Vertical Urban Factory

Nina Rappaport is an architectural historian, critic, author and, most recently, curator of the exhibition Vertical Urban Factory. The installation, currently on view at the Skyscraper Museum, is the first phase of a broader project in which Rappaport is encouraging designers, developers and city residents to imagine creative ways to reintegrate industry into our urban fabric by capitalizing on the vertical density of cities.

Factories have taken advantage of the efficiencies of verticality for decades. Through her research, Rappaport analyzes the evolution of factory design and the impact of shifting economies and markets on how and where manufacturing spaces are built, and uses that history as a basis for exploration of contemporary trends and next steps, including how recent technological developments in cleaner manufacturing processes might allow for greater integration of all aspects of urban living. By engaging designers and planners in that conversation, she hopes that this will be a first step towards redefining and reinvigorating urban industry. -V.S.

Toni-Molkerei Factory, diagram of system processes, Zurich, 1974-76 | © A.E. Bosshard and H. Widmer

Toni-Molkerei Factory, diagram of system processes, Zurich, 1974-76 | © A.E. Bosshard and H. Widmer

In the future, cleaner and greener production methods could make vertical urban factories the new engines of urban revitalization, encouraging both economic growth and urban vitality as well as offering more sustainable solutions with production systems such as just-in-time manufacturing or increases in recycling. A missing part of the sustainable picture is where and how urban industry can contribute to new self-sufficient urban paradigms. With my ongoing project Vertical Urban Factory, the first phase of which is currently on view at the Skyscraper Museum, I want to provoke conversation about the demise of urban manufacturing and call on planners and architects to redefine and reimagine urban industry and its integration with city life.

Throughout architectural history, the factory has been a place of design innovation for engineers and architects, a typology that provided freedom to explore new material and spatial organization. Nineteenth century vertical urban factories capitalized on power resources of water and then steam, harnessing energy through mechanized systems and gravity conveyances. The proximity of labor, transportation hubs and entrepreneurial energy in dense urban clusters meant that raw materials could flow directly onto factory floors and assembled products could be distributed to local markets in an integrated, industrial, urban cycle.

Fiat Lingotto, roof test track, Turino, 1913-26 | Courtesy of Archivio e Centro Storico Fiat

Fiat Lingotto, roof test track, Turino, 1913-26 | Courtesy of Archivio e Centro Storico Fiat

As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, two main types of vertical factories dominated the urban landscape: the integrated and the layered. In the integrated factory, workers run the production flows from top to bottom, or vice versa, as components or raw goods are mixed, sorted or assembled, then carried by automated or gravity-feed conveyors or chutes. Examples include Albert Kahn’s design for Henry Ford’s 1909 Highland Park factory in Detroit and Giacomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Lingotto factory, in Turin, Italy.

The layered factory has separate stacked floors, occupied by one or more companies that share common areas and services such as lobbies, elevators and power. While the building is multi-storied, the processing may be on all floors, a single floor or gradually expand to other floors, as in the New York’s Garment District or the Starrett Lehigh Building loft spaces. Usually built as speculative properties, they are a resource for those who have smaller scale operations or less capital.

Ford Factory, Highland Park, Detroit, 1910 | © Albert Kahn Associates

Ford Factory, Highland Park, Detroit, 1910 | © Albert Kahn Associates

During WWII, demand for larger scale, horizontally-oriented operations increased, and these vertical types began to disappear. Factories were suddenly windowless, hermetically sealed spaces with air conditioning and blackout panels. Eventually, a global system of expansive highway networks, container shipping and standardized digital supply chains turned manufacturing into a widespread series of vast groundscrapers. Companies became sequestered in industrial districts, leaving vacant urban sites behind and taking jobs with them. The idea of the urban factory as a place that participated in the city became marginalized and segregated from popular notions of urban vibrancy. Industries continued to move further from their prime markets, shifting economies and production methods. Today, digital connections between consumers in retail spaces and the factory floor have resulted in mass-customization, transforming the traditional demand-supply circuit.

Large-scale industry, for the most part, has left cities. But, in spite of this spatial and economic shift, significant vertical urban factories have developed in the past ten years, all of which are seeds of ideas that can inspire us for the future. Three types of contemporary manufacturing spaces have emerged: the Spectacle, the Flexible and the Sustainable. The “spectacle” factory is iconic in design, often with the intent to represent a company brand. The VW Gläserne Manufaktur (The Transparent Factory) by Henn Architekten in Dresden (2001), for example, advertises its clean manufacturing processes through the transparency of its walls.

VW Gläserne Manufaktur (The Transparent Factory), Dresden | Courtesy of Henn Architekten

VW Gläserne Manufaktur (The Transparent Factory), Dresden | Courtesy of Henn Architekten

The “flexible” vertical urban factory, often located in existing loft spaces, is easily changeable to fit new machinery and adapt to economic flux. In Los Angeles, for example, American Apparel has reused former eight-story factories for their integrated vertical production line.

