the physical and social infrastructures of an obsolete steel industry
THE PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURES OF AN OBSOLETE STEEL INDUSTRY
Although we have seen dramatic improvements in the production efficiency, product diversity, and pollution control within manufacturing industries over the last 100 years, the functional separation of uses demanded by modern planning has slowly pushed the industrial factory out of the city. No longer fronted with the indispensable, educational, and often grotesque mechanics of a city, we have become disassociated from the things we eat, drive, and wear.
Aided by prolific architect Albert Kahn, changes in modern manufacturing began at the beginning of the twentieth century with Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly-line. Kahn translated Ford’s ideas into reality by perfecting the design of the modern factory - a massive concrete structure with a moving assembly line which supported the mass-production of vehicles. Reminiscent of a fortress, Kahn’s modernist factory was hard, robust, and relentlessly predictable. Surrounded by locked gates, it sprawled across the landscape and stood unapologetic for its functional aesthetic.
Although the modernist industrial era in North America has almost completely been superseded by the age of information, contemporary society continues to rely on the extraction of natural resources and the manufacturing of goods to create advanced infrastructure and new products. In response to the economic shift, older industries have adjusted to the demands of today, some dying and others adapting - as the notable sociologist Daniel Bell claimed, “like palimpsests, the new developments [of the information age] overlie the previous layers, erasing some features and thickening the texture of society as a whole.”
Factories, plants, mills, and shops continue to occupy massive areas of land within cities but are often hidden away on industrial land at the fringes of the metropolitan fabric. Behind closed doors or barely visible between the gaps in a chain link fence, raw resources and agricultural products are imported, transformed, packaged, and tactfully sent to their next destination without anyone to witness these often dramatic processes. This investigation counters the current belief that the dirty, grotesque, functional inner-workings of a city must be must be concealed from public view. In contrast, this proposal suggests that the urban factory offers opportunities for city dwellers to learn how their possessions are made, where they come from, and most importantly, engage with the dramatic spectacle of contemporary manufacturing. As a result, this research will investigate the urban factory typology, specifically focusing on the potentials for public engagement with the production of local goods.
Several of the research ideas noted above were explored in my recent thesis which investigated Hamilton, Ontario’s bankrupt waterfront steel mill, Stelco, and proposed to adapt its outdated business strategy. The 100 year-old Stelco Steel mill, which is deeply ingrained in the cultural identify of Hamilton, sits cut off from the city physically through fencing barriers and conceptually through distance and land use separation. In response, the proposal outlined a phased approach for the steel mill to become a steel recycling centre and to develop a technical & trade school within the obsolete infrastructural fabric of the old plant. The massive area of waterfront land that was left contaminated and strategically undeveloped was then turned into a public landscape park which allowed patrons to visually connect with the steel recycling process and access the previously private waterfront.
Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-industrial Society (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), 218.