plant in Dresden, is so decidedly interwoven with the history of modern architecture as to be inseparable. It is the interaction of engineering and architecture, however, that The Vertical Urban Factory explores.
The moving assembly line and the massive machine that houses it, the modern factory, became the unique American contribution that jumpstarted the modern era of mass consumption. The exhibition introduces key figures in this history like Oliver Evans, who in the late 1700s designed a fully-automated flour mill driven by water and gravity (a design that stands as the thesis statement of the American preoccupation with flow production); Frederick Winslow Taylor, the efficiency expert famous for his time and motion studies; and Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, early 20th-century industrial engineers who refined Taylor's initial investigations with an emphasis on psychology and worker satisfaction. Rappaport has also commemorated the mostly unsung engineers who made obsessions with speed, accuracy, and interchangeability into a working reality. One display case features the wooden implements of tool and die makers that were at the core of this effort, and archival footage throughout the exhibition demonstrates this idea of flow, with the final film juxtaposing images from the era of these modern factories with contemporary clips: Here is the literal image of flow, whether it be fabrics, automobiles, or milk products. It is a potent reminder that the ideal factory is never static.
The show is introduced by an extensive timeline—color-coded to emphasize key events in technology (harvest gold), evolving factory types (blue), and social issues (green)—that covers one wall. The exhibit unfolds in three sections under the headings “Modern,” “Contemporary,” and finally “New York City,” each section moving from the general to specific case studies that represent the evolving vertical urban factory.
The entry points to this history are of course spinning, weaving, milling, and their mechanization into an automated process demanding a new type of construction. Thus the exhibition on one level is an examination of the factory as an evolving architectural type taken from its origins to the present day. But it is far more than that, as it brings together the threads of technology, workflow, efficiency, manufacturing, factory architecture and the relevant social issues in a fact-rich but coherent manner that will appeal to a broad audience. The social issues surrounding the provision of adequate light, air, and hygiene for workers and the integration of the factory into the urban fabric were as much of a concern then as now. These initial, modern factories are organized at the periphery of the main exhibition space, while the displays of contemporary and proposed factories are shown on repurposed conveyor rollers at the center of the space (the original equipment was manufactured by the same company that equipped Highland Park). What emerges is that the modern factory is unsustainable because of its high-energy costs, impact on the environment, and the 1960s and 1970s saw a crisis develop that continues today. Finally, there is the contemporary factory as spectacle, such as the aforementioned Volkswagen assembly plant. But it is really the proposed reintegration of the vertical urban factory into its point of origin that is the point of the show.
In New York, these structures were influenced by the 1916 Zoning Law just as surely as the skyscraper was; manufacturing began to be isolated in neighborhoods largely along the waterfront thereafter. Until 1960, New York was still a manufacturing hub. Sadly, from the standpoint of the manufacturers themselves, the horizontal, shed-like factory has proven to be the cheapest solution to their problems, but not to the communities surrounding them. Unimaginably vast complexes in China housing hundreds of thousands of workers are today’s reality, and the Vertical Urban Factory proposes a vision of something smaller, local, and linked to the community rather than imposed upon it.
Almost every factory case study incorporates a commissioned model, well-researched with atypical photographs, archival footage, and artifacts that add a human-scale element. Some examples are very well known (the Fiat factory at Lingotto with its rooftop test track), while others are fairly obscure (Buckminster Fuller’s Vertical Cotton Mill, created with the design students of North Carolina State University in 1952). But there is a balanced amount of information given to each, and it is here that the research behind this exhibition shows.
The Vertical Urban Factory is not a universal solution; it would most strongly appeal to cities with vacant factories begging for reuse (NYC, Baltimore, Chicago). Such skilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs as provided in such factories have traditionally provided the leg up for the first generation of immigrants in these communities. This exhibition calls for this re-vision of the factory as being fully integrated with its community, while the Vertical Urban Factory itself is conceived of as self-sufficient to the degree possible in terms of generation of power, recycling, linkage to transportation networks, etc. The final wall is devoted to a historical examination of manufacturing in New York, and reminds us once again that this exhibition examines almost a century of material. This exhibition will be of interest to architects, historians, sociologists, and just about anyone involved in the future of cities; attendance should be required on the part of the New York City Council. It is also a testament to how potentially dull two-dimensional material can be enlivened with smart curatorial choices.