The “sustainable” vertical urban factory can perform multiple functions and integrates ecological building with a variety of manufacturing systems. The current redevelopment of hundreds of acres of the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a prime example of this type of urban industrial redevelopment project.

American Apparel factory | Courtesy of Jessica Varner. Photo by Yan Wang

American Apparel factory | Courtesy of Jessica Varner. Photo by Yan Wang

Cities offer valuable advantages for industrial sustainability. Density allows for shared resources that can support industrial symbiosis — one factory’s heat waste fuels another. Nano and biotech companies, such as those in the Bizkaia eco-industrial park in Bilbao and the new CleanTech corridor along the Los Angeles River, have formed clusters in industrial zones to use proximity to their benefit. Imagine the New York waterfront returning to its manufacturing strength as clusters of vertical factories, linked by water, high-speed elevated rail systems or overhead conveyances, become hubs of production and distribution.

But the benefits of urban factories exist across scale. Today’s urban industry requires a redefinition: to embrace smaller scale shops with highly-skilled labor, the production of niche goods, such as furniture, food, garments or high-tech products, and a collaborative environment where designers (who are often city dwellers) and fabricators work together on high-design items.

With rising costs of oil, manufacturers will need to produce locally to save money, a shift that will also help to limit CO2 emissions. Methods in industrial management, such as lean manufacturing, just-in-time production and cradle-to-cradle recycling, are beginning to reduce production waste. Goods made on demand, without stockpiled materials, allow for smaller, cleaner assembly plants, wherein workers can produce for a more dispersed network. With the advent of open-source manufacturing software, computer numerically-controlled-machines (CNC) and 3D printers, designers can quickly make prototypes and develop a product in small batches.

The vertical urban factory could be reinvented so that supply meets demand for space and is kept flexible for new and future economiesThe viability of vertical urban manufacturing in our postindustrial urban centers is challenged by rising land prices and must be encouraged through financial incentives and zoning adjustments. Neo-cottage industries could be located in new incubator buildings with government support. Local entrepreneurs with shared resources can operate out of existing loft spaces and former factories as a new production market. Industrial zoning should allow for taller, denser, diversified and performative, rather than prescriptive, development. The vertical urban factory could be reinvented so that supply meets demand for space and is kept flexible for new and future economies.

Besides its economic value, a factory has social value and the potential to be a welcome part of a community. It can engage and educate the public about manufacturing. It might circulate information about processes, elevating workers’ social and cultural significance and further influencing interest in local industry and branding, as has been done with various Brooklyn artisanal food companies. In an area such as the Garment District, windows could allow people to see factory production, like in the VW Dresden factory, and entice people to engage with the products being made, thus participating in the inner workings of the city.

Advancements in ecologically-responsible technology mean that clean manufacturing can exist adjacent to residential spaces, and that work and living can be hybridized in new ways. The architectural and urban issues addressing manufacturing in cities present not only an exciting design challenge of integrated systems, new fabrication technologies and emergent materials, but create a demand for new solutions. Vertical urban factories could produce energy rather than just consume it, and workers could recycle goods, rather than spew them out. This in turn would close the loop of making, consuming and recycling as part of a new urban spatial and economic paradigm.

Vertical Urban Factory, developed by Nina Rappaport and exhibited in its first phase in an installation designed by Mike Tower and Mark Kolodziejczak of Studio Tractor and Sarah Gephart of MGMT Design, is on display at the Skyscraper Museum through July 1. Images courtesy of the Skyscraper Museum and Nina Rappaport.

Buckminster Fuller, unbuilt automatic cotton mill, 1952 | Courtesy of North Carolina State University, College of Design. Photo by Ralph Mills.

Buckminster Fuller, unbuilt automatic cotton mill, 1952 | Courtesy of North Carolina State University, College of Design. Photo by Ralph Mills.

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Nina Rappaport is an architectural critic, curator, historian and educator. She is the publications director for the Yale School of Architecture, where she edits exhibition catalogs, books and the bi-annual magazine Constructs. She directs and curates the project Vertical Urban Factory, which includes an exhibition series, dialogues and a book with Actar Press. She teaches an urbanism seminar, Alternative Urbanism, in the Syracuse in New York City program and has previously taught at Parsons and Yale. She is author of the book Support and Resist: Structural Engineers and Design Innovation (Monacelli Press, 2007), and has written numerous essays on structural design and architecture, and on industrial architecture and the global industrial landscape for journals such as Acadia, Praxis, Perspecta, Scapes, 306090, Architectural Record, Architecture, Tec21, Metropolis, The Architect’s Newspaper and Deutsche Bauzeitung.

She has curated shows on architecture and photography, including an ongoing exhibition of the work of Ezra Stoller’s architectural and industrial photography at the 1050 K Street Galleries in Washington, D.C; “The Swiss Section,” a 2004 exhibition at the Van Alen Institute focusing on infrastructure; and she co-curated “Saving Corporate Modernism” at the Yale School of Architecture in 2001.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



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