Steven High (2003) highlights the Machine in the Garden aesthetic of postwar factory design

Steven High has written extensively about deindustrialization in ways that are of interest to the general reader. Oral  history interviews have played a key role in his collaborative research, by way of example, into mill and plant closings. The interviews describe the impact of such closings on workers and families. They also describe how communities have responded to this consequence of creative destruction.

Deindustrialization interests me because Long Branch (in Toronto not New Jersey) where I lived from 1997 to 2018 used to have many manufacturing plants. During its early European settler history following the deforestation of its land, Long Branch was an agricultural community after which over a period of time it became industrialized, and, in turn, deindustrialized.

Manufacturing plants in suburban settings

In a chapter in Industrial sunset (2003) entitled “Back to the Garden: Redesigning the factory for a post-industrial age,” Steven High outlines changes in North American factory design and location since the 1940s.

After the Second World War, industrial firms sought to present an attractive face – a ‘post-industrial aesthetic’ – to the community. High notes that historian Samuel Haynes has labelled the post-Second World War period of rising standards of living and levels of education as ‘the environmental era.’

“In the decades between 1945 and 1984,” notes High, “planners incorporated environmental values into factory exteriors, by removing the factory from its former industrial landscape and placing it in ‘natural’ surroundings, either in industrial parks or in the countryside. These greenfield sites – as opposed to older brownfield ones – represented a return to the beginnings of industrialism.

“Just as rural locations has set apart early North American factory sites from the degrading industrial cities of Great Britain, greenfield sites promised to purge the factory system of its reputation for human and environmental degradation. In effect, this was a return to the pastoral ideals of the factory” (pp. 74-75).

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, an appealing exterior increasingly came to mean pleasant landscaped surroundings” (p. 82).

As early as 1948, the Johnson and Johnson Company “employed a mainly female workforce, a source of cheap, non-unionized labor, and had begun the process of redesigning factory work as white-collar.” Such new factories were small in size, located in rural areas, and “away from congested city areas, away from any ‘industrial slums.'”

Feminization of labour

The above-noted text brings to mind a discussion (p. 48) in Adrian Parr (2013) regarding the reference by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000) to the “feminization of labor, which they take to mean both the quantitative increase in the number of women entering the labor market and the qualitative changes in labor. For example, the work-day unit is no longer so clearly defined by the eight-hour working day; it has been turned into a flexible period, including part-time, contract-based, and informal forms of employment.”

Hardt and Negri (2000) also speak as Parr (2013, p. 48) notes, of a related trend involving “new migratory patterns as more … women from low- and middle-income countries enter low-skilled, labor-intensive work in addition to jobs traditionally taken by women, such as those in the service sector (as nannies, cleaners, sex workers, and nurses).”

Shell over mechanical process

With large parcels of land available in the countryside or in industrial parks, designers after the Second World War had considerable freedom.

“Once designed to stand fifty years and to possess a dignified institutional quality, factories became increasingly functional” (p. 82). People were encouraged “to think of  the industrial plants more as a shell over a mechanical process then as the ancestral home of a corporation” (p. 83). The trend was away from institutional monumentality toward factories designed for flexibility.

“Michael F. Roberts, a partner in the Toronto-based architectural firm Wilson Newton Roberts, informed the readership of Industrial Canada that ‘an industrial building is an envelope wrapped around a manufacturing process.’ In light of this new-found concern for flexibility, older factories became inefficient and therefore disposable.”

By the late 1950s, multi-storey factories were losing out to single-storey structures.

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, factory designers had built narrow industrial buildings, then shaped like the letters I, L, E, T, U, H, or F, to allow in natural light and ventilation. Inexpensive electricity not only eliminated the need for natural light, but also made redundant the belts and shafting that had made the multi-storey factory desirable.”

After the Second World War, corporate thinking favoured plants in suburban areas, small towns, or rural areas. Studies in the post-war years “called attention to the shift in the industrial production from older areas to newer ones that enabled companies to escape unionization and high taxes” (p. 85).  The shift also enabled corporations to demonstrate a concern for the environment.

Architectural renderings

In the postwar years, mills and plants were redefined as attractive post-industrial spaces. In his study of advertisements in a trade publication, the Site Selection Handbook, High speaks of the re-emergence of the ‘machine in the garden’ ideal.

