What Is Industrial Architecture?

Water tower building in Brooklyn

ethanfink / Getty Images

 

An umbrella term used to describe buildings constructed to facilitate the needs of industry, industrial architecture encompasses a range of building types and styles that mix functionality and design and can be found all over the industrialized world.

Conceived around the specialized systems, processes, equipment, and worker safety considerations of manufacturing, processing, power generation, and other industrial activities, industrial architecture includes factories, warehouses, foundries, steel mills, water towers, grain silos, distilleries, breweries, refineries, power plants, and many other tailor-made utilitarian structures.

Grain silo
Grain Silo Seed and grain storage in Milvale, New South Wales, Australia. Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

The History of Industrial Architecture

The first industrial buildings were constructed in the 1700s during the first Industrial Revolution that took place mainly in Britain from 1760 to 1830. But today when we reference industrial architecture we are mostly referring to the buildings that emerged as a response to the widespread use of new materials such as metal and concrete as well as mass production methods brought on by the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This new style of architecture was built around the needs of industries devoted to transforming raw materials into finished products in the most efficient way possible. Builders and architects were forced to consider individual production processes and workflows and safety concerns for workers.

Oil refinery
Oil refinery. Chanin Wardkhian / Getty Images

The design of various types of industrial buildings came to define the built landscape around the world in the 20th century, for better and for worse. While industrial architecture prioritizes engineering and utility and can be bland, unsightly, and uninspired, the best industrial architecture can be beautiful, too.

Red brick walls in an old brewery in Poznan, Poland
Brewery. gkordus / Getty Images

As regions such as the United States and Western Europe become increasingly post-industrial, with the service sector a greater driver of the economy than manufacturing, and technology and off shore production has evolved to subsequently make many industrial structures obsolete, these monuments to outdated industry can become abandoned blights on the modern landscape.

The trend to turn former warehouses into artist lofts began in lower Manhattan in the 1960s and continues to pick up pace today. Many developers have found ways to turn disused industrial buildings into trendy warehouse-turned-loft apartments, co-working spaces, open-plan office conversions, and events spaces. The challenge of today's architects and interior designers is making raw space with its large volumes, enormous windows, and open floor plans scaled to the ways we work and live today.

Derelict warehouse in London
The former Millennium Mills building at Royal Victoria dock, London. John Lawson, Belhaven / Getty Images

Ever-evolving technologies and robotics often require existing industrial buildings to be modified to adapt to changing usage needs and new industrial architecture to innovate. And as the world battles with a climate emergency caused in large part from the carbon emissions generated by buildings, there is a growing movement to green existing buildings and to demand greener building standards and practices for new industrial buildings, with smart energy usage and reduced consumption a top concern.

Interior of a modern industrial style loft office in Germany.
Westend61 / Getty Images

One notable example of cutting edge 21st-century industrial architecture is CopenHill in Copenhagen, Denmark, which bills itself as “the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world.” Conceived as a public space, it includes a façade built for climbing, a roof you can hike across, and an actual ski slope.

Cooling towers
Cooling towers. Jeremy Walker / Getty Images

Key Elements of Industrial Architecture

  • Industrial architecture takes many forms, but some common features include:
  • Combination of functionality and design
  • Large, open floor plans
  • High ceilings
  • Use of raw rough materials such as concrete, brick, metal
  • Lack of ornamentation on building façade
  • Distressed and worn finishes from years of heavy use
  • Exposed brick, ductwork and piping that otherwise would be smoothed over in residential construction
  • Large metal-grid windows
Montreal warehouse loft conversion
An old brick building converted into lofts and working offices in Montreal. carterdayne / Getty Images

Interesting Facts About Industrial Architecture

Stylized industrial-style architecture and interior design has become trendy in recent years as the world's derelict warehouses are converted into hip, pricey lofts, office spaces, cafes, restaurants, and hotels. Today you don't have to look far to see the influence of industrial architecture and design in even the least industrial settings, with the go-to use of raw materials, exposed building elements, and other hallmarks of the style increasingly mainstream and not simply reserved for urban loft conversions.

Pump station
Pump station. bgwalker / Getty Images

Considered a masterpiece of industrial architecture, the 1931 Ford Assembly Building car factory in Richmond, California was designed by renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, but earthquake damage the next year jeopardized its future before it was successfully rehabilitated into a solar-powered mixed use office space and cultural center.

Industrial architecture formed the building blocks for Modern Architecture.