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Industry as Icon: Industrial Aesthetics

Murat Germen

Istanbul, Turkey, 2005

Design, by its own nature, strives to be “different”, it gives a certain object its identity by “transforming” it and excluding others. Fashion, industry, architecture and graphic design always seek the new and they actually should in any case, in order to continue their existence. Furthermore, there have been / will always be, creative processes where function takes precedence, forms are created in response to needs. Despite the fact that functional design processes and resulting end products are usually regarded as obstacles to a freer creativity, they are “designs” anyhow. The fact that the starting point is different should not necessarily prevent us from perceiving a functional production process / product as “design.”

Industrial aesthetics is one of the most profound formations to be the outcome of functional design processes, and makes a considerable contribution to the general concept of “aesthetics.” Some buildings that incorporate industrial aesthetics such as gasworks, water towers, factories, ports, shipyards, and bridges are regular daily encounters, which remind us the “constructivist” look we have long forgotten. We barely glance at them, while most totally ignore them, and stay with “everyday” designs of our daily life.

Industrial aesthetics is not about ingratiating, promoting or selling itself, buildings sampling industrial aesthetics do not have to sell in millions in order to exist. As a consequence, industrial buildings are designed “to a necessary degree” and the resulting design language is very straightforward, sincere, non-competitive, and most important of all, non-exclusive. The fact that industrial buildings tend to remain in the background as a result of above-mentioned attitude, leads to certain anonymity in their identities, and throughout history, the anonymous has always been a reference point and a source of inspiration. Considering today's cutthroat competition in design and creativity, intellectual property rights are clearly protected with severe sanctions. As a result, the anonymous was, still is and will always be popular, since the designer who will reinterpret it does not have to pay for copyright fees. There is a very small chance that this reinterpreted design will be regarded as “imitation.” Same anonymity, causes industrial aesthetics to remain disconnected / independent from any “ism” or movement. On the contrary, there are a number of “ism”s that have been based on, or have referred to industrial aesthetics.

Even though an industrial building does not aim to promote itself, it has a beauty that inadvertently “imposes” itself. It is like an individual sitting alone in a corner who; beneath his calmness, confidence, and simple appearance, has a deep and charismatic personality (Walter Gropius calls this “the unintentional beauty of industrial buildings”). The charismatic minimalism of industrial aesthetics is not a pretense, it is pure and objective; it has not emerged to create finished, glossy surfaces. Dominique Perrault, one of the French architects aware of this fact; has said, vis-à-vis Hôtel Industriel Jean-Baptiste Berlier building which made him famous in the mid-1980s, that “we no longer believe [industrial ghettoes] are 'cursed places,' in fact we derive energy from them.” This statement clearly shows the kind of relationship Perrault wants to establish with the highways, railroads, concrete silos, smoke chimneys, and closed-down factories in the suburbs of Paris. Dominique Perrault says these industrial ghettoes were “part of a 'cute' cityscape of our times...” Another indication that industrial buildings and areas have a lot of potential in terms of space / architecture is the great number of recent transformation projects. Both in Turkey and throughout the world, the number of projects that convert industrial buildings into schools, museums, and offices is rapidly increasing; as a matter of fact, architects are looking forward to designing such projects.

An ironical paradox regarding the concept of industrial aesthetics is that while industry is a mass manufacturing process aiming towards creating uniform objects, industrial buildings themselves do not exhibit such uniformity, sameness, or monotony. Buildings are shaped in various combinations and sizes depending on the quantity and quality of the products, and even buildings with the same function differ in design according to distance to local resources and transportation arteries. This variety introduces an incompleteness that has potential for future development, spaces that are full of surprises, and the possibility to obtain different points of view. On the other hand, though individual buildings are not replicas of each other, there is a certain level of homogeneity and universality among them due to their common typology. The distinction between industrial buildings of various countries is not as pronounced as the diversity between indigenous architectures of these countries; it is not easy to talk of a particular native quality in industrial architecture.

This exhibition idea and its conceptual background were not conceived as a “form follows function” manifesto. I believe that a “functional” design can still have “allure” and “charm” and can exist without being called “dry” and “mechanical.” For example, as a design movement that is known to be relatively rich in stylistic ornamentation, Art Nouveau can be regarded as one of the most “stylish” examples of industrial aesthetics, if one considers the types of materials used, the way they were combined and the constructive details involved. On the other hand, it is possible to regard the lace-like combination of unusual forms we only see in industrial buildings as a type of ornamentation. For this reason, I don't believe industrial aesthetics is directly connected to the notions of “purism” or “perfect form” associated with the industrial revolution and the machine age. I believe there is a certain depth of “informality” and “adaptability, flexibility” that you can internalize in the nature of industrial buildings. This flexibility takes the symbolism found in some architectural structures to another dimension. For instance, there is a clear representation of “power” in skyscrapers, each competing to be taller than the other; or in fascist architecture, which is designed with a scale way beyond human dimensions and strictly symmetrical compositions that reflect the dominant order. The industrial building, however, lacks such symbolism; it underlines the collective, not the individual, and this why it may be considered as an icon of anonymity.

As a nation, we have longed for industrialization and its benefits at least since the Early Republic, but for some reason we have a dislike for the industrial landscape and its components. Having recognized industrial buildings as filthy, noisy, polluting, ugly, and bulky structures; we do not spare them a dear place in our hearts though kept in our field of vision. The aim of this project is to unveil the hidden beauty of industry, and to bring it a bit closer to our hearts. As a matter of fact, photographic works that constructed industrial aesthetics were produced at a very early stage (for example Margaret Bourke-White in the 1930s); continued throughout the 20th century (Bernd and Hilla Becher, the couple who began documenting various industrial buildings in 1959 and published numerous books, some in recent years), and are still proliferating (thanks to photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Wolfgang Tillmans). These works that characterized industrial aesthetics influence(d) specific trends in architectural, industrial, and even graphic design (such as the Center Pompidou in Paris).

This exhibition aims to celebrate the straightforwardness and sincerity hidden in the complex and catastrophic visuality of industrial aesthetics, and to bring it once again to the forefront. It can also be envisaged as an attempt to discover architecturally exciting and inspiring space / location relationships in industrial buildings, and to propose a reconsideration and re-evaluation of design, which has turned into a commercial race. I hope we remember that the visual material depicted in this exhibition also constitutes aesthetics of labor...