“One of the ways that local or state industrial commissions sold property in their areas was to stress the park-like surroundings. Pastoral landscapes awaited the smart corporate manager. One attractive advertisement in this genre was placed by the Canadian National Railway.

“The CNR’s ad features a briefcase-holding executive gazing in wonder down a picturesque river valley towards the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Amid the brilliant oranges and yellows of the autumn landscape, several factories and a dam blend into the idyllic setting” (pp. 85-86).

High notes that while photographic images worked well for corporate self-representation at the beginning of the twentieth century, many companies turned to architectural site renderings to record post-industrial factories.

“These architectural sketches often situated pale industrial buildings amid rows of trees and bushes and immaculate lawns. Graphic artists usually located these factories and mills in summer’s splendour and, whenever possible, invoked high tech/low wage ‘Southernness’ by the kind of vegetation shown.” (86-87).

Other changes occurred. The shift from civic capitalism to national or global capitalism altered the world-view of corporate leaders. Concurrently the locus of power within corporate enterprises shifted from operational managers to financial experts.

High-tech centres

The chapter entitled “Back to the Garden: Redesigning the factory for a post-industrial age” begins with a quote (p. 74) from Technopoles of the world: The making of twenty-first-century industrial complexes (Manuel Castells and Peter Hall, 1994).

Technopoles are planned centres, such as Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay area, for the promotion for high-technology industry. Technopoles have also been described as the cities of technology.

Castells and Hall (1994) note that in 1950, Santa Clara County was mainly an agricultural area, with about 800 manufacturing workers, mainly in food processing plants. By the 1980s, there were about 8,000 firms in the complex. The authors also note that most of the orchards that Silicon Valley had been known for are gone. The surface of open space per person in the City of San Jose in the mid-1990s was about one-third of that of New York City.

Social networks, based on face-to-face interactions based on common technical and professional issues, and a shared culture of innovation were key factors in the growth and continued vitality of Silicon Valley. The reference to social networks brings to mind a December 2012 Globe and Mail article concerning the role of social interaction in higher education.

The authors add that “most of the key inventions in microelectronics and computing have originated in Silicon Valley, including the co-invention of the integrated circuit, the planar process [the manufacturing technology required to produce integrated circuits], the microprocessor, the Unix system, and the development of the personal computer.”

The quote from Castells and Hall, at the beginning of Steven High’s chapter about factory design, refers to an image of the nineteenth-century industrial economy, “familiar from a hundred history textbooks: the coal mine and its neighboring iron foundry, belching black smoke into the sky, and illuminating the night heavens with its lurid red glare.”

The quote speaks as well of the corresponding image of the new economy that took shape in the last years of the twentieth century: “It consists of a series of low, discreet buildings, usually displaying a certain air of quiet good taste, and set amid impeccable landscaping in the standard real-estate cliché, a campus-like atmosphere.”

Environmental friendliness

While the postwar years have been labelled ‘the environmental era,’ industrialization hasn’t invariably been kind to the environment.

The transformation of the urban structure of Santa Clara County under the impact of rapid industrialization between 1950 and 1990 “is one of the most striking examples of the contradiction between individual economic affluence and collective environmental deterioration,” according to Castells and Hall.

“The intensity of the process of growth,” they add, “put enormous pressure on scarce land – for industrial development, housing, urban services, transportation, and open space. Land prices and housing prices skyrocketed, making real estate very attractive, then adding speculative pressures to functional demands.

“The supposedly clean industry caused serious chemical pollution, some of it stemming right from Stanford Industrial Park, contaminating water wells in many areas, including upper-middle-class areas, to the point of becoming a health hazard.”

The discussion brings to mind recent reports of the environmental effects of server farms, which are also built upon the ‘machine in the garden’ model. According to a Sept. 22, 2012 New York Times article, which can be accessed through a link in the previous sentence, “A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.” It may be added in passing that a cold climate is helpful in dealing with technical issues associated with server farms, some of which consume roughly as much energy as a small city.

A December 2012 New York Times article highlights the role of data centres in keeping ‘The Cloud’ running. A Jan. 19, 2013 Guardian article describes features of the Google headquarters in Silicon Valley.

