Monuments to Modernism
Quotidian buildings for industry and infrastructure can turn out to be great architecture.
Industrial buildings and infrastructure aren’t sexy. Too many workhorses of the built environment—transportation hubs and factories, power plants and warehouses—are built to get the job done, not to win beauty contests. But as we all know, much of the industrial architecture that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expressed the most powerful and innovative ideas of modernism—exposing structural systems; pushing the limits of technology in steel, concrete, and glass; bringing in daylight—as their immense, dramatic forms muscled their way into rapidly changing cities and beyond.
The early editors of Architectural Record, going back nearly 125 years to the magazine’s founding, frequently covered this building type. At the turn of the 20th century, RECORD explored the new, improved methods of reinforced-concrete construction in factory buildings; in 1914, the critic Montgomery Schuyler extolled what may be the first corporate park in the U.S., General Electric’s sprawling headquarters in Cleveland, with its factory-like laboratory building and its own power plant with towering chimney. Schuyler called the Georgian-style architecture “a shining success” that had “the best brickwork this side of the water.” Into the 1920s, RECORD regularly visited new industrial structures by such giants as Albert Kahn, with his work for Ford, Goodrich, and other manufacturers. The editors also looked to the other side of the water for influential industrial architecture in Europe, including the Van Nelle Factory by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt in Rotterdam and the Boots factory in England, by Sir E. Owen Williams.
In this issue of RECORD, the critic Kenneth Frampton takes a fresh look at the significance of those two archetypal structures, which both employed bold concrete mushroom-column construction and floor-to-ceiling glazed curtain walls with cleaning tracks. Both buildings are standing, and the Boots factory is still in use by the British drugstore company. But the Van Nelle, which once packaged tea, coffee, and tobacco, now, like so many former factories and warehouses, has been accommodated for a new use. Indeed, many industrial behemoths that haven’t been razed or left to deteriorate are being adapted into tech incubators, spaces for artists, or developed as condos. In Berlin, the legendary Tempelhof airport, with its immense modernist main terminal, has most recently become temporary housing for Middle East refugees.
But what about the infrastructure and industrial architecture of today? Though manufacturing jobs are slightly on the rise in the U.S., there’s no appetite to build facilities at the scale of last century’s sprawling complexes—apart from such vast digital-technology workplaces as Facebook’s new home in Menlo Park, California, by Frank Gehry (RECORD, August 2015) or Apple’s humongous doughnut-shaped headquarters, also in Silicon Valley, by Foster + Partners, still under construction.
And while some presidential candidates are decrying America’s crumbling infrastructure, we can point to a few exemplary exceptions, particularly in urban transit, including New York’s newest subway station.
In addition, recent initiatives in sustainability are creating a demand for new kinds of infrastructure. In this issue, for example, we look at the handsome chiller plant on the Ohio State University campus by Leers Weinzapfel Associates, as well as the green energy facility at Stanford by ZGF, which has become a campus amenity. A stunning sanitation building and sculptural salt shed in New York by Dattner Architects and WXY demonstrate that the most mundane municipal infrastructure can enrich the cityscape. And looking to the other side of the water once more, we could not resist publishing the curvaceous cruise-ship terminal in Porto, Portugal, by Luís Pedro Silva—so elegant that passengers may never want to leave shore. It’s a work of infrastructure, dare we say it, that could actually be called sexy.