Made in the U.S.A.?

A new exhibition on the American factory asks some provocative questions about the future.

Vertical Urban Factory

Skyscraper Museum

New York City

Last fall, I participated in a meeting organized by the National Trust
for Historic Preservation to discuss “Industrial Heritage.” The gathering was intended to nurture a strategy for preserving our nation’s decaying industrial leftovers. Lots of smart, determined preservationists were there, and I thought many of their pet projects were wonderful. I’m genuinely excited, for example, that a new national park is growing up around the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, site of our nation’s first manufacturing district. I was well aware that at this time last year, industrial production in the United States was still in a decadeslong swoon. So the idea that manufacturing was something we used to do—like making calls from phone booths or raising barns—was not off base. On the other hand, I found the entire exercise, discussing industry in terms of its historic-preservation implications, unbelievably depressing.

Then, two months ago, there was surprising news. The Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturing “has begun creating more jobs than it eliminates for the first time in more than a decade.” Automakers were hiring. And some companies were beginning to think that making things close to home wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Whirlpool, for example, decided to build a new U.S. plant, its first since the 1990s, in Cleveland, Tennessee, citing lower freight costs compared to manufacturing offshore and a disinclination to invest further in violence-ridden Mexico.

At the same moment, an inspiring new exhibition called Vertical Urban Factory opened at New York City’s Skyscraper Museum (it’s on view through June). Curated by the architectural historian Nina Rappaport, the exhibition struck me as timely, heartening, and prescient. The show is an outgrowth of Rappaport’s observation that “the factory has provided a place of design innovation for engineers and architects.” It traces the history of manufacturing in an urban setting and opens with a superb, color-coded, wall-size timeline (kudos to the show’s graphic designer, Sarah Gephart, of Mgmt. Design) outlining three centuries of major events, from cottage industry to mass customization.

The exhibit continues with examples of factories that have incorporated verticality into their flow. At the Albert Kahn–designed Highland Park Ford plant, from 1910, the assembly of Model Ts started on the top floor, and the finished cars rolled off the line at the bottom. By contrast, an amazing Fiat factory in Turin, Italy, designed by Giacomo Matte-Trucco and built from 1916 to 1923, initiated assembly on the ground floor; the finished vehicles were driven onto a spectacular rooftop test track. From there, the new Fiats cruised down a spiral ramp to street level. The exhibition showcases the classic Rotterdam modernist Van Nelle factory by Johannes Brinkman (now parceled out as rental office space) and the Claude and Duval textile factory in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s and still in use. The historical pageant ends with a wall devoted to New York City’s impressive industrial past.

But this is not just a heritage show. Rappaport declares at the outset that “this exhibition is not focused on adaptive reuse.” Her real agenda
is to highlight the return of industry as a subject for architects. While pictures of historic factories line the perimeter of the gallery, new factories, employing green technologies and sophisticated new approaches to materials, are displayed atop rows of old roller conveyers salvaged from a disused Long Island City factory. (The exhibition designer, Michael Tower and Mark Kolodziejczak, of Studio Tractor, is responsible for this bittersweet gesture.)

Admittedly, the sexiest examples of state-of-the-art factories are found abroad. VW’s 2001 “transparent factory,” which makes the luxurious Phaeton, is the most flamboyant. It sits just outside the center of Dresden, a glittering, $255 million investment in the economy of the former East Germany. Designed by Gunter Henn, the factory advertises the carmaker’s skills by turning manufacturing into theater. Anyone can book a tour, and customers can watch their own car being assembled. As the factory’s Web site immodestly explains, “As an alternative to anonymous mass production that indiscriminately churns out a product, we present an individually produced masterpiece.” It goes on to describe the choreographed quality of production, with “white-clad operators wearing gloves” performing what we’d think of as blue-collar work.

It’s a little bit over the top, but in a way, Volkswagen is doing exactly the thing that Rappaport advocates—bringing manufacturing back into public view and reconnecting it to a city and its people. She believes that U.S. factories, which first ran away to the suburbs and then moved further afield to Mexico and China, can now come home. Because manufacturing processes are cleaner and greener, they make better neighbors than they once did. “This is the other side of the sustainable movement,” Rappaport said recently. “People are so focused on growing vegetables and keeping bees on the roof. What about making things?”

It’s hard to imagine an American manufacturer investing tens of millions of dollars in industrial performance art, but some of the domestic examples suggest a desire to forge new connections between manufacturers and their surrounding communities. In New York’s premier industrial zone, the Brooklyn Navy Yard (which will open its first visitors’ center by the end of the year), the young, local architecture firm Super-Interesting! has been working closely with IceStone (which is known for manufacturing countertops from discarded glass) on improving its recycling operation and expanding it into an old warehouse with new, translucent polycarbonate skin. American Apparel (known for its dubious sexual politics and its problematic finances) hangs bold immigration-rights banners on the pair of early-20th-century industrial buildings in downtown Los Angeles where it manufactures its line of clothing.

Rappaport’s ambitions were hemmed in by the size and mission of her venue. For one thing, newer factories—like Philadelphia’s shiny, LEED-certified Tastykake plant—tend to be more horizontal than vertical, not lofty enough for display in the Skyscraper Museum. But what Rappaport really wanted was to stage an industrial invitational. She thought it would be exciting to ask some of today’s best architects to reimagine the urban factory. Sadly, the only sign of such speculative thinking is a spot at the end of the show where visitors are asked, “What type of factory can you imagine in your city or neighborhoods?” and
invited to draw their thoughts on a notepad.

Rappaport is on to something. There are clear connections between the mass-production-obsessed early modernists, for whom a factory was the perfect place to test new architectural methods, and today’s technologically adroit young architects. But now, the most interesting technology isn’t about asserting dominance; it’s about coexistence. Her show asks: How can we make taller, greener factories in cities? As I’m writing this, one answer arrives via a press release from the Copenhagen architecture firm BIG. It has just won a competition to design a massive waste-to-energy facility that makes Volkswagen’s see-through factory seem, by comparison, as old-fashioned as a Perth Amboy refinery. “The roof … is turned into a … ski slope of varying skill levels for the citizens of Copenhagen … mobilizing the architecture and redefining the relationship between the waste plant and the city.” An industrial facility as ski slope? Well, yeah. If nothing else, it’s an indication that facilities that communities once regarded as lepers are now considered as good neighbors or, at least, desirable destinations.

I’d love to see Rappaport’s industrial invitational happen. She’s hoping another museum will pick up the idea. But I’d also like to see an industrial census, as thoughtfully executed as this exhibition’s timeline wall, showing who’s currently making things in this country, what things they’re making, and where they’re making them. In President Obama’s State of the Union address, much of his rhetoric about “winning the future” was boilerplate, but his anecdote about Brandon Fisher, a drilling-equipment manufacturer from Berlin, Pennsylvania, who helped rescue the Chilean miners, got my attention. Fisher’s company, Center Rock, is exactly the kind of firm that an industrial census could bring to light. It’s important for us to see that innovation in this country is not limited to the creation of social-networking and discount-coupon Web sites. Knowing what we’re still capable of making can go a long way toward helping us understand that industry isn’t just our heritage.

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