I’m passionate about factories. They are often weird or ugly on the outside but inside there’s an exciting buzz related to each production process. For me these factories are unacclaimed monuments. They scarcely pretend to be anything other than functional structures built to produce a certain product. Without embarrassment or fuss they reflect the time in which they were founded. The fact that many of them will never win a beauty contest doesn’t put me off in the slightest.

The first factories in England emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Take the Linotype factory as an example. This factory is located on a hill in a typically English landscape. The different buildings were designed as nineteenth-century patriarchal castles and have been maintained meticulously. Nothing discloses the fact that we are dealing with a factory here. There seems to be no trace of heavy labour, trucks or other signs of industrial activity. Huge lawns link the different buildings and there’s even a cricket field for the workmen. Linotype mainly produce machines for printers, assembling them in relatively small rooms. Each labourer is given responsibility for the production of a single machine from start to finish, allowing him to develop a genuine involvement in the manufacturing process. You could actually speak about a collection of workshops. The heavy pieces of cast iron and innumerable mechanical parts that are produced elsewhere are neatly ordered here. The machines themselves seem to be indestructible. The factory emanates an air of quietness and thorough craftsmanship. It seems to rely on old traditions that don’t need changing.

In contrast, factories that were founded at the beginning of this century evoke an image of high production, hard work, neglect and filthiness. It doesn’t seem to matter what the building looks like. High buildings, often with sawtooth roofs, appear neglected, their interiors messy and unpainted.

A penetrating sickly smell welcomes you, even before you actually catch sight of the chamois-leather factory. Its façade is a mess – an ill-defined hall, a porter’s lodge in front of an old and dilapidated brick building and an office with the name of the factory in thick black letters on the façade. In the front yard there are wooden crates and barrels containing brined sheep skins used in the production of chamois leather.
The interior of the building is filthy – rusty machines on the verge of giving up, water everywhere. The skins are washed, put in chemical baths to make them swell and then split in two. The chemicals and water slowly corrode the machines. The workers wear dark blue overalls with shiny rubber aprons and Wellington boots. In the back of the hall, gigantic vessels mix the skins with train-oil, the source of the sickly smell permeating the entire building. With the combination of product, noise, people and the seemingly neglected surroundings, this factory makes you feel like you have been transported back to 1923 – when actually it is 1983 and the machines are computer controlled. So much for romance.
In separate dry spaces, the end product is chafed and sorted according to size and quality. The place is full of dust-covered workmen and of piles of chamois leather. Here you immediately forget the smell and the dirt. The chamois has a beautiful light yellow colour and feels as soft as a baby’s bottom. The nauseating smell has made way for a sweet one that tempts the nostrils. The huge quantity of a single product does evoke some sort of romance. Much of the same is always appealing.

A brick factory is completely different. Because of the clay it is always located near a river and resembles an automated farm. From a distance, its low buildings look like barns and sheds. In the centre there is a huge open court where bricks on pallets are waiting for transport. An old dragline stands alone in the landscape, digging up the clay. A small train then brings the clay to a large mixer. The clay is squeezed into moulds and set to dry in one of the buildings. These buildings are open on all sides, allowing the wind to dry the clay into bricks. The many air holes in the walls create a secretive, dusky atmosphere.
The dried clay is taken out of the moulds after two or three weeks and the bricks are then put into one of six ovens. They are low, narrow, and very deep. The whole site is very rural. Few labourers and a simple process. I can imagine that these factories will be exactly the same in a hundred years. Timeless.

The soap factory is located in a non-descript building. Nothing about the production process can be read from its exterior. The buildings are commonplace structures and inside it is not immediately clear how the process works. There appears to be no logical order to the different steps.
The building is divided into two sections. One is a laboratory where the smells, colours and shapes of the soap bars are determined. There is the usual series of test-tubes, bottles, bowls and shelves for chemicals, essences and pigments being tended by a few people in white coats. The other section is the actual factory. Three huge halls are interconnected. You see a maze of pipes everywhere. The basic ingredient is oil that has been prepared in the refinery and looks like flakes of fat. Large amounts of flakes are mixed in big tubs and then fed through pipes to other tubs, where different treatments take place. Eventually the mass ends up as a thick paste on a conveyor belt, where it is squeezed into moulds and made ready for packing. The left-overs of the soap around the moulds travel through half the factory to be re-inserted back at the beginning of the process. A few labourers operate machines or control what happens along the conveyor belt. It’s all quite boring and the product only seduces when used. It seems as if this factory is nothing more than a tool that has been standing outside for too long – rusty but still working.

