At the recent London meeting of the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage, EH chairman Sir Neil Cossons said of industrial monuments: 'We're a long, long way from having a widespread understanding of why these places are of value' (AJ 7.9.00).
This new book from Abrams on American industrial remains is, by contrast, somewhat selfsatisfied. It claims to offer both a lesson in scholarship - 'the methods used in scientifically studying, recording, highlighting, and photographing the material are rigorous and exemplary when compared to those employed on the European continent and in Great Britain'- and in creative reuse of redundant structures.
In 1969 the US Congress established the Historic American Engineering Record, which has since documented 7,000 sites, a broad sample of which are included here. The authors distinguish two main phases in this awakened appreciation of the industrial past: an 'exploratory' decade from 1969-79 in the face of the destruction wrought by urban renewal, and then a period in which the value of such sites has been increasingly recognised and selected ones saved.
They also identify two main phases in US industrial history as a whole: a period of 'European-style' industrialisation from Independence to the Civil War and, from then until the Second World War, an 'American-style' expansion of activity, driven by innovative technology and the rise of corporate giants. Discussion of these two periods is followed by chapters on such topics as the role of civil engineering and the harnessing of natural resources. The text is wide-ranging and informative but it is an unimpassioned survey, without the intensity and sense of engagement that Reyner Banham brought to his study of American factories and grain silos, A Concrete Atlantis.
There are, as you would hope, some superb images, especially the archive ones: for instance, of the Bethlehem Steel Works in Pennsylvania, the vast open spaces of Albert Kahn's Chrysler-Dodge factory in Michigan, and sundry mills, mines, bridges and railway stations. Many of the more recent photographs, however, are unremarkable and scarcely do justice to their subject, and this is exacerbated by the relatively small size at which some are reproduced. Despite the boast about superior 'methods', there is none of the consistency in both vision and technique which Bernd and Hilla Becher have brought to photographing such structures over the same period.
Formulae for reuse are familiar: museums, shopping centres, hotels, restaurants, lofts. The case of Detroit, where dereliction has been so pervasive, and where the preservationist urge to hang on to history has conflicted sharply with municipal wishes for a clean slate, deserves deeper analysis than the authors provide.