2.6 Clouds of war to regeneration

The autumn of 1939 witnessed the outbreak of the Second World War. As in the previous war, this affected the way industrial buildings were designed. At first buildings were rushed up everywhere to meet the demand of armaments and equipment supply. In the USA, some factories were built of great size such as the steel mills at Fontana, California to make steel for Liberty ships or the ford bomber plant at Willow run[i], in 1940 (figure 2.29). The U.S Navy commissioned Ernest Kump to build the monumental Ordnance and Optical shop in the San Francisco Naval base. Its slender steel frame allowed maximum use of glazing which flooded light in to the interior to aid the delicate operations within.

Many especially in the U.K factories were converted to differing uses, from cars to ambulances[ii], from textiles to mortar bombs[iii], their pre-war flexible designs allowing this change of operations. In The UK, demand for essential materials in the war effort encouraged the use of quickly constructed buildings, using lightweight steel structural elements, asbestos-cement cladding and with north light roofing, often “blacked out” or painted in camouflage. These corrugated asbestos-clad factories set the scene of many industrial estates for decades beyond.

In the USA by mid 1942, stocks of traditional materials had been exhausted by military demands. Economics and necessity meant that lightweight pre-stressed reinforced concrete and the new use of laminated timber for columns and roof structures came in to their own although at first nervously received by the builders. Newly developed resin glues and synthetic materials joined these materials in the goal of finding alternatives to traditional materials. In the USA, also, the blackout gave a boost to the “windowless factory” for a while as electrical lighting and improved ventilation alleviated problems potentially created in this environment.

In some of the wartime buildings quality was not a high priority, but post war standards began to rise and optimism encouraged some new design built factories. One notable example in the U.K is the Sigmund Pump Factory on the Team Valley estate, Gateshead (1948) (figure 2.30). The architects Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardell set out a horizontal emphasised building with a generously glazed office and works block, complete with Kahn style “monitor“[iv]glazing in the roof. Another notable building being the ill-fated[v] Brynmawr Rubber Factory (1951), South Wales, (figure 2.31). This was the brainchild of Lord Verulam, who wished to inject life into a depressed area by creating a building embodying the highest ideals and optimism. He employed a group of recently demobbed architects, “Architects Cooperative Partnership”, and Ove Arup[vi] as engineer to create a building roofed with nine thin shell reinforced concrete domes, leaving the main floor space completely uncluttered and illuminated by its elegant top light glazing set within the parabolic vaults.                           

In The USA post war surplus of capacity meant that some armaments factories were converted for the production of pre fabricated industrial buildings and housing, feeding on the now over supply of aluminium and steel. The firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), used their expertise in improved quality lightweight–steel sections to produce a prefabricated sophisticated exposed grid steel frame shed, which they started to export to Europe.

In mainland Europe, regenerating after the war, notable events include such projects as possibly Le Corbusier’s only foray into factory design. During 1945 in the war battered town of St. Die in the Vosges region of France, he rebuilt a mill for Jacques Duval. Corbusier stated “ Architecture is the correct magnificent play of forms under the light “ and he employed this dictum in the functional problems of a concrete framed five storey mill by the use of “Brise-soliel”[vii] , painted ceilings, a roof garden and  some of the  main production space put workers on a gallery.


[ii] Cars to ambulances, The firm of Charles H. Roe Ltd, at Cross Gates Carriage works in Austhorpe Road, converted the chassis of hundreds of private cars to ambulances and mobile canteens; private individuals in the city and abroad donating many of the cars to the war effort.

[iii] Textiles to Mortar barrels. A company that adapted its production lines for the war effort was Fairbairn, Lawson, Combe, Barbour Ltd. Leeds. Originally, a manufacturer of textile machinery, during the Second World War their predominantly female workforce made mortar barrels and other munitions at the Wellington Street Plant. VE Day 60 Years: Leeds – A Manufacturing City During Wartime – Leeds City Guide local history

[iv] Monitor Lighting Box style roof window light to give diffused illumination to floors below.

[v] Brynmawr Rubber factory demolished 2001. Designed between 1946 and 1951 by the Architects’ Co-Partnership and the engineer Ove Arup, the building was the vision of Lord James Forrester who propagated an idealistic concept, seeking to make a building of both social and architectural significance. The programme involved the regeneration of Brynmawr socially, economically and physically. Measures were taken to ensure the provision of a pleasant yet functional working environment for the local workforce who had suffered terribly following the collapse of the South Wales coal industry in the 1920s and 30s. Described as a ‘masterpiece of the modern age’ the design’s extraordinary structural solution incorporated innovative shell concrete construction first developed in Germany. The completed project featured in European and American journals and was visited by two of the greatest architects of the twentieth century: Le Corbusier was taken to see the project during a short stay in Britain and Frank Lloyd Wright made a special visit when he arrived in Wales on a tour of his ancestral homeland.  Difficulties in securing a sufficient number of production contracts plagued the factory from an early stage and, by January 1982, it was forced to cease production permanently. In May 1986, despite its closure, the scheme became the first post-war building to be listed. Unfortunately the Grade II* listing did not save it and, after a lengthy conservation battle, the factory was demolished in 2001. The design of the Rubber Factory was highly imaginative and its social gestures well-judged but, in the end, the building proved too large and too ill-planned, economically speaking, to adapt to the changing needs of its locality.   The Twentieth Century Society

[vi] Ove Arup/Arup Associates (Established 1963) Sir Ove Arup was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1895. Generally considered the foremost engineer of his era, he created the firm Arup and Partners in 1946 as a team of structural consultants. The complex level of design considerations that the partnership encountered led to the creation of Arup Associates in 1963. Arup Associates originally developed as a partnership between engineer Ove Arup and architect Philip Downson. It existed as a multi-disciplinary office that provided architectural, surveying, and engineering services. The firm’s overall success was mainly due to Ove Arup, who believed in practical architecture, in which design fulfils social and public needs. With Arup Associates and, later, with such research and design groups as the Modern Architecture Research Group (MARS) and the Tecton Group, Arup successfully broke the narrow confines of architecture as a single profession by creating a core organization of several specialties. Arup died in London in 1988.Arup Associates – Great Buildings Online

[vii] Brise soleil. A system of passive solar shading to reduce solar heat gains to buildings whilst maintaining levels of diffused light  Brise Soleil

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