5 wonders of the machine age
Titanic of the mountains, Nazi gold and Elvis Costello
What do an iconic London building with its own rock song and Europe’s unluckiest train station have in common? Usher in the modern world thanks to these five tributes to imagination
Factory fanatic? Modernism marveller? Design diehard? Why not visit some of the monuments to the Industrial Revolution, a time when railway stations were the new cathedrals and factories were built not just for making things – but as a celebration of the wonders of the machine age?
It has now become so popular to travel around the world photographing grand fortresses of industry that the Japanese have coined a name for the growing subculture of people who find beauty and excitement in the aesthetics of factories: kojo moe.
So let’s start this list of five tributes to imagination in the home of “factory love” – Japan.
Spinning dreams in the kimono kapital
Tomioka Silk Mill, Gunma, Japan. Est. 1872
Japan’s first large-scale, Western-style silk-reeling factory offers a fascinating perspective on its history of modernisation. When Japan wanted to industrialise its silk-making industry, it imported French technology and know-how to establish the Tomioka Silk Mill complex in Gunma, around 80km north of Tokyo, in 1872. Now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the complex integrated egg production, silkworm farming and silk reeling and spinning in one location.
The wood-framed brick factory buildings were designed by the French architect Edmond Auguste Bastán and managed by another Frenchman, the engineer Paul Brunat.
Faced with competition from cheaper synthetic fibres and the decline in kimono wearing, the curtain fell on silk production at Tomioka in 1987.
The mill remains a national treasure from the Meiji era, a time when the Empire of Japan started to emerge as a great power, influenced by Western ideas. The kakaa denka (strong-willed wives) were so dedicated to improving their skills and education that they are registered as Japan Heritage.
Birthplace of an automobile revolution
Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, Detroit, US. Est. 1908
Gritty Detroit is a must-visit city for industrial tourism, attracting photographers, street artists and skateboarders to the birthplace of the Ford Model T car, one of the most significant automotive heritage sites in the world.
These days cars are assembled in one place with components produced all over the world, but by the time it was up and running in 1908, the Ford Plant in Detroit manufactured all the parts of the Model T and could produce 100 cars a day. It was at the plant that Ford first experimented.
The factory passed through various hands until it was bought by the not-for-profit Model T Automotive Heritage Complex in 2000, which now runs the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum. The ramifications of the first affordable car were truly revolutionary for everyday Americans and rural families. But with easy mobility and higher wages for manufacturing jobs came auto-related pollution as the landscape changed to accommodate legions of cars.
Bauhaus in the middle of our street
Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany. Est. 1919
When German architect Walter Gropius said he wanted to create a “new architecture for the future” in the burgeoning industrial city of Dessau, he never expected it would have a lasting influence on generations of designers all over the world. The Bauhaus school of art and architecture that existed from 1919 until the Nazis closed it down in 1933 revolutionised the design of buildings, furniture and other artefacts, spurning the ornate arts and crafts movement to promote a more austere approach that would become the dominant theme of 20th-century design.
A century after its founding, the Bauhaus building is a perfect example of the school’s form-follows-function philosophy. With its red entrance doors, one of the three basic colours in the colour theory at the Bauhaus, and Austrian designer Herbert Bayer’s capital lettering, which became synonymous with the school’s typographic identity, Bauhaus remains one of the most transcendent movements of the Modernist age.
Titanic of the mountains resurfaces
Canfranc Station, Aragón, Spain Est. 1928
A destination border town in the Pyrenees dedicated to mountain tourism is home to a Modernist building so ill-starred it became known as the “Titanic of the mountains”. The magnificent colossus that is Canfranc Station was conceived during the era of heroic railway architecture that produced London’s St Pancras and the Gare du Nord in Paris, except on an even grander scale.
Thanks to a series of complications, there was a 75-year gap between conception and birth, by which time things had moved on, leaving Canfranc a spectacular monument to the past. During World War II, Spain’s fascist regime used Canfranc as a discreet point to ship rare tungsten to the Wehrmacht armed forces of the Third Reich in exchange for Nazi gold but the station was plagued by wars, recessions, corruption and incompetence.
Today you can take the high road to feel the fire within Europe’s unluckiest train station – yes, there was also a fire – when it finally gets its new lease of life as a five-star hotel in the coming years. The international railway link to France is scheduled to reopen in 2026.
Eat my dust
Hoover Factory, Perivale, UK. Est. 1933
A former factory that was once considered brash and vulgar is now one of London’s finest Art Deco landmarks. Its essence remains, perhaps in no small part down to the English rock legend Elvis Costello, who was so moved by the Hoover Factory that he wrote a song about it.
Known as a “modern palace of industry”, the Hoover Factory opened in west London in 1933 to great fanfare.
The remarkable building was designed by Thomas Wallis of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, although it has oddly never been established if Gilbert actually existed. Wallis also designed several imposing concrete structures including the nearby Firestone Tyre Factory on Western Avenue and Victoria Coach Station, both labelled as classics of the Art Deco style. But Wallis preferred to call them “fancy”.
The ornamentation of the façade was apparently inspired by the indigenous art of north and central America, with some Egyptian touches.
Following the scandalous demolition of the Firestone factory, there was a campaign to stop the Hoover demolition. It was listed as being of special architectural merit in 1980. It ceased production in 1982, but the dormant factory was magnificently restored and reopened ten years later with a Tesco’s supermarket occupying the ground floor. Thanks to the building being acquired by a property developer in 2015, what was once a product showcase for an American corporation has been converted into 66 swanky flats with sustainably sourced timber trusses and roof cassettes. The flats all have fitted ovens made by, yes, Hoover.
What’s so good about this?
As we enter another fundamental shift in how we produce, consume and relate to one another, what can we learn from the past to improve the state of the world? Aware of the adverse effects of industry, today many industrial architects are prioritising health and sustainability over aesthetics.
Meet the writer
Stephen Burgen is a writer and freelance journalist based in Barcelona who for the past 20 years has contributed hundreds of articles on Spain for the Guardian, Observer, Times, Financial Times and Sunday Times.