Only in the sixties, with the increase of prosperity, do factories get cleaner and posher. They become neatly painted, with a fountain in front of the main entrance. The ‘turd in the plaza’ is introduced slightly later.
What is most surprising is that the actual factory buildings change. The typical sawtooth roof disappears, along with their regulation height. Until the sixties you could still see the working parts of cars, trams and many other pieces of equipment. Nowadays these same parts are hidden behind protective shields, or covered in aerodynamic shapes. Something similar has happens to factories. Machines are hidden behind colourful façades and people are unrecognisable in anti-dust clothing. Visiting a factory has become more difficult as well. Supposedly secret formulas, processes and tricks are kept behind locked doors for fear of the competition.

Modern factories have been unable to resist the threatening tendency to standardization. They all now look the same. Throughout Europe you can see the same boring, grey boxes along the motorways. Every company has its own standard design with red or blue window sills and lots of dark glass in the office area. Standardization supposedly serves our convenience but I can’t believe it was meant to lead to this all encompassing uniformity. It is very difficult to get hold of material that does not fit the standard measures. A steel bar with an irregular size or diameter can only be obtained if ordered in vast quantities and at a high price. You’re being punished for wanting something out of the ordinary.
The romance of our industrial heritage has been rudely disturbed by this phenomenon. The era of the palaces of production has gone. A different time has emerged, led by ergonomics, efficiency and sustainability. There seems to be less need for certain products, particularly from heavy industry. Ship yards, steel factories and coal mines have all disappeared. Here and there photographers try to hold on to these pieces of history, usually out of nostalgia.
In Duisburg, in the heart of the German Ruhr area, something else has happened. A steel factory that went bankrupt has been turned into a park without demolishing any of its buildings. The huge towers, the unfamiliar heavy machines, the cooling vessels, rail connections and hangars have all been declared sculptures in the landscape. The entire area has been planted with trees supported by two rusty iron beams instead of the wooden poles that usually prop up young saplings. The designers of this park have been very conscious of the quality and beauty of the surrounding industrial heritage. They have created a park in which the steel and iron ruins have been respected. You are allowed to walk everywhere, every building or hall accessible. It’s impressive.
Eighty-one cast iron tiles each 5 metres square form an immense floor. The plants that surround it, serve as a border for this huge ‘iron lawn’. It’s difficult to imagine that this was built by human hands.
In the hangars you can still see the mountain of electrical wiring. One pipe here is equivalent to 100 pipes elsewhere, the scale is simply incomprehensible. The same goes for the buildings. They are so complex because of the enormous amount of mechanical machinery they contain. It is even difficult to determine their contours, they look like enlarged pieces of coral.
One pair of eyes is not enough.
In the centre of the park is a 60 metre tower from which you can see the entire layout. The tower, filled with machinery, is a museum in itself. As a visitor you now have access to areas where previously only workers were allowed. You have a fabulous outlook over the iron maze of decayed glory beyond which is a panoramic view of the entire region.
The only thing you miss is the sound of clanking machines – a silence made more apparent by the loud singing of birds.
The trees are not yet grown but I can imagine what this park will look like in twenty years, when the trees will compete with the huge iron structures that in turn will become sculptures that support and decorate nature. Maybe this ‘garden’ will eventually turn into a new unplanned Generalife.
In one of the halls, where the steel was actually cast, the floor is now the stage of a simple open air theatre. The only thing that has been added is a concrete terrace and some theatre lights. You experience it as if you were sitting in another Colosseum. This park is on a par with the remains of any Greek or Roman monument. The only difference is that history has been fast forwarded. The factory is potentially a huge folly in the landscape. It could easily be mistaken for a work of Piranesi, an addition to the wonders of the world. The only difference is time.
Less than three years ago, the machines were finally brought to a halt, and already the park is a world monument. It doesn’t seem like a sad memorial to a lost heritage because something extra has been added. It is as if the decision to turn this place into a park has created the necessary distance to be able to perceive the site as a monument after only three years. The time usually necessary to have something declared a monument has evaporated. There seems to be no time between anymore. The end of an era merges with its revaluation.