An Aesthetic approach to Industrial Heritage
Finding beauty in the transient, the well-worn, and that which is evocative of something transcendent is the highest form of artistic appreciation. The Japanese have an aesthetic concept called ‘wabi-sabi’ (rather, two concepts welded together over the course of many centuries. Wabi refers to rustic simplicity and sabi to the patina of aging. The concept of wabi-sabi is grounded in Buddhism, culturally speaking. Wabi-sabi is associated with Zen gardens, old wooden temples, ikebana (traditional Japanese flower arranging), and the Japanese tea ceremony. An appreciation of wabi-sabi means cultivating an understanding of, and appreciation for, the withered, worn, asymmetrical, rough, natural, and modest. This aesthetic lens of analysis provides great insight into the human condition — our frailties, appreciation of our finite lifespans, and awareness of what came before. Though this was developed to a fine degree in traditional Japanese aesthetics, I responded to it by looking for a rough Western equivalent. There are many in the United States who go around to abandoned sites and photograph them for posterity. Matthew Christopher’s stunning photography is, in my opinion, quite a close approximation. While there may be objections cast about aesthetic appreciation of industrial sites, I would argue that industrial ruins reveal the same insights into human nature and society as wabi-sabi does in Japan.
Journey to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, the ‘Switzerland of America,’ and you will see a scenic town in the state’s coal region. The slopes of the Lehigh Gorge park, once completely barren due to extensive logging, have recovered over the previous few decades. Reforestation is a positive effect of an increased awareness of environmental issues in general. Lehigh Gorge is now a protected area and still contains some ruins from the industrial past. The town of Jim Thorpe is an historic gem — Victorian architecture and a lump of anthracite to remind those visiting of region’s mining history.
Next, journey to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This is the site of one of the preserved industrial-era blast furnaces in the United States. Bethlehem Steel operated from 1857 (as Bethlehem Iron Company, became Bethlehem Steel in 1904) to 2003. The company dominated the city, with many families working here for generations.
The passage of time is evident walking the areas around the old blast furnaces. The remains stand as a monument to the work ethic of generations of Pennsylvanians and their contribution to American industry. The nearby National Museum of Industrial Heritage displays a quote from The Times (London) from 1876: “The American Invents as the Greeks sculptured and the Italians painted: it is genius.”
(below) Amidst the rusting metal, one can see that nature is reclaiming ground just as in Lehigh Gorge State Park.
There is a beauty in reflecting upon the past without getting sucked into a superficial rose-colored view commonly associated with nostalgia. The site of Bethlehem Steel is now Steel Stacks, a place for concerts and many other events. It is not a mere museum or time capsule. It is part of a living and vibrant city.
The towering achievements of the past ought not just inspire awe but action — strive to be worthy of the society in which one lives. The remains of Bethlehem Steel evoke the same aesthetic ideas that are encapsulated in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: transience, appreciation for the withered and slightly broken, rough, and natural. There is a beauty in the practical design elements at work here. This can be seen down to the level of the riveting.
Industrial heritage sites offer a wealth of design elements which can be incorporated into both architectural and interior design. This has been done recently with the rise in popularity in Edison-style light bulbs.
The National Museum of Industrial history offer a wonderful display of steam engines and other mechanical devices from the Industrial era. The often brightly-colored machinery offers an appealing glimpse at the technological innovation which propelled the United States into the position of a global power. The current digital revolution, dominated by Silicon Valley, is predicated on the Industrial Revolution. The Scottish inventor James Watt was the Elon Musk of his day. Industrial heritage welds aesthetics and technological innovation together quite nicely.
The remains of Bethlehem Steel at Steel Stacks remind one of both what came before and the levels one can hope to reach. Aesthetic appreciation of industrial heritage means more than a mere understanding of such sites. It means embodying the innovative and industrious spirit through an appreciation of that which has been left behind. The word ‘inspiration’ derives from the Latin for ‘to breathe into.’ Let the relics of the past serve as inspiration for a better, more aesthetically-pleasing future.
 for more on Japanese aesthetics, consider Donald Richie’s A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics.