2.7. The “Cool” box, the “functional tradition” and the arrival of “High tech”.

In 1951, Francis Wylie in his published talk entitled “Industrial buildings” stated, “factory building is no longer the Cinderella of the drawing office, it has become industrial architecture. In 1952 two such designed buildings were widely publicised, the handkerchief mill in Blumberg Germany, by Egon Eiermann[i], (figure 2.32) and the Dynamometer building at the General Motors research building in Detroit by Eero Saarinen[ii] (figure 2.33). Both displayed an exposed black painted steel frame with high levels of glazing, their streamlined aesthetic derived from the work of Mies van der Rohe[iii].

 In the USA, the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill took up this new “cool box” style and demonstrated it with several buildings[iv] in the 1950s including a building for H. J .Heinz[v] &Co Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (figure 2.34) where they used the exposed black steel frame glazed with blue glass framed in aluminium.

This style arrived in Britain with the Processing building for Cooper Taber at Witham, Essex (1955) [vi](figure 2.35). This building too had an exposed steel frame painted black, slender in appearance, with all other space apart from the services on the roof taken up with glass. This exposed, and possibly celebrated the machinery seen within. Was this the natural descendant of the Sheerness boathouse with its early-unrecognised exposure of the structural frame?

This generation of factory buildings and later ones benefited from the cross pollination of technologies from other industries. They could achieve this high level of glazing using new sealants derived from the car industry, and for the frames , the use of corrosion resistant “Cor Ten“[vii] steel developed for  railway freight wagons and heavy plant machinery.  Further developments in reflective glazing and pre-cast concrete elements proved useful for 1960s buildings, and the advances in aluminium cladding profiled steel sections and plastic sealants encouraged these “boxes” to become even lighter.

In 1958, James Richards published “The Functional tradition”[viii]. In it, he expressed the fact that the prototype buildings of the nineteenth century had also prepared modern taste for their successors. He celebrated the efforts of the “pioneer efforts of the engineers” and the more orthodox builders of that time who served the needs of the trades and businesses. Now seeking consolidation after innovation, he felt that the latest generation of architects might aim at “such a vernacular” by perhaps emphasising the functional precedents.

This intended new vernacular turned out to be mainly imported, mostly from the USA. The “Architects’ journal” described them as “prestige pancakes”. These elegant sleek buildings, usually based on the Saarinen ideal were set in green field sites, usually landscaped, as in his original General Motors model. Often the companies were American as in the Cummins Diesel engine Company[ix] who commissioned one of these sleek boxes in Darlington, Co. Durham (1966), (figure 2.36). Architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkledoo, inheritors of the Saarinen practice used a blend of Cor-ten steel and neoprene[x] gaskets (the first time in the world) to create this sleek single storey highly glazed “pancake”. It sat amongst landscaped grounds, and internally physical demarcations were dissolved between factory floor and offices, a pioneering change for British industry. The factory had gone full circle, from country mill, to town and city factory and back to countryside again.

Contemporary with Cummins, building features such as masts, cables, bracing and exposed air-conditioning plant, often painted in bright colours became apparent. This style was to become known as “High tech”. Some architect-designed industrial buildings lent themselves to “architectural engineering”, i.e. structural elements being used more for effect rather than reality. The Reliance Controls building Swindon (1965)[xi] was such a factory (figure 2.37). Designed by Norman Foster’s “Team 4”[xii] architect practice, it was a cheap and flexible “shed” for an American electronics company. It was noted by its exposed crisp cross bracing between the bays of the external steel frame, which sat in front of corrugated cladding or glazing panels. The architects admitted it was “just for visual effect only”.

The late 1960s in Britain also saw two other factories of note. The first one designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardell partnership, (of Sigmund pumps, 1948), was the new factory for The Bath Cabinetmakers Company [xiii](1968) (figure 2.38) in the south west of England. Here they exploited a lightweight tubular steel space frame[xiv] to support the roof, enabling long spans and free floor space without heavy steel members. The other building, also in Bath was a new factory for Rotark controls (1968)[xv] (figure 2.39). Here again use of the space frame enabled uncluttered floor space, but it was taken a step further by being carried through at roof level to give form to the exterior. The inclusion of glazing around the edge gave subtle lighting to the interior (figure 2.40) .The other point of note is that the entire roof frame was at first assembled on the floor and then lifted up into position.

In the 1980s, factories that took the notion of exposed structural members, both for visual and practical effect to further heights include. Firstly, Richard Rogers Fleetguard manufacturing centre at Quimper, Brittany (1979-81) for the Cummins Diesel Company where external masts and bracing rods .painted in bright red, created a structure free interior and gave the image of the structure almost holding the build up in mid air (figure 2.41).