A March 20, 2013 East Nay Express article shares reflections about the cultural and economic landscape of the Bay Area. The latter report is referenced in Matt Buchanan’s March 22, 2013 New Yorker article entitled “The biggest problem in technology.”

A May 26, 2013 Guardian article explores the relation of Silicon Valley to its surrounding geographical environment. A May 26, 2013 New Yorker article discusses related topics. George Packer, the author of the latter article, notes: “My interest in technology is mostly sociological, maybe even anthropological.”

A Sept. 26, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Recycle that headquarters.”

Anthropocene Age

The machine in the garden metaphor can be expressed in many ways. We can note that “Modern (postindustrial) society inaugurated what geologists refer to as the ‘Anthropocene Age,’ when human activities began to drive environmental change, replacing the Holocene, which for the previous ten thousand years was the era when the earth regulated the environment” (Adrian Parr, 2013, p. 3).

We can as well speak of the Machine in the Garden as a contemporary land use pattern involving the conversion of “land with abundant ecosystems into agricultural or built environments and in the process damaging biodiversity and releasing ancient carbon from the world’s carbon sinks” (Parr, 2013, p. 38).

With regard to the Machine in the Garden metaphor we can also speak of projects which seek to reclaim the commons, a topic to which the 2009 Economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has contributed research. I’m reminded as well of the argument that nature and technology are intertwined. The relationship between technology and civilization also comes to mind.

Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964)

The discussion brings to mind The Machine in the Garden (1964) by Leo Marx. The discussion also brings to mind the related concepts of intersubjectivity and interdependence.


In the dramaturgical terms of Erving Goffman (1959), the frontstage story concerns the Machine in the Garden. Discretely positioned and surrounded by impeccable landscaping, the machine exudes an air of quiet good taste. The backstage story, in Goffman’s terminology, remains to be told.

What we know at this point is that most of the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley are gone; much of the open space is gone; and efforts are under way to address chemical and other forms of pollution.


A Jan. 10, 2015 Tech Crunch article is entitled: “East Of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation Of Silicon Valley.”

A Jan. 18, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Iroquois Falls latest casualty of changing Northern Ontario economy: Town scrambles for ideas to replace lost jobs.”

A May 4, 2015 CBC The Current article is entitled: “‘Second Machine Age’ author says machines are taking over humans.”

A June 13, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “Google’s Monastic Vision for the Future of Work.”

The article notes:

The idea of living not just near one’s employer but in a world of its creation will sound horrifying to many workers: company towns were supposed to have vanished as an industrial-age perversion. But there are socially responsible reasons for holding employees in lavish corporate dorms. For one thing, it keeps them from messing with the local real estate. As I reported in the magazine last year, the greater Bay Area is in the throes of an acute housing crisis, exacerbated, if not caused, by forces attending tech’s wild ascent. The value of employee housing, if built from the ground up, is one of the few points on which large tech companies and housing activists see eye to eye. For the companies, too, there’s a promise of fruitful cohesion (the group that lives together grows together) and productivity (no trains to catch).

A July/August Foreign Affairs article is entitled: “Same as It Ever Was: Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong.”

A July 9, 2015 New York Times Review of Books article is entitled: “How You Consist of Trillions of Tiny Machines.”

A March 7, 2017 CBC The Current article is entitled; “‘Capitalism on steroids’: How big tech is gentrifying the Golden City.”

A March 7, 2018 New York Times article is entitled: “In ‘Behemoth,’ Manufacturing Still Looms Large.”

A March 9, 2018 Washington Post article is entitled: “Meet the latest tourist attractions: Abandoned factories.”

Birth of pastoral corporation

A Dec. 30, 2019 MIT Press Reader article is entitled: “The Birth of the Pastoral Corporation: In contrast to the noisy and diverse city, the suburbs were seen as spacious, segregated, and quiet — a much more promising state of affairs to corporations bent on expansion.”

