To those outside the realm of design and architecture, industrial buildings rarely receive a second glance. Industrial buildings today are constructed purely for purpose — to store grain and shelter livestock or protect sand and salt from the weather, among other utilitarian intents. Typically large and lifeless, they are situated in landscape with disregard of surrounding design elements, natural or otherwise. Yet, it is this very brashness that makes industrial buildings at once so uninteresting and so utterly fascinating. Has industrial architecture always been so boldly bland, and are industrial buildings cursed to be this way forever?
Advances in technology have served to drastically alter the human experience through the course of our existence, and the most recent revolution of industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries certainly transformed the look and feel of architecture — if not every other aspect of the Western lifestyle. Certain developments in technology and organization, like steam- and coal-powered machines as well as precise factory lines, made urban industry dramatically more profitable for industry leaders and laborers alike, and large industry-devoted buildings became absolutely necessary. Prior to the 1800s, ornate, permanent architecture was primarily devoted to ecclesiastical, military, and public use — imagine grand cathedrals, broad fortresses, and austere city halls — but with the rise of large-scale industrial efforts, architects were faced with a new challenge. Thus, the Industrial Revolution brought about the rise in fantastical industrial architecture.
Initial industrial buildings of the late 18th and 19th centuries simply filled the need for functional industrial housing: rectangular, built of brick or stone, with wooden roofs and bare plaster interior walls, like the Strutt and Need factory in Derbyshire, England erected in 1771. Only occasionally were decorative elements included, and then, they were simple and classic. Slowly, as the 19th century brought about new construction materials, like metal and concrete, architects began experimenting with layout and exterior design, not only improving the look and feel of the buildings (as larger windows brought in more natural light) but also increasing production significantly. Some architects even began to attempt artistic industrial buildings, like the Menier Chocolate Works in Noisiel, France, which boasts an exposed metal frame for a decorative façade. Industrial buildings only continued to become more complex and intriguing until the 20th century, when industrial architecture came to a head.
As artistry crept into the architecture of industry, daring architects pushed the boundaries of building design. Modernism in the early 20th century naturally followed out of the importance of industrial architecture; the motto “form follows function” employed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other prominent modernists integrated perfectly with the necessities of industrial buildings. The simplification of decoration and presentation of structure inherent in the modern style lead industrial design for decades, morphing into other architectural styles, like international style and brutalism.
Plenty of architecture historians argue successfully that industrial buildings of the early and middle 20th century strongly influenced the direction of overall architecture trends for the modern era. Industrial buildings became the architectural highlights of urban centers and influenced the look of residential streets surrounding them. Architects were often contracted to design not only the factory itself, but also the dwellings for the factory workers, meaning entire city blocks became dedicated to cohesive housing developments, replete with recreational spaces, public buildings, and more. Thus, industrial architecture came to inform architecture as a whole for much of the 1900s.
While many of the influential industrial buildings of the 20th century still stand, many of them no longer serve as functional spaces for industry. Eventually, functional industrial architecture became less lucrative, and architects drew inspiration from other phenomena and aspects of culture. Plus, as manufacturing as become more and more mechanized, companies have done largely done away with expensive aesthetics like windows in favor of cheap, quick structures that will protect machines from the natural elements.
However, as our culture begins to become more conscious of architecture’s impact on the natural environment, we may see another shift in industrial building design. Progressive architects are looking to create buildings of all types that are environmentally friendly, and industrial buildings (which historically have not have had excellent environmental report cards) are at the forefront for change. More sustainable structure options, like fabric buildings, are popping up throughout the industrial sector, and some architects, like those in the following section, are challenging how we view industrial architecture in this day and age.
Some of the best architects are working hard to create eco-friendly industrial architecture, especially out of the remnants of industrial buildings from the past. Here are three of today’s most impressive industrial architectural feats.
Battersea Power Station. London’s most iconic industrial building is in the process of receiving a much-needed facelift that will transform this dirty, coal-fired power station into a renewable energy plant replete with carbon-neutral apartments, offices, and recreational areas.
Marmelo Mill. Designed to be the largest olive oil press in Portugal, Marmelo is functional (as close as possible to the growing olive trees) and beautiful, with brightly lit cantilevered structures to protect workers from the elements.
CTRV. This Spanish waste treatment facility works to counteract previous unsustainable practices and relies entirely on water and energy collected by the plant itself — on top of the fact that it is absolutely stunning inside and out.
Strutt’s North Mill image by summonedbyfells from Flickr