Unpacking our global fascination with industrial design
When Oliver Twist arrived in London, his vision was clouded by dark smoke billowing from sky-high chimneys. Fast-forward nearly two centuries and it is safe to say that the Dickensian hero wouldn’t believe his eyes if he fell down the chimney of a current-day, London factory conversion – to find anything but the scenario he would expect.
If grim Dickensian images of assembly lines are still predictable inside industrial buildings in many places, London and most post-industrial cities present a very different interpretation. As the economy shifted from production-centred to the digital, information age we live in, factories moved away from the city centres and into suburban areas or, in many cases, different countries.
In North America, and to a lesser extent in Europe, the dream of a detached home and green space exacerbated the dereliction of working-class neighbourhoods during the deindustrialisation of many cities in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. “The middle class fled the city centres as they became overcrowded and increasingly associated with social problems such as crime and drugs, and the building of highway networks made it possible to live further and further away from where you worked”, says Steven High, Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. “On the other hand, the opening up of huge swathes of former industrial and waterfront lands during this period enabled urban planners and private developers to regenerate inner-city areas”.
Rampant inflation of rents in cities worldwide – a consequence of urban population growth – have been dictating an ever-accelerating pace of conversion, and in the meantime, factories that weren’t torn down have been progressively repurposed for all kinds of activities. Large industrial sites gave way to museums, creative hubs, startup incubators, wall-to-wall condominiums and company headquarters, while individual buildings were turned into restaurants, bars, shops and lofts.