In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section North American Industry and Architecture

  • Introduction

Architecture Planning and Preservation North American Industry and Architecture
Claire Zimmerman, Sarah Wheat
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0092


Industrial architecture has attracted considerable recent interest as historians explore the root causes of the climate crisis and ongoing environmental degradation. This article examines industrial architecture in North America, where the steel and auto industries accelerated the growth of industrial building, changing the entire landscape of North America (and beyond) through mechanization and automobility. North American land colonization had given rise to significant logistical challenges. By the nineteenth century, these challenges yielded a maximalist, “industrial” approach—which is to say, an approach founded on systematic, coordinated, large-scale land calibrations and appropriations. Notable milestones of this process include the Northwest Ordinance (1789), the Homestead Act of 1862, and even the FHA mortgage insurance program of the 1930s that underwrote single-family home purchases, chiefly for white Americans working white- and blue-collar jobs in American cities and suburbs. Historians have defined American industrial culture in terms of practical knowledge and concrete results. Yet like the United Kingdom, with its overseas empire built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States acquired imperial power through industrial might and military conquest in the twentieth. Industrial building manifests the effects of land colonization, political economy, and geopolitics. This bibliography therefore touches on environmental history, the plantation economy, systems development, and the history of labor and urbanization. We begin section 1 with general treatments, followed by subsections that help readers define and then better understand industrial architecture in North America. The section concludes with sources on laboring populations in factories. Section 2 focuses on contexts and infrastructures of industrial environments, expanding outward from company towns to urban factories and the assembly line, to environmental and plantation histories. Section 2 concludes at the largest scale, with source material on empire as it relates to the North American industrial juggernaut of the twentieth century. Section 3 narrows in on architecture’s discourses, beginning with early treatments of North American industrial construction, continuing with compendia of industrial architecture that mostly appeared around the middle of the twentieth century, and concluding with more recent material. The sections of the bibliography include architectural source material, but also provide synthetic resources for the study of industrial building as it constituted a new kind of continental infrastructure. Factories mark the site of industrial activity; they also mark the concrete emergence of an entire system of production that underpins their existence. A complex set of economic, material, and social relations are concretized in their often non-aestheticized forms. This article thus underpins the subject of industrial architecture in North America with contextual material that helps the reader make sense of its emergence. Eschewing subsections on Ford or New England mills, we emphasize instead the networked, repetitive, and recursive aspects of industrial architecture in the project of North American settlement. Please see also the Oxford Bibliographies in Architecture, Planning, and Preservation article “Albert Kahn.”

General Treatments of Industrialization and Its Surrounds

Here, broadly historical and analytical treatments of industrialization on the North American continent offer an array of approaches to thinking about industrial environments. General treatments are followed by three subsections focusing on key aspects of industrializing environments. The first defines industrial architecture within its larger environs; the second presents theories of industrialization insofar as these reflect on or in buildings. The third subsection in this section focuses on treatments of labor in factories, a subject that remains under-articulated in the analysis of the built environment. This introductory section contextualizes industrial architecture in history (Bender 2009, Meyer 2003, Slotkin 1985), urban history (Zunz 1982), design history (Smith 1993), science and technology studies (Nye 2003, Hughes 1989, Paskoff 1983), cultural criticism (Marx 1964), and economics (Galbraith 1967). The goal is to provide source material in which industrial architectural history might be read against adjacent discourses, in part to highlight those histories that can be best studied through the evidence of the built environment.

  • Bender, Daniel E. American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

    Intellectual historian Bender explores social theory in counterpoint with industrialization, narrating the shift from Progressive Era reformism to 1920s anti-immigration eugenicist discourse that cast immigrant industrial workers as inferior racialized types. Conservative social theorists feared that industry was the incubator of racial inferiority, where the weaker could thrive, driving out the racially superior white American worker. Concluding with 1920s anti-immigration legislation, Bender analyzes narratives of cultural Darwinism that proliferated before and after WWI.

  • Galbraith, John Kenneth. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

    Taking on the widespread view that the United States prioritized free enterprise, Galbraith—economist, public intellectual, diplomat, and best-selling author—employed the term “New Industrial State” to describe the common projects pursued by governments and large corporations in the wake of WWII. In lieu of broader social benefits, state funding of the military and incentivized consumer spending (the index of a rising “standard of living”) largely benefited profit-oriented companies, not public good.

  • Hughes, Thomas P. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970. New York: Viking, 1989.

    Technology (as well as those who control it) shapes history, Hughes argues, as do sociology and culture. Edison, Bell, Tesla, the Wright brothers, “Taylorismus,” “Fordismus,” General Electric, General Motors, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Manhattan Project provide case studies. Yet Hughes also examines Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Lewis Mumford, Marcel Duchamp, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth, demonstrating how American technological invention infiltrated American culture as well as its society, business, and government.

  • Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    This foundational text examines classic works of American literature that foreground a persistent trope: technology (the machine) imposed upon idealized pastoral scenes, or, the machine in the garden. Through these works of fiction, Marx analyzes the dialectical tension between Americans’ conceptions of the pastoral and the promises of industrial power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arguing that literary works expose a deep unease between concepts of “nature” and “culture” within American narratives of land settlement.

  • Meyer, David R. The Roots of American Industrialization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.56021/9780801871412

    Meyer synthesizes primary sources from local and regional networks of farmers, laborers, wholesalers, merchants, and manufacturers to account for the early years of industrialization in the United States, defining its close symbiotic relationship to agriculture. Focusing on the eastern seaboard, Meyer notes that the industries of the east and midwest established the economic power of these regions between 1790 and 1950, and that these depended on the strong agricultural regions that supported early industrialization.

  • Nye, David E. America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

    Focusing on technological creation stories associated with the North American landscape, Nye uses a series of case studies on the land survey, the axe, the mill, the railroad and canal, and land irrigation to analyze the industrialization of the continent. Counternarratives of African American, Native American, and non-assenting US citizens are counterposed with those that emphasized mythical technological inevitability.

  • Paskoff, Paul F. Industrial Evolution: Organization, Structure, and Growth of the Pennsylvania Iron Industry, 1750–1860. Studies in Industry and Society 3. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

    The title, “Industrial Evolution,” points to Paskoff’s argument that what we know as the Industrial Revolution was actually a slow and incremental process. This is a departure from the modernization theory of historians such as Charles Beard (The Industrial Revolution, 1901) and W. W. Rostow (The Stages of Economic Growth, 1960). Paskoff demonstrates the validity of this larger claim through a study of economic change in the Pennsylvania iron industry from 1750 to 1850.

  • Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

    The middle volume of a trilogy on the North American continent, this book relates frontier mythology to the historical acceleration of industrializing America. Part III focuses on the emerging industrial metropolis; subsequent chapters focus on the role of railroads and managers in perpetuating models of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century.

  • Smith, Terry. Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    This paradigmatic study focuses on images of Ford’s Highland Park, advertising, the murals and artworks of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, and the commercialization of industrial design at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Smith effectively analyzes industry, art, and design as they shaped modern culture and served American industrial elites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book contains one of the most incisive analyses of the Detroit scene, and of Albert Kahn in particular, yet published.

  • Zunz, Olivier. The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

    In late-19th-century Detroit, industrial employers began to break down the networks that held ethnic minorities together outside the factory gates, in order to break down worker solidarity and discourage trade unionism. Workers were yet further divided, white from Black. A deeply researched and essential reference work on the history of Detroit, this book suggests larger urban patterns and industrial politics in industrial cities in the United States over four decades around the turn of the nineteenth century.

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