‘Until at last the swollen gasometer came into view’: thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of industrial estates

“Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate
Yeah, yeah, industrial estate”

Ever since I first heard it late one night on a TV documentary sometime in the 1990s the early Fall song ‘Industrial Estate’ (1979) has captivated me. It bubbles up in my mind from time to time, reminding me that one day I need to figure out the anti-aesthetics of the industrial estate. Why, are these places so, ‘non’. Why, to most, are they zones bereft of any value at all? Why did my father wince every time someone mentioned manufacturing or industry?

In the monotony of this song I thought I’d heard a lone-voice call for the valorisation of spaces of light engineering and logistics, a call to acknowledge the everyday mundane reality of these places. In a way I had – but I think my southern ears had also read-in something extra, something not to the fore in late 1970s Manchester. An early nostalgic ruin porn perhaps, something captured – for post-industrial posterity – in the irony of @VenusInGortex’s   recent tweet-haiku:

“We penetrated deeper into the industrial estate,

its graffiti pregnant with mystery,

until at last the swollen gasometer came into view… “

Lucifer over Lancashire

According to Reynolds (2005) Industrial Estate “immortalized the pollution-belching Trafford Park” (174), pointing to the song’s line “The crap in the air will fuck up your face”. No, perhaps this wasn’t a whilstful psychogeographical ode to the beauty of the banal after all. This was actually an angry realism. Geo-reportage, in keeping with the post-punk angst, a song in fragments about going to work in this work-world:

“Well you started here to earn your pay
Clean neck and ears on your first day
Well we tap one another as you walk in the gate
And we’d build a canteen but we haven’t got much space”

This was remembered place of work and worthlessness. Smith had worked as a clerk at nearby Salford Docks (the early Fall song ‘Container Drivers’ capturing that lifeworld perfectly). This was part of a mid twentieth century working-day reality. By Smith’s teens “Dark satanic mills” of the Victorian mill towns of Lancashire had been augmented by the engineering and logistics sheds of the vast Trafford Park industrial estate, which had grown and grown from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Betjeman over Berkshire

Lowry could paint these places, Smith would later write elliptically of their last days, and poets would at times venture to depict them with alienated anti-wonder:

 “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath…”

So wrote John Betjeman in his 1937 anti-eulogy to Slough and its industrial estate (the largest in Europe). Betjeman’s association of bombs and industrial estate was a surprisingly fitting one for the one thing that connects many industrial estates (and certainly the first wave of sites like Slough, Park Royal and others on the London periphery) is their link to either munitions manufacture and/or marshalling materiel for onward shipment to the Western Front in the First World War. By 1918 the Government had built 240 munitions related factories, many of which drifted into industrial estate type use after that war (just as RAF airfields did in turn after 1945). By 1918 the Slough site was home to 17,000 army surplus vehicles and 1.8 million sq ft of covered workshops. The site had been acquired (as a farm) by the government in order to amass vehicles there for a proposed motor-borne assault in the Western Front in 1919. In 1920 a group of investors bought up that stock, and the land on which they sat, first selling the vehicles and then mobilising the land as an estate for industry and its sheds.

Such places were ripe for development as monocultural light industrial zones, Ebenexer Howard’s advocacy of zoning based urban planning finding traction in the ensuing decades (aided by the rise of the motorised distribution of goods and workers). In the 1930s a second wave of government initiated industrial estates were developed, such as Treforest in South Wales, to address the decline of primary industry there.

During the Second World War large swathes of manufacturing capacity across the country, and its attendant real estate were requisition (or contracted into) the war effort. This was occasionally laid bare for me when I was working as a lawyer, somewhere buried in the ownership paperwork for a site would be a wartime lease revealing the factory’s temporary secondment as a Spitfire factory, or paperwork revealing (the once top secret) fuel and other supply pipelines laid to keep the nation’s vital industrial fluids flowing.

Enchanting the estate

In their book Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology(2000) Stratton & Trinder seek to raise the banner for the importance of industrial estates in the story of the last 100 years, to foreground the engineering works, the canning factory, the munitions shed and the rise of logistics. Fittingly they set out to challenge:

“the conventional wisdom in deploring certain aspects of the twentieth century – the monotony of work in car factories or the horrors of living in towerblocks…”

As their method they advocate writing:

“…from the first hand experience of sites and landscapes…taking a sceptical, irreverent and sometimes counter-intuitive attitude to received views of twentieth-century artefacts and places.”(2)

It may feel odd to do so, rubbing as it does against modern sensibilities, but industrial estates deserve their fair share of attention – and given some attention they will coyly reveal more colour than their drab forms and colours might at a first glance promise.

References

Reynolds, S. (2005) Rip it up and start again – post-punk 1978-1984, Faber & Faber: London

Stratton, B. & Trinder, B. (2000) Twentieth century industrial archaeology, E&FN Spon: London

Wikipedia “Slough Trading Estate”

a.k.a New Uses for Old Bunkers #27: what did the industrial estate do in the war?

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to ‘Until at last the swollen gasometer came into view’: thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of industrial estates

  1. Great stuff Luke. As I was reading was also thinking ‘Container Drivers’ but you had it nailed! I grew up in Glenrothes and there were a lot of ‘new’ light industrial estates dotted around the periphery. One of them evolved into an Amazon distribution centre which it outgrew so they built a new one at Dunfermline. Maybe this is the new new industrial estate!
    http://graftongate.com/news/amazon-dunfermline-4/

    • Thanks Fifepsy, that’s certainly a big shed (the Amazon one). It’s always good to materialise the – so called – virtual world of e-commerce. Yes, the future is warehouses and server farms…snug inside old bunkers.

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