Industry + Architecture: national narratives/international forces

By Anoma Pieris and Mirjana Lozanovska

This article has been accepted for publication in Fabrications, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 29: 2, 2019, 257-72. Published by Taylor & Francis.

Complex and mechanised, industrial architecture has altered the aesthetic and cultural landscape of places, contesting the normative divisions between structure, form and ornament and posing new challenges for architectural analyses. Industrialisation has modified our experience of urban and rural spaces evident in its continuing and residual affects. In exploring the nexus between industry and architecture, this editors’ issue of Fabrications examines the aesthetic, social and political impact of industrial processes, construction practices, labour and materials on built environments directly linked to industry. Technological innovation and labour systematisation and its particular uptake in the design and development of industrial complexes, especially as these paralleled the period of avant garde architectural movements, generate a pendulum swing for the framing of architectural historiography. From that dominated by objects and figures to a much less charted territory of global economies of manufacturing and standardisation, equally fuelling the momentum of modernisation. Our approach is guided, in part, by the seeming neglect of certain industrial sites and architectures, due to the inadequacy of our research methods and historiographical preferences. These lacunas have prompted a much broader framing than the design of industrial complexes, which may immediately come to mind.

This issue examines the role of industry in constructing and contesting both the surprising networks and the differential map of modernisation across the geopolitical world through examples from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Indonesia, USSR and USA. Histories of the industrial complexes and sites of these places uncover the colonial and transnational dimensions of industry and how its architecture impacted on local cultures and other unprivileged social environments that have evolved due to industry. While a major aspect of the architecture of industry is its use of forefront technologies and processes of manufacturing, how these processes were translated into and infiltrated everyday lives is yet to be comprehensively studied. A forum exploring the case study method as an important approach for uncovering these histories considers the legacy of industrial architecture and its heritage.

In their essay “Oil and Architecture” Abdulaziz Alshabib and Sam Ridgway use the history of the Dhahran Camp in Saudi Arabia to explore the ways in which American housing technologies penetrated and transformed local housing traditions through the gated communities built for expatriate expertise. They describe the prefabricated, factory-made houses erected in the American camp, and oil-related infrastructure as alien, technological incursions into the traditional Saudi world. The influence of these new imported technologies would gradually overtake traditional vernacular housing, dramatically altering Saudi residential architecture, towns, cities and suburbs.

Paul Walker and Amanda Achmadi expose how middle-class Australian tourism from the east coast to Southeast Asia was influenced by largely illusory representations of luxurious travel accommodation, and exotic places and architectures markedly different from onground realities. Their focus is on how, in advertising the East, well known shipping networks Burns Philp and KPM ignored the evident transformation of their Asian destinations through colonial industrialisation, urbanisation and trade. The authors’ particular focus is on BP Magazine and Walkabout, both periodicals instrumental in promoting a modernist understanding the Australian landscape, but seemingly not conveying similar colonial sensibilities in Asia, pervasive in the neighbouring Indonesian context.

David Beynon highlights the continuing neglect of non-Western immigrant histories within architectural historiography in his essay on early Chinese settlements in Australia. Dating from before the White Australia Policy, such settlements were not only integral to the nineteenth-century goldmining industry in, he argues, but also critical to the development of northern Australia. Beynon outlines the range of industries established by Chinese settlers such as market gardening, plantation agriculture, cabinetmaking and laundry industries, with architectural manifestations integral to Australia’s aesthetic and cultural landscape. The essay is both critical of the elision of such evidence, but also seeks to understand why it was left out.

The I-464 housing, a prefabricated system established in the USSR from the 1950s, was instrumental to the modernisation of housing and the lives of millions of people across the vast climates and geographical zones of the Soviet Union. By mapping the various organisations, departments, and processes of production Nikolay Erofeev elucidates the central role of architecture in the production of that modern socialist world, detailing how it both overlaps familiar industrial operations and its significant distinctions. Individual figures, especially Nikolai Rozanov, challenge mainstream perceptions of an incomprehensible bureaucracy. By examining how innovation was initiated in the peripheries in response to the local conditions, and the intense travel connecting the socialist world across borders and beyond the socialist world, Erofeev constructs a very different picture of architectural exchange mobilised by industry.

