Manufacturing history

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts on deindustrialization and industrial heritage commissioned by The Public Historian, expanding the conversation begun with the November 2017 special issue on the topic. 

Monash University under construction, 1965.

Monash University under construction, 1965, Wolfgang Sievers. Photo credit: Monash University Archives.

I recently gave a guest seminar to a masters-level class in architecture and design at my university, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The students were working on ideas for the reuse of former manufacturing sites clustered around the main campus of the university, and as someone with an interest in the reuse of economically redundant urban landscapes I was asked to come along and talk about my work and how it might inform theirs.  In doing so I was struck by how deindustrialization, which used to be a feature of older urban spaces and regions, is now an almost ubiquitous feature of contemporary city life.

When it was founded almost sixty years ago, Monash was located on Melbourne’s suburban fringe, surrounded by the factories of the Fordist-era city: auto manufacturers, car parts suppliers, glassmakers, and so on. The university was an element of the postwar “social contract” of big government, full employment, and the welfare state and was meant to educate an expanding population of first-in-family students, but also to work for and with these companies to produce both qualified graduates to staff them and research that would help propel them, the city, and the nation into the hi-tech manufacturing future. As the junior partner in this enterprise, Monash’s employee numbers and annual budget were vastly smaller than those of its private sector associates.

Not so today, when few of the old employers remain and most that do use their former factories as storage and logistics facilities rather than production centers—staging points along a global supply chain of manufactured goods that spans the globe from factories in China to the consumers of Melbourne. My talk to the architecture students was about what to do with the vast factory zones surrounding the campus now that they are economically redundant. The Monash region has recently been declared a “national employment and innovation cluster,” and various experts (including myself) have been invited to provide advice on how the area might be revitalized and reimagined as a place of the future rather than one of the past. Much like the revitalized docks and former factory zones of Melbourne’s miracle inner city, the hope is that the Monash region will emerge in the near future as “‘a hub of innovation and high quality living for all.”

Australian Synchrotron, outside Melbourne, opened in 2007.

Australian Synchrotron, outside Melbourne, opened in 2007. Copyright Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. Published with permission.

There has been some hi-tech investment around Monash in recent years, including the construction of Australia’s only synchrotron, but for the most part the major source of employment growth has so far been in servicing the needs of the staff and students of the university. Many of these students are fee-paying internationals, indicative of the role that education services now play in the postindustrial urban economy, and which in Melbourne’s case is now the city’s largest export industry.

While it is easy to mock the shallowness of these ideas for renewal and to see them as essentially a fig leaf for what will likely be a series of property development plays, it is important that we as historians have an involvement in these processes of change. Recent work by academic and public historians has demonstrated that studies of industrialization and deindustrialization and its aftermath are popular fields of historical enquiry. So, too, the popularity of walking tours focusing on former industrial neighborhoods and the prevalence of these places on sites such as Historypin suggests that there is a thirst for knowledge about the industrial era and its history.

There is a gap in this field, however. The small nineteenth-century factories and workshops of the inner city, many of which, like those in New York’s SoHo, were the first victims of contemporary deindustrialization and closed thirty to forty years ago, are increasingly popular tourist sites and can be adapted for reuse reasonably easily. At the other end of the scale are the vast and often still largely abandoned industrial landscapes of nineteenth-century heavy industry, which, while not easily adaptable for new uses, readily evoke a sense of awe, wonder, and “history” in visitors.

The gap is the huge tracts of now-abandoned twentieth-century manufacturing zones that are increasingly a feature of suburban areas like those around Monash. Late to industrialization and only now deindustrializing, these places, in all their ordinariness and seeming historical insignificance, are emerging as contemporary heritage battlegrounds. However, one of the difficulties these newer places present is that most people simply do not see them as “historic” and deem them to possess little in the way of heritage value.

Unlike, say, for inner-city lofts, which are now readily recognized across the globe as usable and reusable living and working spaces, arguing that an empty hangar-sized vehicle assembly building has historical meaning and should be kept is a much more difficult challenge for us as historians and heritage professionals. Worse still, deciding what to do with such structures when they are no longer economically viable is a real dilemma for historians, architects, and policy makers alike. How do we demonstrate that these are places worth keeping when outright demolition is the easiest option, and how might we as historians capture and tell the stories of these sites and those of their workers and families?

In older inner-city locations and repurposed dock precincts, interpretative signage and audio walking tours increasingly allow visitors to get a sense of the bustle and the noise of these places, even if they can never fully capture exactly what life there was really like. This is not so easy when the sites are massive, designed with the car rather than public transport or walking as the dominant transport mode. Guided bus tours are one option, but probably not economically viable. Or perhaps self-driving tours with podcasts providing information and background sound? But if all visitors see are new buildings rather than the remains of the old, is any of this worthwhile?

As former manufacturing regions look for a future it may be that our role as historians is not simply to seek to preserve some of the structures of the Fordist city for posterity or advise on how they might be adapted for reuse, but to devise ways of demonstrating that these are more than just buildings worth keeping for architectural or aesthetic reasons. Instead we should seek to ensure that digital and other interpretive resources demonstrate that these seemingly “ordinary” urban landscapes have an important social history and represent a historical moment, a brief time in the middle third of the twentieth century when governments, employers, and communities sought to create a new and more equal and democratic society after the hardships and chaos of the previous thirty years.

~ Seamus O’Hanlon teaches contemporary urban and public history at Monash University in Melbourne. He is the author of numerous books on the history of the city including Melbourne Remade: The Inner City since the Seventies (2010) and Federation Square Melbourne: The First Ten Years (2012). His next book, a study of the impacts of globalization on the Australian city, will be published by New South Publishing in 2018.

1 comment
  1. Chuck Arning says:

    Mr. Hanlon: Excellent article. I think that some of the things we are doing in the states with our industrial landscape is worth mentioning since I believe we share the same goals. Looking at the National Heritage Areas movement where landscape, many heavily industrialized (Rivers of Steel NHA, Pittsburg, PA; Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, RI/MA; Lackawanna Valley NHA, Northeastern, PA; Essex NHA, Essex County, MA; to name a few. As a resource, we have produced a 30 min. cable TV program to assist in the communication of the history and the revitalization of our industrial landscape in the Blackstone Valley. Check it out, Along the Blackstone cable series on YouTube/ Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. Chuck

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