The architectural future of the factory.
Recently I stumbled across a You Tube video of Elon Musk opening Tesla’s new Gigafactory. Apart from the astonishing fan boy following Tesla seems to have acquired I was astonished by the visualisation of an enormous box topped by solar panels. Initially, I thought that Tesla had turned their attention towards production on Mars (that appears to be still reserved for SpaceX) as the windowless white box was surrounded by a desolate, barren landscape, turns out it’s Nevada. In Musk’s presentation, he describes the new factory as a Tesla product needing “more innovation and engineering skill than the (car) product itself”.
Corbusier was known for the statement that houses were “machines for living”, in this he meant that space allowed the functioning of life to imitate the efficiency of a machine. In the Giga factory, this efficiency is the prime ambition, but rather than humans it is focused towards production process and equipment. Tesla’s strategy is a clever but obvious approach, increase density and efficiency of equipment results in reduced costs of production and in turn affordable (in their eyes) products. Musk compared the factory to a piece of industrial design, completely bespoke and customised to the process at hand, designed as an integrated product, more specifically a “very high density, multi layer integrated circuit, an advanced CPU…super optimised for speed and density”.
From the presentation, it seemed that the new Giga factory, with its super dense collection of robotic production machinery and context of nothingness, would be a fully autonomous facility where humans need not involve themselves, but there will be approximately 6,000 people working at the plant. Two thoughts emerged from this deceleration, one was what would a non-human architecture look like, and the other what happens to architecture when it is engineered to maximum efficiency?
America’s largest tech companies have all recently buddied up with architecture’s contemporary heavy hitters to create “campuses” or “headquarters” or “Imagineer worlds” (I made the last one up). In all cases, the human (the important source of production) is centre stage with spaces of work/life hybrids that bring light and nature into the office environment (along with the workers spare time). What happened to factories? People still work in these environments, but these can be treated merely as an extension of the manufacturing machinery it houses, and therefore the presumed remit of the engineer. It seems Tesla needs to consult an architect.
In considering the factory and architectural input an interesting lineage exists. Peter Behrens, one of the founding fathers of the German Werkbund movement had the ambition to increase the level of design in everyday life. His famous AEG turbine factory is credited as being the first modern factory that was designed in the same way as the company’s industrial products, such as lamps, kettles and clocks. The factory was designed to look like the output of the industrial machine. In line with the design of products for humans, care was taken over conditions for AEG’s workers work with plentiful windows for air and light. During this time the factory remained the domain of architects, one of the most famous (due to the Italian Job) being the Lingotto Fiat Factory by Matté Trucco which was designed around the assembly line of a fiat car including test track on the roof.
Modernist architects responded to factory owners who wished for new ways to work with electrification and mechanical equipment that relied on human interaction and supervision. As the technology of production has progressed the requirement for humans has reduced, yes that’s right automation has occurred. If you are a trained factory worker, this is bad news, but for humanity, the removal of the need to spend hours in factories can only be a good thing. Factories are not healthy environments to be working, they can be noisy, dirty and potentially dangerous, but it is ironic that modernist factory conversions provide the most interesting domestic spaces due to their dramatic ceiling heights and generous fenestration. Watching Musk, I realised at some point the factory shifted from window adorned urban fabric to a blank suburban estate box (or cylinder if you are SANAA) fully internalising its environmental conditioning through air conditioning and artificial light. Was this shift the point where the factory was passed from architect to engineer?
Something at the Gigafactory seems to be amiss, with its 6,000 human workers there is no trace of humanity in its design. In theory, it can fully internalise its environment without ruining the biosphere because it is powered by the sun and the wind, but wouldn’t it be nice for robots and humans to see the sun shine? The Giga factory could be emblematic of a new turn towards the treatment of architecture as a logistical machine which rejects context and bases design decisions on economic rationality. If considerately explored this approach could liberate architecture to explore new and interesting building types, but the Gigafactory should provide a warning that if this object also operates as a product, then architects need not apply.