By navigating the unusual historical data of the architecture firm that produced a vast quantity of industrial complexes in the USA, founded by Albert Kahn in circa 1900, Claire Zimmerman offers a new approach to architectural historiography. Rather than critiquing the emphasis on the single object, single architect, aesthetic dimension, her paper provides the detail about why the exclusionary aspects of a canonical approach miss a vast and significant history of modernisation. The Kahn empire contextualised by the ‘second industrial revolution’ centred in North America, the car industry and its elite corporate networks, and the estranged aesthetic photographic recording of the construction of each Kahn/Ford factory, offers a compelling narrative and dialectic to heroic historiography. The Kahn firm, known as the ‘producer of the production line’ brings architectural discourse into direct participation with the corporeal economies of Fordism and Taylorism, as well as multinational capital that shaped not only economies, but nations as well.

Against the toughness of the essays on industrial architecture contained in this themed issue, Viktorija Bogdanova’s ‘open’ essay reminds architectural historians of their positioning through the specific question of ‘weakness.’ This question is elaborated through an understanding of three aspects via three creative works – Morales’s weak architecture, filmmaker Tarkovsky’s weak ‘man’, and philosopher, Vattimo’s weak thought. The layered and poetic reflection of this essay challenges the strategic approach to writing history. Putting forward the concept of the ‘mosaic of time’ and its potential multiplicity, distinct from the ‘montage of time’ the essay offers readers alternative approaches to writing plural histories.

Many reports and reviews in this issue focus on the theme of Industry. The Forum, Industrial sites and immigrant architectures, has invited key scholars working in this area to examine the case study approach. Would the historical analysis of developments in a specific industrial site, involving migrants as residents or labour, create historiographical opportunities for including industrial architecture, it asks. The contributors, Alexandra Dellios, Renee Miller-Yeaman, David Beynon, Erik Eklund, and Richard Tuffin, led by the editors, Anoma Pieris and Mirjana Lozanovska, each make the case for a specific site or group of sites that has absorbed their interest. The forum serves as a possible model for expanding the disciplinary scope of studies in this largely neglected topic.

Both the reports on “Victoria’s Silo Art Trail” and “Eric Peris’ The Tin Min Landscapes” focus on how abandoned industrial heritage can be highlighted and mediated by art practice. The silo artwork at Brim, featured on the front cover, shows a quartet of farmers: two elderly men, an elderly woman and a young man. The Brisbane-based artist Guido van Helten hoped to convey the resilience of those who persisted in a drought-stricken and depopulated farming community. The grain silos were decommissioned in 2013, displaced by the galvanised steel silos you see adjacent. While the art works draw attention to the plight of Victorian farmers, the adaptive reuse of the abandoned rural structures have not been explored. Urban silos have attracted developers of luxury apartments; in Baltimore in Copenhagen, or in the proposal for the heritage-listed Richmond Nylex Plastics site (made famous by Paul Kelly's song Leaps and Bounds) – but those in regional Victoria have not mobilised architects. Similarly, “Eric Peris’ The Tin Min Landscapes”, examples of which are included, offers evocative images of Malaysia’s abandoned tin mines. The artist’s eye redeems the disparaged landscape, reminding us of the contributions of colonial period Chinese migrant labour to an industry that underwrote the fortunes of Selangor and Perak. This issue also features two reports on MOMA exhibitions, “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia” and “MoMA at NGV, 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art”.

Four book reviews focus on this issue’s theme: Prefab Housing and the Future of Building: Product to Process by Mathew Aitchison (2018), Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress, and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity by Kah Wee Lee (2019), including two anthologies: Laboratory Lifestyles: The Construction of Scientific Fictions edited by Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, Chris L. Smith and Russell Hughesi (2019) and Industrial Heritage and Regional Identities edited by Christian Wicke, Stefan Berger and Jana Golombek (2018).

Three further reviews are included: A History of Architecture and Trade edited by Patrick Haughey (2018), Women Architects in the Modern Movement by Carmen Espegel (trans. 2006), and Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture, and the Body edited by Sarah Schrank and Didem Ekici (2016).