Historic development – Fordism

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The introduction of the Ford-Taylorian methods of production marks the beginning of modern architecture at the dawn of the 20th century. Ford’s assembly-line concept not only reorganized the socio-economic fabric of western nations, but also provoked a radically new architectural style and urban layout.

Fig. 2 Assembly line at River Rouge, 1924 Fig. 2 Assembly line at River Rouge, 1924

In his monograph “My Life and Work,” Ford demanded the assignment of a fixed workplace for each employee to which the work-pieces would be supplied via conveyor belts.1 2 Delivered materials and finished products should not cross each other, but should be routed in a single pass through the facility.3 The operations would be broken down in the smallest possible, optimally coordinated production steps.4 The place of work should meet the highest standards of cleanliness, brightness and safety. The manufactured products should be uniform mass consumer goods which provide one standardized model for all customers.5 The staff would consist of above-average-paid, unskilled workers and few skilled workers who conduct the supervision.6 7 8 The work staff would be directed by technicians and scientists, and the organizational structure would be characterized by flat hierarchies.9 Each employee would have a well-defined place in the hierarchy with one supervisor and a certain number of subordinates. His or her task would be clearly specified and the execution well versed.10 11 By implementing these principles, Ford tried to achieve an increase in production, equal and fair distribution of workload, and fair distribution of consumer products. 12 13

Fig. 3 Hochhausstadt, Hilberseimer, 1924 Fig. 3 Hochhausstadt, Hilberseimer, 1924

Albert Kahn was commissioned by Ford to build the first large scale production plant that was adaptable to alternating production lines. “Highland Park” was built in 1909 and was the first factory site to allow control over the parameters of the production flow against the principles of differentiation and repetition. The factory site was used to drop the first mass-produced creation off its assembly lines: the famous “Ford Model T”. Later built production sites, e.g. “River Rouge,” further expanded these principles into comprehensive urban layouts. The individual stages of the production flow were separated in specialized and interconnected buildings. This concept of an “urban machine” sparked interest in a lot of architects, such as Le Corbusier and Hilbersheimer.

Ford‘s ideas and the mobilization of the population through mass-produced cars lead to an overall social momentum at regional and national levels. Architects and urban planners used the principles of his plant management for the design of cities, neighbor-hoods, houses, and apartments.14 Le Corbusier’s “Athens Charter” formulated the architectural ideology. This led to a strict separation of urban functional areas with the main functions being labour, habitation, and recreation. The individual areas were interconnected with an infrastructure resembling Ford’s assembly lines.15 Urban planners and architects saw themselves as “social engineers”.16 “Like the rational-technical approach to solving problems of the economic sector in this time, they believed ‘rational-technical architecture’ to be an effective tool of (total) social planning.”17

Fig. 4 Plan Voisin, Corbusier, 1925 Fig. 4 Plan Voisin, Corbusier, 1925

The introduction of standardized suburban homes was followed by the consistent application of the principles of functionality to the design process of all mass produced consumer goods. Washing machines, television, refrigerators and kitchens („Frankfurter Küche“) were analyzed for differentiability, repetition and integration. Ford‘s ideology marks the jump from an early-industrial bourgeois society to a performance-orientated consumer society shaped by industrial mass production.18 His ideas resonated with many of the influential architects of the 20th century. Behrens, Gropius, Corb, Mies, Bauhaus, HfG… ultimately the entire vanguard of modern architecture can be traced back to Ford´s principles.


1 Ford, H.: Mein Leben und Werk. Leipzig 1923. Page 104. 2 See ib. Page 93 f. 3 See ib. Page 94 f. 4 See ib. Page 94 f. 5 See ib. Page 54 f. 6 Ib. Page 156 ff. 7 See Page 90. 8 See ib. Page 100 ff. 9 Ib. Page 106. 10 Ib. Page 107. 11 Ib. Page 105 ff. 12 Ib. Page 111 ff. 13 See ib. Page 157 ff. 14 Cf.: Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM): Erklärung von Le Sarraz.In: Conrads, U.: Programme und Manifeste zur Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Berlin/Frankfurt 191964. Page 103 ff. 15 Cf.: Le Corbusier: An die Studenten – Die „Charte d‘ Athènes“. Paris 1957. 16 Cf.: Kuchenbuch, D.: Geordnete Gemeinschaft. Architekten als Sozialingenieure. Deutschland und Schweden im 20. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld 2010. 17 Jüngst, P.: Psychodynamik und Stadtgestaltung. Zum Wandel präsentativer Symbolik und Territorialität von der Moderne zur Postmoderne. Stuttgart 1995. Page 47. 18 Cf.: Hirsch, J., Roth, R.: Das neue Gesicht des Kapitalismus. Vom Fordismus zum Post-Fordismus. Hamburg 1986.