The Factories Project: Prologue

Around 1997 I was working with several architectural formulas that were inspired by the enormous factory buildings I remembered from childhood. These were large, hermetically sealed and darkened blocks which startled the imagination but which revealed nothing of their content.
In the same year, Reinout made plans for a new studio. I can’t recall whose idea it was but we decided to collaborate on the design. Reinout determined what he wanted and I drew up the preliminary sketches. After long and critical sessions on many an evening we arrived at the definitive design. The actual studio has existed now for several years. During our formative design talks a plan for a photographic project was born. In contrast to what we had discussed earlier, a photo project including the ugly textile halls that are to be found on the edge of every European city, we wished now to explore an area that we were both very fond of:  the industrial architecture generated in the first one hundred years of the industrial revolution. In the first place we would explore Europe. At a later stage we could expand our project to include, for example, North America.

Our Fascination for Industrial Architecture: Visions and Motives

We set up the Architecture Project starting on premises that we held concerning the existence and employment of basic architectural models in the original industrial architecture. I don’t mean basic forms that become visible, on comparison, within the existing or current industrial architectural design. I am referring to the oldest known architectural models that occur in the earliest history of architectural design and turn up again and again. We had already encountered barns that looked like basilicas and silos that seemed to be upside down cathedrals and we were eager to know what else we would come across. Apart from that,  we were looking for factories which, as ancient giants, embodied the inviolability and inaccessibility that I remembered from childhood. Reinout added an important and inescapable premise to our search: context. In what setting do we find the building and what does that setting tell us? There is always an urban and social context that adds something to the meaning and charisma of a building. For example, traces of human presence in the form of writings on the wall, remains of old tools or materials. Stairs, doors, shuttered windows, a fire escape above an inaccessible façade. One experiences the monumentality and the sometimes gargantuan size of these behemoths not only because of their location and surroundings but also because of the traces of human presence which, by their proportion, form a measurable scale to the architectural forms. Also, artefacts add an emotional value to the sometimes colossal volumes.

In the course of time we became more aware of the specific character and personality, for each separate building we came across. We began to refer to them as, “the pitiable building”, “the lonely building”, “the proud lady”, “the mastodon”, “the bull”, etcetera. We approached the photographic task now differently. Rather than simply register the architectural quality of a building, we sought to capture an image of its personality. This determined the angle, point of view, time of day, the season and the weather at the moment of the photograph. This photographic approach, developed through the years, has yielded a series of candid and personal images of the chosen industrial objects. As mentioned in the text that guides the most recent Factories exhibitions, the last two years we began to get more and more intrigued by the spatial and social consequences of, both the presence and the development of industry in and around the cities.

First Steps and Follow-Up: Surprises and Frustrations

Since the inception of this project our strategy has been simple: we journey from the one factory tower to the next, allowing ourselves to be surprised by coincidence. We have chosen this modus operandi in order to avoid the well-trodden paths of the – for other reasons -  photographed and documented industrial inheritance that has often been renewed or remodelled.
We try to approach our task as openly as possible. The only preliminary study we employ is a search of local maps for old industrial parks and sites, canals and railroad lines. The actual driving about and searching requires intense concentration. Our discoveries are interchangeably exciting and disappointing. We are often busy for long hours before finally seeing the contours of a factory hall looming in the distance, predicating the possibility of reward and inevitably arousing the curiosity. Some days we discover a trove of treasures. Some days we discover barely anything of worth.

We first set out in February of 1998. We headed for Maastricht en then toward Belgium. In the last 8 years several investigative journeys have followed: to Belgium, France and Germany. In the fall of 2000 we reconnoitred Ireland. In the spring of 2002 we made a long journey through Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. In 2003 we made some trips to Germany and Northern Ireland; in 2005 we spent two weeks in the English Midlands. May 2006 we will return there. Today the project continues and after several years during which we have often complained that there simply is not enough time next to our regular schedules to track down more objects of interest, we are pleased to have amassed an exciting collection of intriguing images of factory halls of all personalities and demeanours and which are spread across the European continent. For us, it remains the tip of a melting iceberg.

Huib Fens.