Even more than Downing, Olmsted regarded the landscape as an instrument of social order. Gently undulating grass, serpentine lakes, sinuous pathways, and leafy woodland groves provided urban dwellers a much-sought-after alternative to the dense industrial city, presumably with salutary moral as well as physical effects. Not intended as a zone of active use, the pastoral public park presented composed scenery for passive viewing. The purpose of this engagement Olmsted described with typical zeal: “No one who has closely observed the conduct of people who visit Central Park can doubt it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and lawless of the city — an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.” Urban dwellers proved much more resistant to “harmonizing” than Olmsted expected, and in the face of American pluralism, public parks became more diverse in their activities and accommodations. Nevertheless, as reiterations of Central Park appeared in cities large and small across the United States by the beginning of the 20th century, the enveloping pastoral aesthetic of the public park prevailed and carried with it the equation of pastoral scenery and ameliorative social influence.

Aesthetics of totalitarianism

A Feb. 27, 2020 Oxford University Press article is entitled: “Dangerous Beauty: Aesthetics, Politics, and Power in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.” 

An excerpt from the Oxford University Press article reads:

I could provide a close reading of Anthropocene’s imagery, text, and techniques divorced from their implications and stakes, but this would further depoliticize the film’s problematic politics. These stakes particularly matter because Anthropocene is intended for a general audience. Briefly, however, several key features distinguish Anthropocene as a film. It centers on the visual, with limited narration (actress Alicia Vikander), few interviews, little music, and often the sounds of the landscape shown. Like Edward Burtynsky’s photography, Anthropocene employs dramatic visual techniques, predominantly aerial views, sweeping panoramic shots that cross considerable terrain, and slow pacing that accentuates the spatial reach of certain phenomena. It does drill down to specific sites but all too briefly. Frequently, Anthropocene features colors, patterns, and textures at large or small scale, rendering these images largely unidentifiable, thus abstracting and aestheticizing objects, processes, and phenomena. Like Burtynsky’s photography and previous films, aesthetics play a major role in driving the film’s narrative arc, which is one of its main problems.[1]

In the article, the documentary under review is described as focusing upon the aestheticization – that is, bringing to a level of attractiveness – of particular objects, processes, and phenomena associated with global environmental degradation and destruction, while sidestepping critical analysis of the subject matter under observation.

In a sense, as I gather, we are dealing with rhetorical flourishes (focusing, that is, on visually spectacular, and frequently abstracted images) which are largely untethered from the underlying fact-based reality of life upon the earth. We are, that is, exploring themes related to the aesthetics of totalitarianism.


A Nov. 19, 2020 Canadian Dimension article is entitled: “Right-wing populism and the realignment of working-class politics in Canada: Many Canadians still believe that we are somehow immune to right-wing populism. That is dangerous thinking.”

A excerpt reads:

Deindustrialized areas that once voted for left-wing or liberal parties across Europe and the US have voted for populist right-wing candidates in recent years. This political shift has been facilitated by two things: the decline or collapse of private sector trade unionism and the gentrification of parties that were once grounded in working-class communities. These parties took for granted working-class support, as their “Blue” (US) and “Red” (UK) working-class walls crumbled around them.

Once proud socialist parties in France, Italy, and Germany have withered or died. In the United States, one former bastion of industrial liberalism after another has fallen to the Republicans. Not so long ago, West Virginia was one of the most progressive states in the country. It is now painted deep Republican red.

Land use

The topics at this post highlight issues related to the history of land use planning. Some previous posts and additional studies that highlight related themes include:

“Modern movement” in architecture gave rise to “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse,” says planner Ken Greenberg

Eugenics in the garden: transatlantic architecture and the crafting of modernity (2018)

The romantic machine: utopian science and technology after Napoleon (2012)

Green retreats: women, gardens, and eighteenth-century culture (2013)

Coming to our senses: perceiving complexity to avoid catastrophes (2014)

Reclaiming American cities: the struggle for people, place, and nature since 1900 (2014)

The 99% invisible city: a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (2020)

A blurb for the latter book – about the 99% invisible city – reads:

A beautifully designed guidebook to the unnoticed yet essential elements of our cities, from the creators of the wildly popular 99% Invisible podcast.

Twenty copies of the book, which was highlighted on Jan. 11, 2021 at a CBC The Current interview, are available at the Toronto Public Library. As of Jan. 12, 2021 the book has 210 holds.

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