March 2, 2011

At The Skyscraper Museum: Vertical Urban Factory

According to the instructive exhibition, Vertical Urban Factory, on exhibit through June at The Skyscraper Museum, thousands of factories and hundreds of thousands of factory workers once kept New York City humming to the sound of machines. In our day, those numbers have considerably dwindled. The enormous shift from a roaring manufacturing city that made, shaped, or assembled material goods to a high-tech city that creates and manipulates symbols constitutes one of those most important undercurrents in the contemporary life of the city.

Tall buildings that once housed teams of workers running integrated factories now accommodate fashion designers, artists, public relations professionals, and digital entrepreneurs. As factory production shifts overseas, most notably to China where urbanization is hurrying along at breakneck speed, New Yorkers must explore the possibilities of creating new types of sustainable industry within the city. Vertical Urban Factory, curated by architectural historian and critic Nina Rappaport, explores the architectural designs of past and present city factories to address these challenges.

The exhibit looks at examples of vertical factories of the past and future, including in Fiat Lingotto in Turin, Italy, 1916-23; company towns, represented by Bat'a in Czechoslovakia, 1923-39; the curved glass of the Van Nelle coffee, tea, and tobacco factory in Rotterdam, 1925-31; Sainsbury's, a grocery business in London, 1934-36; Corbusier's modular Claude & Duval factory France, 1946-51; and Buckminster Fuller's dome design for a vertical cotton mill, unrealized from the early 1950s. The factory exhibits are complemented by a thorough timeline of urbanization and industrialization, contemporary plans for new sustainable factories exhibited on stilled conveyor belts, and filmmaker Eric Breitbart's effective compilations of factory work moving images.

Remember when The New York Times printed out the paper in the same building that housed its writers, editors, and ad people? That practice ended in 1997, and the printing moving to an automated production process in a rather stunning building in College Point, Queens. In addition to the newspaper, the city is well-represented here, including several references to the Garment District, the transformation of the National Biscuit Company building into the Chelsea Market, and the old Studebaker plant in Manhattanville at 615 W. 131st St., the Domino Sugar Plant, the enormous Starrett-Lehigh Building on the west side, and the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens and its company town. There are many more examples of what made New York work.

After leaving the exhibition space be sure to check out the museum's other offerings, including the three wall-size photographs of a changing downtown. Look at the waterfront in the picture from August 1956, and observe the many piers. Those finger piers, representing the old New York that once made goods, loaded them on boats and shipped them out to the world, were quickly becoming obsolete. The piers are gone now, by and large, though a few of them have been renovated for the recreational uses of New York’s new creative class. There’s much to read between the lines of Vertical Urban Factory. In a city of loss, it explains about everything.

The Skyscraper Museum is located at 39 Battery Place, New York, NY. Museum hours are 12 - 6 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. General admission is $5, $2.50 for students and seniors. The exhibit is enhanced by a conversation series, onsite tours of factories, and a virtual walkthrough via the museum's website.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

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