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Misho Antadze The Architecture of Work

The Ghost of Fordism: Life in the Age of Highways

The maps of the contemporary Western world are dissected by highways. Living in a highly mobile society is unimaginable without access to transportation. Due to the access to transportation, the scale of physical distances becomes smaller, since everything is becoming more connected than ever before. There are over a billion cars in the world today; in the United States, theres roughly one car per capita. In the 1950s, when car ownership surpassed one per household, it has become a symbol of individual freedom in popular Western culture; the owner of the automobile is not dependent on anyone but himself or herself for transportation. The need for highways arose from the desire to be mobile, and the desire for car ownership grew with the expansion of the Interstate Highway System. Such developments look positive on the surface a freely mobile world, when one is not confined by their geographical location. Universal ownership of means of transportation can be called the Communism of Transportation. This vision, however, is unfortunately a myth created by the consumerist ideology. The highways have proved, in many ways to be effective, but overall, even disregarding the environmental problems associated with mass car ownership, the societal problems theyve created outweigh the benefits. The highway, as a direct consequence of Fordism has facilitated a war on the impoverished, destroyed public spaces, institutionalized racism and created an illusion of consumerist prosperity.

From the Industrial Revolution to Fordism The desire to for quick transportation, in regards to both individuals and goods, has been one of the integral parts of the Western society since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, it was during the Industrial Revolution when the bourgeoisie emerged as a class, and effectively dismantled feudalism as the hierarchical structure of the society. The capitalist metanarrative, which effectively equates the acquisition of financial wealth to success and happiness, is still the dominant one in the contemporary world. Those in control the means of production, whether individuals or corporations are also effectively the dominant classes in the society. The system, on its most basic level, works on the principle of supply and demand, where those who produce goods barter them for the value determined by the demand of the product. Thus, to reap most profit the goods should be delivered wherever theyre in demand, and as quickly as possible. Thus, it is of no surprise that the development of railroad transportation started in England, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Railroad transportation made trade extremely efficient, however, it created the demand for even more efficient transportation. The invention and the mass production of the automobile satisfied this demand, since now it was possible to own the means of transportation as well as the means of production, and the flexibility and efficiency of transportation was greatly increased: transportation of individuals and cargo was no longer dependent on fixed time schedules and points of arrival and departure. In fact, one of the major re-inventions of capitalism can be directly associated with the automotive industry; Fordism, the dominant form of capitalism for half a century, is named so after Henry Ford and his car-production enterprise, Ford Motor Company. Fords production method was innovative for several reasons, but most importantly it

standardized the practice of mass production, by making it extremely efficient. This was achieved by introducing machinery (such as the conveyer belt) that would take down workers movements to a minimum, so that the work performed would be maximally efficient. The problems with such practices are apparent, and perfectly portrayed in Charlie Chaplins Modern Times (USA, 1933), which opens with Chaplins character as a factory worker in a highly industrialized, Fordian factory. The boss (clearly resembling Henry Ford) closely monitors the workers actions and reprimands them for taking the shortest breaks. He even tests a machine designed to feed the workers without having them to leave the assembly line on Chaplins character. Finally, due to extremely repetitive nature of his work, the protagonist goes insane, and starts acting like a broken machine very much like the one used to feed him, repeating his function as a worker excessively, even when it is not needed. Effectively, Chaplin has demonstrated the effect that Karl Marx defines as alienation, which arises when an individual looses the sense of control over ones autonomy and life, and conceives of his or her self as a mere instrument. However, Fordism as a paradigm truly arose when Ford came up with a way to counter this criticism: after adjusting the price of his product to meet with the income level of his workers, he effectively transformed the worker into the consumer. The worker-consumer was not just a machine after all. The personal automobile, once only available to the wealthy, was not just a luxurious commodity any more. This new type of worker, the worker-consumer was not just a crank in the conveyer belt, but was an individual who would desire commodities as much as the bourgeois. The alienation at the workspace was countered out by the desire for acquisition of commodities. The worker-consumer was a machine that worked with machines to

produce the machine that he desired. By 1925, on average, there was a car for every other household in the United States. In 1950, there was already one car per each household. The general population became seemingly much more mobile than before. With increased mobility, came the demand for better roads.

From Ford to Hitler to Eisenhower The automobile highway, as we know it, started in 1920s in Germany, the birthplace of the car, as we know it. The first section of the Reichsautobahn was completed in 1929, and connected Dusseldorf and Opladen. However, it came into full bloom under Hitlers administration, when it implemented the project of Motorisierung, or motorization, which meant to provide the general populace with affordable cars, such as the still-surviving Volkswagen, or the peoples car. Unsurprisingly, Hitler openly admired Henry Ford (an open anti-Semite), and the principles of Fordism. Hitler spoke of Ford: I shall do my best to put his theories in practice in Germany. I have come to the conclusion that the motorcar, instead of being a class dividing element, can be the instrument to unifying the different classes, just as it has done in America, thanks to Mr. Fords genius. The Volkswagen structured very much like the Model T, the very car that Ford has produced to turn the workers into consumers. With more households that owned cars, the benefits of expanding the Autobahn were as obvious as the fact that the Autobahn also provided improved the mobility of the military. By the end of World War II, the Reichsautobahn covered more than two thousand kilometers.