Also by Rogers, the Renault depot at Swindon (1983) (figure 2.42) displayed overt Meccano like external structural members painted in vivid yellow, its cabling and pierced metal web acting out the form of a tent.

In the early 1970s and 1980s, clean lines and lightweight cladding materials became the usual face of industry. Earlier “cool box” examples expressing the face of corporate modernity were the IBM assembly plant (figure 2.43) and the Horizon (John Player) factory; both by Arup associates[xvi] (figure 2.44).  This model became the norm for many industrial estates and business parks.

By now, the sophisticated “shed “was becoming a standardised item. The architects, Michael Hopkins and partners were commissioned to draw up a prototype small factory unit, named “Paterae” (figure 2.44), a steel framed box with standard glazing that potentially could be bought “of the shelf “straight from the assembly line like a car. The Automobile industry that had spawned the dawn of standard factories could now be housed in units that were created like their own product.

Gillian Darley states in her book “factory”[xvii], “By the 1980s Design magazine considered that the innovatory period of the sixties and seventies is coming to an end. Today kits of parts buildings designed by one time young lions …are, if not commonplace, certainly part of current conventional wisdom.” The attraction of an easy building formula meant that as Darley states “legions of disciples have adopted the same approach, not always with happy results.” Was it on the one hand becoming an architectural cliché or a popular modern vernacular? We should have to look to the ranks of industrial estates and business parks around the country to formulate our own opinion.


[i] ‘” Egon Eiermann” (born September 29th Neuendorf Germany, died July 20 1970) was one of Germany’s most prominent architects in the second half of the 20th century. Eiermann studied at the Technical University of Berlin. He worked for the Karlstad building department for a time, and before World War II had an office with fellow architect Fritz Jaenecke. He joined the faculty of the university in Karlsruhe in 1947, working there on developing steel frame construction methods. A functionalist, his major works include: the textile mill at Blumberg (1951); the West German pavilion at the Brussels World Exhibition (with Sep Ruf, 1958); the West German embassy in (1958-1964); a building for the German Parliament (Bundestag) in Bonn (1965-1969); the IBM-Germany Headquarters in Stuttgart (1967-1972); and, the Olivetti building in Frankfurt (1968-1972). By far his most famous work is the new church on the site of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin (1959-1963).In depth – Egon Eiermann

[ii] Eero Saarinen (b. Kirkkonummi, Finland 1910; d. Ann Arbor, Michigan 1961) Eero Saarinen was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland in 1910. He studied in Paris and at Yale University, after which he joined his father’s practice. Eero initially pursued sculpture as his art of choice. After a year in art school, he decided to become an architect instead. Much of his work shows a relation to sculpture. Saarinen developed a remarkable range which depended on colour, form and materials. Saarinen showed a marked dependence on innovative structures and sculptural forms, but not at the cost of pragmatic considerations. He easily moved back and forth between the International Style and Expressionism, utilizing a vocabulary of curves and cantilevered forms. Eero Saarinen died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1961. Eero Saarinen – Great Buildings Online

[iii] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (b. Aachen, Germany 1886; d. Chicago, Illinois 1969) Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany in 1886. He worked in the family stone-carving business before he joined the office of Bruno Paul in Berlin. He entered the studio of Peter Behrens in 1908 and remained until 1912. Under Behrens’ influence, Mies developed a design approach based on advanced structural techniques and Prussian Classicism. He also developed sympathy for the aesthetic credos of both Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl group. He borrowed from the post and lintel construction of Karl Friedrich Schinkel for his designs in steel and glass. Mies worked with the magazine G which started in July 1923. He made major contributions to the architectural philosophies of the late 1920s and 1930s as artistic director of the Werkbund-sponsored Weissenhof project and as Director of the Bauhaus. Famous for his dictum ‘Less is More’, Mies attempted to create contemplative, neutral spaces through an architecture based on material honesty and structural integrity. Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies achieved his vision of a monumental ‘skin and bone’ architecture. His later works provide a fitting denouement to a life dedicated to the idea of a universal, simplified architecture Mies died in Chicago, Illinois in 1969. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – Great Buildings Online

