What is (in) a Building?

In a talk at the Architecture, Space and Society Centre, Birkbeck, University of London, in October 2019, Tilo Amhoff spoke about the rational organisation of factories. Before the beginnings of industrial capitalism in Europe, in the mid eighteenth century, workers mostly laboured to produce their own products. They would see their product from start to finish. A shoemaker would begin with leather, spend time labouring on the product, and at the end there would be a usable and sellable pair of shoes. A farmer began with land, usually rented from a royal landlord, a descendent of someone who was given the land after the colonisation of Britain by William I of Normandy. The farmer completed the whole process, from seeds and empty land to selling food at the local market or corn exchange.

The usual narrative is that the development of industrial technologies allowed a new, faster and more efficient way of producing commodities, beginning with the textiles industry. However, what was truly restricting the possibility of infinitely-expanding profits at the time was not a lack of technology – which could not have been known before the discovery of the technology itself; its lack does not present itself to a world that has never known it – but rather the relations between workers themselves and what they were producing. The production mechanism of social organisation was the problem for the capitalists. As Karl Marx notes in his preface to Capital, the ruling powers of the U.S.A. decided on the need to industrialise and create greater production power once slavery was formally abolished, meaning that their secured system of mass-production was gone; their reason for needing machines was because they could no longer turn people into machines. Technological development, in this way, was a development in society’s relation to production and among people, rather than the practical use of steam or coal.

Later in Capital, Marx continues, ‘the subjection of labour to capital was only a formal result of the fact, that the labourer, instead of working for himself, works for and consequently under the capitalist. By the co-operation of numerous wage-labourers, the sway of capital develops into a requisite for carrying on the labour-process itself, into a real requisite of production. That a capitalist should command on the field of production, is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle.

‘All combined labour on a large scale requires, more or less, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious working of the individual activities, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the action of the combined organism, as distinguished from the action of its separate organs.’

When workers made the entirety of their own products, sold them, and used the money to pay rent to their landlords, the amount of money the capitalists could make was limited. They could only really take profit from the rent of their land. Since the entire commodity – be it a pair of shoes, a slice of meat, a pint of beer – was entirely made from start to finish by one worker, they could not easily claim the profit of the product.


A way of assembling and organising workers had to be developed, then, in which the capitalist became the only person who knew what was going on, so that each worker was not aware of what was being produced and, ultimately, the capitalist overseer could take all the profit. That is the rational organisation of the factory, which Tilo Amhoff was talking about in his presentation at the Architecture, Space and Society Centre.

That organisation of workers into a factory-line, in which each worker performs a tiny part of the overall task and does not know how to produce the final product, makes the capitalist overseer necessary to production. The process takes the profit from the worker and gives it to the owner. This process, most importantly, is not limited to the factory. It becomes a new way of conducting life. People’s social relations became based on the formula of the factory-line. The rational organisation of society is brought into play at this same moment in history, with Victorian society introducing strict rules of composure. The child, for example, turns from a dismissed not-yet-human who must simply observe others’ lives, to a cog in the machine of the family, a cog to be trained and moulded into a shape that fits the expectations of the factory-line.

A new way of organising family time is also imposed. The very concept of ‘family time’ begins at this historical moment. Each member of the family performs a constitutive role in the creation of a being that is beyond each individual; together they form a mythical entity called Family, this great paradigm that they can never reach but which they can try to imitate or assimilate themselves into by performing strictly organised roles and tasks. The women in long dresses, tights, bonnets and corsets had to observe the rules of an overseeing authority, without which the universal form of Family would seem to crumble in a society now based on observance of factory-line organisation.

The chimney of the factory also plays a vital role in how industrial architecture creates society. With the extraction of coal from mines, for the first time in history the material for making energy was not in the same place as the mechanism that extracts energy from the material. As Andreas Malm writes in Fossil Capital, ‘Resting in the exterior – or, rather, the remote interior – of the terrestrial landscape, seams of coal could be reached only through a hole in the ground. At this single spot – the pithead – loads were hauled up from below; the mine itself, its shafts and tunnels, may have sprawled through the underground, but the transfer of coal from the subterraneous deposits to the terrestrial landscape in all its expanse had to pass through this narrow crack. The entry of coal into the world of humans (minus the colliers themselves) was thus centralised in space, at points from whence it could be transported to consumers and stored in warehouses, without the need for further attention, passively awaiting combustion. For the first time in history, the converter and the energy source – the engine and the mine – were disassociated in space, allowing factories to stay closer together.’

Ultimately, ‘capitalist property relations of early nineteenth-century Britain had produced their own form of spatiality, which, after entering a moment of acute contradiction, had to reorder nature.’

The people who produced energy, who made products and commodities, had also inhabited a central role in society. They had to be near everything for everything to work. The owners of the horses had to be near the centre of the city so that people could ride their carriages. The producers of meat had to be near the market so that they could bring fresh food to consumers. People who cut wood had to be near people’s houses so that they had access to a constant supply of warmth without it getting wet on the way.

What this did, though, was make the city a place essentially owned and run by workers. They inhabited the central positions because that was necessary to keep the city running. When the City of London was the centre of the capital city’s production, the royal residence was placed outside of the centre, in Westminster, which up until the Regency period (1790-1820) was mostly fields and hunting grounds. The seat of power was far away from the hub of production.

Wanting more power, more social centrality, more profit, those in power had to place themselves in the centre somehow. The extraction of coal from mines far from the major cities, then, was an ideal solution to this problem. It kept workers out of the way, relegated to the periphery, not just geographically, but socially too.

The chimney in the factory seems like a great example of this. The consequence of the extraction of coal and its burning in power plants was, basically, death. It is a deadly material that creates huge amounts of pollution and kills those working near it. Carbon dioxide is currently increasing at a rate of 2 parts per million (ppm) per year (pre-industrial rates being about 260 ppm and not having risen above 500 ppm since the Miocene era, 24 million years ago). Coal power plants are literally collapsing the world, reducing it to nothing, seeming to undo the original aim of power plants: to expand the world, to make it possible to remove unwanted people from the central position of profit and those with historical access to it.

The chimney carries the smoke produced by burning coal out of the factory where it is burnt. It makes a grand gesture of protecting people. It is an immense structure, a huge pipe rising far above the rest of the already large factory, marking the industrial skyline. Manchester is still recognisable by a row of industrial chimneys when approaching by train, and the most spectacular architectural structures of Newcastle’s riverside are industrial chimneys.

The chimney’s removal of the physical spectre of death makes the factory seem innocent. It presents the space of production as a clean and safe environment, presenting itself within this space as the saviour of the workers: the chimney will save you; it is carrying away the deadly smoke. But it only displaces it into the responsibility of something else. And in the air, into the sky where the carcinogenic smoke gets pumped, it is the responsibility of everyone. The responsibility of death is removed from the factory-owner and redefined as everyone’s responsibility, which is the same as no one’s. There is no single place where responsibility for death can be placed, so it cannot be placed.

Architecture creates the social relations that are lived inside its space, and the requirements of power and profit create architecture. Society is designed in brick and mortar, in the greed and violence of regimes of power.

A building is not an innocent or neutral site. It connects to multiple relations that affect real life as lived by people and their social formations.