Oculus Book Review: Vertical Urban Factory Factory by Nina Rappaport

On 03.28.16, Nina Rappaport, publications director at Yale School of Architecture, introduced us to her book and life’s work, Vertical Urban Factory. After her presentation she chatted with Damon Rich, founder the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and former planning director and chief urban designer for the City of Newark, NJ, and now principal of Hector Design Service, an urban design, planning and civic arts studio. Both speakers brought the audience into the lush and complex world of the urban factory. Rappaport has worked with the idea of the vertical urban factory for a few decades, evolving from student work and academic research to an exhibition and this publication – and, ultimately, to Rapport’s perspective being acknowledged in policy decisions. This is more than a book; it’s an encyclopedia on the impact of production and the history of its spatial demands.

The text is intense yet skillfully crafted; getting into the impressive volume is no problem. But the standout artifact is the glorious timeline of factories created by Sarah Gephart of MGMT. This is a timeline ‎John Maynard Keynes could love. It lays out not only the architectural highlights of the past 300 years, but also key technology, management, and cultural events. Starting with the advent of the barrel (an early shipping container), it takes us through the publication of Adam Smith’s Rights of Man to desktop 3D printing. Expertly constructed and designed, this is a valuable teaching tool for design educators.

The timeline includes an intriguing note that the canning of food to supply Napoleon’s army was transformed in 1883 into the first assembly line, marking the genesis of standardization. Rappaport reports that prior to the American Civil War, uniforms were not issued by the army, but tailored to the individual. The government in the Civil War standardized the uniforms by developing average sizing and distributed them to troops. This nugget of knowledge propels us into a line of thinking of the impact of the military in the growth of factory culture. It’s a well-known fact, but Rappaport elegantly illustrates its key factors and consequences. After World War I, American industry was enrolled directly to create a state of preparedness. The scale of industry dramatically impacted the formation of urban areas. Where the factory could be located was dictated by the size of its product – airplanes and bombs influenced urban growth. In Rappaport’s talk and text, these obvious points are handled with genuine excitement and energy.

Another point of inquiry that runs throughout Rappaport’s work is: “Where do the workers live?” This question is derived from her preliminary research into Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities, and the important work of historian Margaret Crawford on factory towns. Rappaport aligns this research with the current conversion of factories into residential units. The constant controversy over whether the factory owner is benevolent or only interested in profit, and workers’ individual rights is filtered through this history of factory towns and workers’ housing, and, ultimately, how this question shapes the urban fabric.

Illustrations and case studies abound throughout the book. Rappaport makes a case for the architect as crafter of this new building type at all points in history, but oftentimes it’s the accidental vertical factory that is the most compelling. The Jeppe in Johannesburg, South Africa stands out as a progressive solution to manufacturing and the supply chain. Disused as an office building, the tenacious growth of small-scale production has taken over the building, and created a vertical and horizontal structure of workers’ needs to support aggressive supply and demand. Rappaport describes the building as a mini New York Garment District, where retail, manufacturing, and restaurants coexist to meet consumer demands.

Rappaport shows us diagrams and case studies of the contemporary climate of manufacturing and the “future” of the vertical factory and manufacturing. However, her definition of future feels a bit outdated (most likely a consequence of this building type being in dramatic flux). She cites architectural instances of the new vertical urban factory, the Brooklyn Navy Yard resurgence, and the “transparent” ethos of local breweries as the new evolution of the factory. She does not seem able to uncouple the building as the genesis of all made goods to further radicalize future visions of production. The work of fashion designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama, comes to mind, where Chanin designed a system of picking up piece goods for expert seamstresses, upon whom her couture fashion line is dependent, to work at home. The “factory” is the design and retail space. The domestic, in this case, is again the point of production. Rappaport hints at the potential of digital fabrication bringing manufacturing to the home, but hesitates to proclaim it as the future.

What is most impressive about this book is that this is no edited volume; it is not a collection of like-minded essays from different scholars converging on a similar theme. This is one woman’s thinking and writing for 480 pages (including the index and endnotes). Although she has had collaborators and comrades, Rappaport has honed a point of view that has otherwise gone out of fashion in scholarly work with her clear, liberal, humanist, and questioning body of work. As you read, relish this focus.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Vertical Urban Factory
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.28.16
Speakers: Nina Rappaport, Publications Director, Yale School of Architecture; Director, The Vertical Urban Factory; and Damon Rich, Founding Principal, Hector Design Service
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee