The built environment we inhabit can be hostile, both on an individual architectural scale and in a wider urban context. Homeless people, for instance, are dissuaded from resting on public benches by the menacing presence of spikes and other forms of exclusionary design. From a global lens, we see the impact that borders have amidst anti-immigration hostility, imposingly exemplified by the Melilla border fence on the Morocco-Spain border. This “hostility” can be found in a large number of settlements around the world, settlements that have been formed as a result of organic migration or settlements predicated on control – like company towns.
The company town is easy to define – it’s less a people-oriented place and more an economic institution, where the population’s residents are primarily the labour that keeps a corporation running. A single firm provides its employees with goods and services – housing, stores, and the general architecture of the town all practically owned by an organisation. A lot of these towns are born out of utopian ideas, a vision of a community happy to work for a corporation, who would in turn be grateful to the corporation for the provision of basic needs. The very nature of having a corporation practically own a town, however, means that the end goal is always the extraction of labour, and in facilitating that, the company town ultimately seeks – in both small and big ways – the control of its residents.
There is arguably no better example of this than American industrialist Henry Ford’s urban planning experiment in the Amazon River Basin – Fordlândia. The goal was ambitious – to build a new town and rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest. A secondary goal was to, in effect, “civilise” the jungle and mould a local Brazilian workforce to the Fordism present in his American plants. To create the city, a section of virgin rainforest was cleared, bought from the Brazilian government – and the endeavour became one of the more extreme examples of worker control.
Native Brazilian workers were forced to attend poetry readings and had to abstain from alcohol, prohibited in the town. A 100-bed modern hospital, a power plant, and a library were built, as was a golf course and white clapboard houses for employees to live in. Local knowledge was, expectedly, ignored for the project. The automobile was promoted as a recreation, meaning that 30 miles of roads were laid out on Fordlândia, roads which would end up largely unused. The utopian visualisation of the town did not, however, stretch to an undivided community, as illustrated by the American managers and Brazilian workers being allocated different areas for living. “Vila Americana” was the section with the best views of the city and had running water, while the Brazilian worker side had to make do with water supplied by wells.
Ford’s plan to import an American Midwestern town deep in the Amazon jungle would end up being a colossal failure, Brazilian workers obviously not adapting to American-style housing and an industrial working process that meant they had to labour during the hottest part of the day. Riots by workers in the 1930s caused the town’s quiet and gradual decline.
In Chile, lies another kind of paternalistic experiment - the town of Humberstone. A ghost town now, it was developed for the extraction of saltpetre. A large number of influences shaped the area, mainly Industrial architecture, seen in a wide range of projects, ranging from serial housing to large metal factories. Being located in a harsh climate, infrastructure to meet the needs of the town’s workers was extensive, including cold storage areas for produce to industrial-grade ovens for the baking of bread. As was in Fordlândia, the rigid hierarchical structure was evident. An Arts & Crafts bungalow, similar to one that an upper-middle-class family would have in the American Midwest, would house the director of the mining operation. The workers, on the other hand, would share rooms in what were effectively barracks.
The general store was one of the larger buildings in the settlement, and another level of control was extended for the workers in how they spent their wages. Money earned by workers was given in the form of tokens, which could only be spent on goods in the general store. The store was deliberately designed to be one of the sturdier and complex buildings in the city, as directly inside its main entrance sat the counter where tokens or paychecks would be distributed – in effect Humberstone’s only bank counter.
The town – developed between 1872 and the mid 20th century – is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its legacy is that of a complex settlement, built on exploitation, which later led to improvements in labour in the 1930s, to its current status as a ghost town.
The relationship between worker and corporation is far from being an equal one. Company towns are, in effect, a physical manifestation of this relationship – a relationship where worker comfort is ostensibly the goal, but worker control is the reality.