[iv] Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), “(Established Chicago 1936) Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings established an office in Chicago in 1936 and opened a branch in New York in 1937. The practice became Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) in 1939 when John Merrill joined the partnership. From the beginning, the firm stressed the importance of teamwork and individual responsibility among its employees. The firm’s early years were spent creating a multi-disciplinary office, which could effectively handle corporate and commercial clients. In 1952, Gordon Bunshaft pushed SOM toward a new level of architectural recognition with his design for the Lever House. This curtain-walled office block built in the International Style, demonstrated SOM’s capabilities and led to a series of similar developments. Due to the large scale of the buildings designed by SOM, structural innovation makes up a large part of the office’s design efforts. Skidmore Owings & Merrill operates as a successful large practice, with offices in many cities, although none of its original principals remain with the firm.” Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) – Great Buildings Online

[v] Henry John Heinz first opened Heinz in 1869, his first product was a horseradish packaged in a clear see though bottle. This was so that his customers could see that their horseradish was of good quality and standard. It was popular at the time for producers to use a filler so they got the most of their own horseradish i.e. leaves, wood fibre and turnip filler. Work and History of Companies

[vi] Architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon.

[vii] Cor-Ten Steel is a type of steel, which oxidizes naturally over time, giving it an orange-brown colour and a rough texture. It has a very high tensile strength, and in spite of its rusted appearance, it is actually more resistant to damaging corrosion than standard forms of carbon steel. Definition of the facade material Cor-Ten steel

[viii] In 1958 J M Richards published The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings. It was fully illustrated with Eric de Mare’s photographs (often cropped to focus on the relevant detail). Richards began his foreword: “This is primarily a picture book, and is, therefore, more Eric de Mare’s creation than mine”. The ‘functional tradition’ was defined by Richards and de Mare as that style of design which, though dominated by functional considerations, is remarkable for the wide range and subtlety of its aesthetic effects. It runs through all periods of English architecture, but comes out most strongly in the industrial architecture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The purpose of Richards’ book was to educate readers to appreciate a range of buildings the architectural merits of which had not at that date been recognised, and also to illustrate a tradition of functional design in English architecture. De Mare was himself keen to demonstrate that functional design was not invented in the 1930s, and had a long and honourable history in English architecture. Although the tradition can be traced back into the medieval period, the book deliberately focused on the early industrial revolution.  image resource for England’s history. Story Introduction

[ix] The incorporation of Cummins Engine Company on February 3, 1919, brought together uncommon resources. William Glanton “W.G.” Irwin a successful Columbus banker-investor who supported several local entrepreneurs—supplied the starting capital. The new company’s namesake, Clessie Lyle Cummins, was a self-taught mechanic-inventor. The Irwins hired him in 1908 to drive and maintain their car, and later set him up in business as an auto mechanic. During World War I, Clessie operated a machine shop that thrived on government contracts. By then, he was convinced that an engine technology invented by Rudolph Diesel in the 1890s—while still unproven commercially—held great promise for its fuel economy and durability. To enter the business, Cummins secured manufacturing rights from a Dutch diesel licensor named Hvid. http://www.cummins.com/eu/pages/en/whoweare/cumminshistory.cfm

[x]  Neoprene: A synthetic material resembling rubber that does not perish as quickly as rubber and is more resistant to oil, used in the manufacture of equipment for which waterproofing is important.

MSN Encarta : Online Encyclopaedia, Dictionary, Atlas, and Homework

[xi] Reliance controls demolished 1991 (replaced by PC world) Rogers associates first entirely prefabricated building was the Reliance Controls Electronic Factory, Swindon, Wilts (1967), a simple rectangular building clad in steel decking with an elegantly detailed, cross-braced external steel structure. Richard Rogers: Biography and Much More from Answers.com

[xii] Norman Foster initially studied architecture at Manchester but it was winning a scholarship to Yale that provided the most decisive influences. One of his teachers was Paul Rudolph, an architect who found expressive power within a modernist language long after most of America had turned to Post Modernism. Like many other young British architects in the early 1960s, he came under the spell of the Case Study houses in Los Angeles, profound images of a relaxed modern lifestyle, achieved on relatively low budgets with common industrial materials, designed by architects like Charles and Rae Eames. He overlapped with another young Briton, Richard Rogers, with whom he would later found Team 4 . Norman Foster RA – Architects – Royal Academicians – Royal Academy of Arts

[xiii] Now owned by the Herman miller furniture group, Herman Miller – United States – Home Page

[xiv] Space frames:  are simply trusses or other elements deployed three-dimensionally. MSN Encarta – Architecture

[xv] Architects,  Leonard Manasseh and partners,

[xvi] Arup Associates (Arup b. Newcastle upon Tyne 1895; d. 1988) (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

[xvii] Gillian Darley, Factory , London 2002, page 103

Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: