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Factory cities of the future

Charles Holland

Charles Holland traces the evolution of the industrial utopia, from Ledoux’s Salines Royales via Bournville to the Burning Man festival where citizens produce nothing but fun

Industrial utopias: Ledoux, Boullee, Bata, Olivetti.
Industrial utopias: Ledoux, Boullee, Bata, Olivetti. Credit: Charles Holland

The visionary 18th century architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux began work on his design for an ideal city in the far from ideal circumstances of a prison cell. Jailed during the French revolution for fraternising with the aristocracy, Ledoux used his time behind bars to develop the City of Chaux, an imaginary project developed from a real one: Les Salines Royales (the Royal Saltworks) in eastern France.

Les Salines Royales, begun in the 1770s, was planned around the production of salt, an important commodity in 18th century Europe. It comprised a semi-circular space around which were deployed the various functions of salt making plus houses for the director and workers. It was a prototype for the industrial city, a place predicated around a single form of production.

Ledoux’s vision for Chaux mirrored Les Salines Royales to form a full circle, adding palatial new villas for managers as well public buildings including a hospital, a market place and cemetery. The individual buildings he designed have the quality of giant chess pieces, abstracted neoclassical architecture employing a highly literal symbolism: foundries shaped like funnels, a ‘house of pleasure’ with the plan of a phallus and a cemetery depicted as a spherical representation of the Earth floating among celestial clouds. 

Chaux predates a history of industrial villages and factory towns that emerged during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the UK, French rationalist zeal was replaced by a combination of Victorian entrepreneurship and religious reformism to develop places like Port Sunlight (1888) and Bournville (1893), philanthropic factory towns dedicated to a single industry where workers would be housed and educated.

Bournville, with its arts and crafts architecture and genteel public gardens, is a long way from Ledoux’s wild imaginings. Hierarchies between managers and workers are preserved in relation to the size and placement of individual dwellings but, as befitting a town designed by Quakers, there were – at least until recently – no pubs and certainly no penis-shaped brothels.

Other factory towns such as Silver End (1926) and the Bata estate in East Tilbury (1932) – both in Essex – followed. The Crittal window company built Silver End not only to house its workers but to advertise its product. A more ambitious version of this fusion of urban planning and industrial design was realised in Ivrea, an Italian hill town outside Turin developed by the Olivetti Company from the 1930s onwards. The company’s head, Adriano Olivetti, was committed to making what he called a Human City, one where there was ‘harmony between private and public life, between work and the home’.

But there is an obvious problem with towns based on a single industry: what happens when that industry fails? Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was Fortlandia, a city planned by Henry Ford in the mid-1920s in the Amazon basin to extract rubber for car tyres. If the gentle paternalism of a town like Bournville seemed over-controlling, it was nothing compared with the conditions of Ford’s vast planned community for a projected 10,000 people. Alcohol, tobacco, sex and even football were outlawed while Brazilian and American workers were segregated.

Fordlandia didn’t last long. Both the rubber trees and the workers succumbed to disease. There were rebellions over conditions and the city was abandoned by 1934. Fordlandia’s failure and subsequent ruination is an extreme example, but most factory towns succumb to this fate. Visit East Tilbury today and you will find a place largely without purpose, the factory buildings empty and the social hubs and community centres either demolished or converted to other uses. Even Ivrea has gone into decline following the breaking up of the Olivetti empire. Industries change, factories close and economies move on. For Ledoux, it happened before Les Salines Royales was fully completed, leaving his plans for an expanded version dead in the water.

In our current world of digital dispersal and precarious employment, the certainties of planning a factory or an industrial town seem very distant, available only to developing economies like China and even then perhaps not for much longer. Which begs a question: how do we plan towns around employment when employment is increasingly flexible? In a situation where people can live anywhere in relation to work, where do we build places to live? And what about towns in a post-work economy?

Architectural theorist Jon Goodbun has been considering this question in relation to the Burning Man festival that takes place every year in Black Rock, USA. Funded partly by Silicone Valley’s tech companies, Goodbun sees Burning Man as an exercise in post-work city planning, a hedonistic utopia with its own gift-based economy and means of (post) production. It even resembles idealised cities of the past including Ledoux’s plan for Chaux, a perfect circle of people busy producing nothing but fun: the post-post-industrial city.