A 'Vertical' Future for the Urban Factory

A traveling exhibition imagines a minor renaissance of urban manufacturing that's greener, cleaner, and more efficient.

Image
Corine Vermeulen, MOCAD

If the question is "belching smokestack?" the answer is almost undoubtedly "not in my back yard." The factory is maybe the least enticing of all neighbors, and yet it has been so important to the development of nations and cities. So while the industrial revolution brought countless factories and their plentiful jobs into cities, those same cities eventually got tired of their negative, sooty externalities. Zoning quartered them off into their own little corner of the city, and a long list of other conditions – from racial tensions to union squabbling to the migration of workers to looser regulations – eventually pushed many of these factories beyond the borders of cities and out into the exurbs or overseas.

A new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit tells the story of the urban factories left behind, and how this city may once again become home to a vibrant collection of manufacturing centers.

"Vertical Urban Factory," which runs through July 29, sees this urban future of manufacturing largely in its urban past. Through a detailed and architecturally-focused history, the exhibit tracks the urban roots of the factory, highlighting its role in developing the economies and cultures of places.

"The factory contributes to the city both in terms of sources of labor, places for people to work, but also as a kind of vital space where things are being made and things are happening," says curator Nina Rappaport.

This show was originally shown in New York City in early 2011. For Rappaport, taking it to Detroit was an obvious step. In September, it will move on to the Toronto Design Exchange. As it did in Detroit, the Toronto version will add a new section featuring factories from that city, such as old breweries and distilleries and the sugar refinery that's still operating there. The now-decaying 1922 Packard automotive plant in Detroit, the 1926 Fiat factory in Turin, Italy, and the 2006 Volkswagen factory in Dresden, Germany, all make appearances. By showing examples of both old and currently operating urban factories, Rappaport tries to remind us that manufacturing still has a place in modern cities.

"One of the things that's so frustrating is that many urban mayors think that nothing's being made in cities anymore," says Rappaport. "There's thousands of factories in New York. And hundreds in Chicago and Detroit. They're still there."

Rappaport points to examples like the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park, a former shipbuilding facility that's now home to a variety of manufacturing businesses, including furniture makers, lighting fixture manufacturers and fire sprinkler fabricators. There's also the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, a former automotive manufacturing plant that's now home to various craftspeople, makers and small businesses.

These businesses are clearly not the shipbuilders and car frame makers of the past, which is part of Rappaport's point. Manufacturing today is happening on a variety of scales, and many of the smaller operations can fit right in some of these old factory spaces without becoming a burden on the surrounding city. The soot of the past is no longer a problem.

"Factories can be in cities because they're cleaner and greener. We don't need as large a scale spaces as we used to, so spaces can be divided up so that there's room for industrial symbiosis," says Rappaport. "Most of the factories in cities are assembly plants. They're not belching smokestacks."

And this is part of why Rappaport stresses the "vertical" part of "Vertical Urban Factory." Because the manufacturers of today need less room, there's more potential for them to pile into the same space. The exhibition proposes an urban factory that integrates its building systems to enable the multiple manufacturers within it to save resources or reuse the wastes of their neighbors. Rappaport envisions a factory within the city that not only accommodates the smaller-scale manufacturers of today but also engenders a new crop of manufacturing businesses that don't have to look outside of the city to make it. Nothing like what she's suggesting exists today, but she argues that architects and planners and engineers could potentially create such conditions where manufacturing thrives again in the city.

"There are very few new factories being built in the U.S. in cities right now. More on the edges or overseas," says Rappaport. "That’s my next project. I really want to have architects thinking about the factory of the future."

Photo credit: Corine Vermeulen, courtesy of MOCAD

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.