The Design Observer Group

Posted 12.09.04

Tom Vanderbilt

Pleasures and Pathos of Industrial Ruins

A few months ago, I met with a contractor to discuss building a small bridge at my Catskills property in upstate New York. When I blanched at the price, he noted that steel, at the moment, was quite expensive. "It's all going to China," he said.

I did not take the time to follow up on this theory, but what occurred to me was how distant my daily life was from the realm of industrial raw materials like steel — literally the backbone of the modern city, if not the advanced capitalist world. I inhabit a world of flash memory, compressed audio files, bit rates and security certificates, a world in which I'm surrounded by gleaming consumer goods already neatly packaged in coated composite materials or shiny plastics. When confronted by the thought of steel — gasp, a commodity! — my mind lit upon frames of images that ranged from Dickensian coketowns to the Allegheny steelworkers portrayed in films like The Deer Hunter or the brilliant short works of Tony Buba.

I suppose this is all well and good. The U.S., the theory goes, has economically progressed past the stages of raw materials production and even manufacturing, and is increasingly even outsourcing the lesser-skilled, geographically non-dependent segments of the service economy (e.g., call centers), and is moving toward an economy driven by the most advanced and dynamic sectors of technology. As Business Week recently noted, the outsourcing of design itself has pushed designers to innovative, away from designing mere things to more abstruse things like concepts, identities, lifestyles (and yet how long will that comparative advantage last?) In places like Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, this effect can be seen in the vast warehouse spaces that once held industrial enterprises like printers, but now hold graphic designers, who work on relatively tiny digital machines in echoing spaces that once held looming letterpress machines. Someday, one imagines, graphic designers too will be considered obsolete relics of a more primitive economy, and these offices will be inhabited by nanotechnologists who will have further subdivided the rooms to conduct their microscopic affairs.

My ruminations on the place of steel in the digital age came full circle when I accompanied a film crew (making a documentary called American Ruins) last week to the vast abandoned works of Bethlehem Steel. The site is typically closed to the public (in part to avoid liability lawsuits, as it's a very easy place to hurt one's self), and the rigor of the security is evidenced by the relatively good condition of a plant that has sat derelict, and exposed to the howling elements, since 1985. Walking into old control rooms, where desk chairs still sat and checklists still fluttered on the wall, it often seemed as if the whole works had suddenly been quit the day before. The occasionally visible graffiti, like "R.I.P. 1985," proved otherwise.

There were two things that struck me most forcefully about "Beth Steel." One was the sheer, monumental beauty of the complex. The structures soar cathedral-like into the sky, a complex array of interlocking tubes and catwalks connecting it like dendritic nerves and veins; the blast furnace itself, obscured in darkness within its gigantic holding building and beset by decay, is like some gigantic engine of a Jules Verne fantasy. As I clambered up ladders that stretched for hundreds of feet and bounded down catwalks that wound through canyons of metal, the whole thing seemed an organic kind of architecture, which had sprouted from the ground and thrust itself upwards, wrapping around itself, sending out tendrils here and there; viewing Beth Steel is viewing the pure aesthetic grace of engineering. This was not architecture for humans, but architecture for machines, everything ordered to assist the movement of molten steel, and winnow out the slag, all intake and outtake, converting one form of matter to another. In one huge vacant warehouse structure, I gazed with wonder upon a massive trapezoidal form of steel, an enigmatic piece of sculpture whose reason for being was now lost; it occurred to me then that we will make pilgrimages to industrial sites that have been converted into art museums to look at works of steel by Richard Serra, but we condemn as blight real industrial spaces housing real industrial products, which themselves have monumental power and aesthetic grace, without any high-powered belabored mediations necessary for their appreciation.

The second feeling that overwhelmed was how alien and mysterious the forms seemed to me. Without "interpretive text" on the walls, how was I to know what had gone on here? Which brought me again to my whole reverie about steel: As much as we prize things in this culture, we do not much fetishize the process by which they were made. We gasp over the OnStar Navigation systems in cars, but don't think much about how the axels were made, or from where the steel might have come to create them (nor, admittedly, do we dwell upon the African-produced tantalum that goes into laptops and cellphones). Designers too might argue that they are slighted in the whole equation as well, for the person who closes the door on their BMW and relishes in the resounding thunk scarcely pays homage to the sound designers who labored to create just the right effect.

Beth Steel now sits in a strange netherworld; there are those who want to preserve it, to show future generations how this time and place was central to the industrial might of America, as the steel made here went into everything from our most massive bridges, the armaments that helped win World War II, or the humblest treads on a bulldozer. There are others who want to demolish the site, and build big box retail, thus transforming this cathedral of production into another bland prefab warehouse of consumption, with low-wage clerks toiling on ground where unionized steelworkers once proudly stood. I do not want to over-romanticize this place — the work in the "hot end," as it was called, was incredibly dangerous, with deaths every year not uncommon. That kind of work is now done, largely, elsewhere; and our economy fires not on the sparks of blast furnaces but the electronic pulses of microprocessors. Beth Steel is a relic, but a heroic one, and a paean to materialism — not in the sense of frenetically acquiring goods, but in appreciating the things that have helped us reshape our world.