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Factory By Gillian Darley.Reaktion,2003.224pp. £14.95

As Adrian Forty's cover note observes: 'It is a wonder that no history of factory buildings has been written before.' Gillian Darley attempts to correct a collective oversight by architectural historians, writes Alex Wright.

Her book examines the factory as image, model, innovator, icon, sales tool and laboratory.

Each of the seven chapters consists of a relatively self-contained essay, which explores the history of the factory in the context of these various roles.

There is a definite weighting in the historical description to the early industrial building of the 18th and 19th centuries, with a corresponding compression of the past 70 years.The result may disappoint anyone expecting a more glossy folio of recent factory buildings but will delight any reader with a fascination for tales of Victorian success, failure and sheer entrepreneurial gusto.

Darley exhibits a sure-footed knowledge and appreciation of the history and anecdotal detail of this period. Model urban developments such as Port Sunlight and Bournville are described and analysed. The great mills of England are well represented, and their development is explained in relation to the continuous revolution in industrial processes that saw the focus of innovation shift from England to America.

As an architectural history, it presents a fair depiction of the somewhat marginal role that the architectural profession played in developing the factory, design engineers and industrial patrons often playing a more significant part in innovation. However, they typically failed to match the propagandist talents of the young lions of the Modern Movement, who unashamedly exploited the new industrial architecture to further their own architectural agendas.

The descriptions are clear, and functionally (but not lavishly) illustrated. As a general historical narrative, it has the reassuring spoken rhythm of Simon Schama, although its subject is more Fred Dibnah. It's the sort of book for those with an interest in the subject rather than one likely to ignite a passion.

With Joseph Rykwert proclaiming on the back cover that it is 'a pleasure to read', and Adrian Forty claiming it as 'wonderful', my reaction to it as worthy but colourless may more reflect my own taste than the academic merits of the book. This is not a page-turner but it is certainly well-written.

In filling a gap in the available history of building types, Darley has successfully produced a learned introduction to the factory.Anyone involved with industrial building design will find it an engaging social history. Any student of architecture would be well advised to read it as an example of architectural history that does not exaggerate the role of architects.

Nevertheless, I suspect there is scope for other books on the subject that offer more critical design insight, more complete illustration, and perhaps offer an answer to Darley's concluding question regarding the future of industrial buildings: where next?

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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