The Way Forward: An Argument for the Re-Industrialization of Our Cities

Ross Brady Ross Brady

In recent years, the mainstream principles of urban planning have undergone a significant shift. After decades of proselytizing by various special-interest groups, many urban planners seem to have begun embracing the notion of mixed-use, walkable development as a model fit for widespread adoption. The proliferation of this wisdom is a great leap forward in the mass-market creation of socially viable city districts, but the currently accepted mix of uses — typically multifamily residential above storefront retail — is lacking. If we want our cities to retain their newfound vitality, they are going to have accommodate more than apartments and shopping. Keeping our cities economically stable requires the incorporation of industrial or light industrial production into mixed-use schemes.

A preference for this type of development can already be found in the “maker” economy — moderately scaled, DIY production — which benefits from close proximity to everything from offices and retail to dining, entertainment and residences. However, the colocation of almost any type of industry with other uses is often forbade by zoning laws and building codes that have not revised their stances on the issue in nearly half a century. While the origin of these laws was necessary to mitigate the sanitary hazards of the industrial revolution, many urban industries of today tend to be far less noxious than their forebears.

Hackesche Höfe, Berlin: early 20th-century mixed-use complex that still houses light industry, retail and residences; via Designbüro Peter Pohl

To meet this new economic demand, some cities are reexamining their policies to allow such a mix, but this circumstance begs the question for architects and designers: How does a close-quartered pairing of industry with commercial and residential programming function, and what does it look like?

The reemergence of this idea in modern practice is quite recent, so much so that very few examples exist to point the way. The following contemporary projects illustrate the possibilities inherent in this mix of uses, organized according to scale.

Via Checkwith Poiron Architects

Via Checkwith Poiron Architects

SMALL – Harbour Road Sail Loft & Residences by Checkwith Poiron Architects, Sidney, Canada

At the scale of a single lot, this building demonstrates a mixed-use scheme of light industry integrated with both office space and residential units. Sited at the intersection of a residential neighborhood and a marine industrial zone, the ground floor accommodates a sail fabrication shop and its offices. Outfitted with special pits for heavy-duty sewing machines, most of the shop’s exterior walls are glazed, allowing passersby on the street to observe the activities within.

The apartment lofts above are offset vertically from the facility below and occupy a two-story volume rising from the planar, horizontal workspace on the ground level. At this size, a combination of industrial production and residential space benefits from the scale of a single, small building, in which design decisions to better suit either tenant can be made with relative ease, and disruptions between a limited user base are further curtailed by their inverse occupation schedules.

© Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer

© Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer

© Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer

© Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer

MEDIUM – Houstma by Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer, Amsterdam, Netherlands

At the scale of several contiguous lots or even a whole block, an exceptional level of design complexity is introduced when industrial businesses are part of the scheme. Occupying the wraparound end of a city block in Oud-West, an Amsterdam suburb with a strong live-work character, this architectural ensemble accommodates small-scale industry, residences of various sizes and a commercial eatery overlooking an adjacent canal. At this size, the operational needs of one use group can have a significant effect on the functional capabilities of another, often preventing mixed-use ambitions.

To address such issues, the designers of Houstma — dubbed by locals as “The Neighborhood Factory” — have placed low-rise working facilities in the middle of the site, flanked by taller apartment blocks. This reserves the best views for the residences and gives prime street frontage along the canal to the workshop entrances, maximizing their potential foot traffic and public engagement. Most important for operational considerations, though, a programmatic staggering of building heights provides unimpeded space above the workshops to accommodate relatively large mechanical equipment, necessary for their industrial activities, concealed beneath metal panels that define a series of sawtooth roof forms.

© Crossboundaries

© Crossboundaries

© Crossboundaries

© Crossboundaries

LARGE – Aimer Lingerie Factory by Crossboundaries, Beijing, China

Large-scale developments at the level of a master plan or an entire neighborhood are made infinitely more complicated when mixing uses, but the social resiliency of such an area can be greatly enhanced with some measure of industrial use. In this light, the Aimer Lingerie company presents a relevant case study for laying out a mixed-use scheme of this size. At over 400,000 square feet, its new headquarters houses the company’s entire operation in one complex: research, manufacturing, storage, distribution, showrooms and, most importantly, housing for 300 employees.

To allow for the colocation of these uses, building masses are separated by an outdoor “canyon” that provides necessary separations but also gives the complex a neighborhood feel. Connected across the upper level with a series of walkways, this project demonstrates how such adjacencies can function in a tightly packed urban scenario and at multiple levels, as employee residences here could just as easily be private apartments somewhere else. Turned inward on itself, this factory proves that a separation of uses doesn’t necessarily have to be formally separated.

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