During World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a Supreme Commander in the US military, was deeply impressed by the mobility that the Autobahn has provided. Previously, as a soldier of a lower rank, he had been deeply impressed by his experience in 1919, when he accompanied a military convoy across the country on its first interstate road, the Lincoln Highway, that ran from New York to San Francisco. Later, he would reflect in his autobiography, At Ease: The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it. When elected President in 1953, Eisenhower appointed Charles Erwin Wilson, the CEO of General Motors, as the Secretary of Defense. Famously, Wilson was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee if, acting as a Secretary of Defense, he would be adverse to the interests of his former company; he answered that he would but [] thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. Under his supervision, in 1955, a future plan for the highway system, The General Location of Interstate Highways was published. Referred to as the Yellow Book, it contained the maps of the plans for the Interstate System. However, in 1955, the Congress rejected the bill to support the construction of the National System of Interstate Highways. A year later they would accept the same bill, renamed to the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Around the same time, consumerism was in its full swing. A study published by the Labor Department declared: Certainly, the automobile has aided wage earners in breaking down barriers of community and class. Despite its similarity to Hitlers quote on Ford, many truly believed that a strong consumerist society was the only

way to create an equal population. In 1960, Eisenhower would make a speech at the National Automobile Show Industry Dinner: Other peoples find it hard to believe that an American working man can own his own comfortable home and a car and send his children to well-equipped elementary and high schools and to colleges as well. They fail to realize that he is not the downtrodden, impoverished vassal of whom Karl Marx wrote. He is a self-sustaining, thriving individual, living in dignity and in freedom.

Institutionalized Repression

The fantasy of prosperous consumerism did look true for those in the middle of the food chain. After all, the average person could indeed afford to buy a car. The car ads showed happy families enjoying vacations in the countryside, or a smiling man driving out of the garage of his suburban house. The desire to move away, to get away from it all, to live in comfort without witnessing the problems of daily struggles has finally come true with the Interstate Highway System. And yet, nobody in the middle or the top paid attention to the fact that the social gap between the middle and the bottom has become greater than ever. And yet, nobody on the top paid attention to the huge and growing gap between the middle and the bottom. While officially the highways were a part of the economic development plan, de facto they became a weapon in the war on the impoverished. And a war on the impoverished in the United States also meant a racial war. Not only did the Interstate facilitate the phenomenon known as white flight, meaning

the mass movement of white residents of urban centers to suburbs, but it facilitated the destruction and further impoverishment of black neighborhoods. To construct the highways in Atlanta, huge portions of the city were moved down. 67,000 people were displaced, with 95% being black. Most of them went uncompensated. At first the highways forced them to move into more concentrated neighborhoods; then, they acted as segregation lines. Urban planners looked up at the highway, and looked down on public transportation. Besides, many of the impoverished blacks could not afford a car. It was clear that the Highway System was not being built for them, but against them.

Aesthetical Issues Today, it would be surprising to hear someone say that they think that the Highway is beautiful. However, when it was constructed, it was symbolically associated with American growth and prosperity. There was a fascination with the Highway in car ads, unlike the country roads we see in commercials today. It has become the American Way. The aesthetics of public space changed accordingly. Besides, with the demolition of the Pruit Igoe housing projects, many saw the death of modernism. Perhaps, Robert Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour best reflect this in Learning From Las Vegas. In the book, the three architects present and analyze the symbolism of popular, roadside and consumerist architecture of Las Vegas. They photographed every hotel and gas station, along with their logos and neon signs. This, they proclaim, is the lost symbolism, which gave meaning to architecture. They openly embraced the symbolism of roadside attractions, corporate logos and neon signs. It was, in a way, a rebellion against elitist practices of modernism. If the

symbolism is easy to understand for every consumer, why should it not be taken seriously academically, or why should it not be central to contemporary architectural practices. However, even if one agrees that Modernism was tyrannical, removing more academic architecture from the public space means reducing the discourse to pure consumerist values, dominated only by the market force. Such a worldview is simplistic, since it assumes that the general population is unintelligent enough to understand high end architecture. However, when the population spends increasingly longer periods of time in their cars, they become aesthetically misinformed, and in fact, do reduce themselves to buying machines.


After looking at the history of the Highway, one can see how strongly its development was associated with Fordism and Fordian capitalism. Its hardly surprising that today, consumerism is one of the strongest paradigms of Western, especially North American societies. The ease of transportation has increased for the most of us, but it brought along increased poverty, segregation of cities and poor aesthetics. Individuals get together faster, but the space between increases. The car has become available to almost everybody, but it has not increased happiness. The oil corporations are thriving, and our living environments are being destroyed. Perhaps, there is no easy way out of this, but taking a bus instead of the car would be the first step in the right direction.

Works Cited:
Weingroff, Richard F. "Sept/Oct 2000Vol. 64 No. 2." The Genie in the Bottle: The Interstate System and Urban Problems, 1939-1957. US Department of Transportation, Oct.-Nov. 2000. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. "Why President Dwight D. Eisenhower Understood We Needed the Interstate System. U.S. Department of Transportation, 2006. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. Strand, Ginger Gail. Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. Austin: University of Texas, 2012. Print. Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Address in Detroit at the National Automobile Show Industry Dinner.," October 17, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project


Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988. Print. Venturi, Robert, Brown Denise Scott, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1977. Print.