The Unspeaking Factory; or How do Industrial Ruins Mean?

Dec 7, 2018 by Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
Blog 4, FINAL DRAFT v2

“Industrial ruins are marginal sites that are haunted by the neglected, the disposed, and of the repressed. Decaying buildings both reveal and snuff out successive histories as ruined factories bear remnants of different people, processes and products of yesteryear. Within industrial ruins memory is narrated through complex intersections of the past and the present and industrial heritage becomes a matrix of memory of how things were and how things have become.” 1

The Mitsubishi Pattern Factory in Nagasaki is an imposing 1898 timber-framed brick building with a well-balanced, symmetrical facade. Built to store the wood patterns that were used for casting machine and naval parts, it is sited on land still owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, its fortress-like presence today dwarfed by the modern steel and glass administration buildings and immense cargo ships that surround it. Japanese naval engineer Toyokichi Horie designed the building, having joined Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha (the predecessor of modern Mitsubishi) in 1896 after a stint at two other notable early Japanese shipyards.2 In 1985, the pattern factory was converted into the Mitsubishi Historical Museum. In 2015, the Pattern Factory joined 22 other structures and places that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” (here abbreviated as JMIR).

The Mitsubishi Pattern Factory, 1898, Nagasaki, Japan, designed by naval engineer Toyokichi Horie.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, as seen from across Nagasaki Harbor. While the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory is no longer visible from across Nagasaki Harbor, the Giant Cantilever Crane (1909) seen here (another of the UNESCO Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution) is still a prominent landmark along the shore. In addition to the pattern factory and the crane, this parcel of land also contains the Mitsubishi Senshokaku Guest House, a Western-style residence (1904) designed by Tatsuzo Stone, a student of Josiah Condor’s. None of these UNESCO sites are open to the public. The pattern factory is accessible through advanced booking, but the guest house is primarily used today as a venue for retirement parties for longtime Mitsubishi Heavy Industries employees. 

Today, the museum is only open by appointment and getting an appointment, as I quickly discovered, is no small feat for a non-Japanese speaker. A Japanese-reading friend generously agreed to translate the Mitsubishi website, and then a very kind and patient hotel concierge in Nagasaki made a reservation for me via phone. At the arranged time on a rainy Saturday morning, a charter bus staffed by a cheerful docent picked up all three visitors (myself, my husband, and one Japanese visitor) at Nagasaki Station. The brief ride onto Mitsubishi property was filled with a short introductory video in Japanese and English describing the content and organization of the museum’s displays.

Upon arrival, we three visitors were given precisely one hour to tour the exhibits before the bus would take us back to Nagasaki Station. The interior has been fully converted into a museum, packed with text panels, photographs, printed ephemera, and large machine parts that tell the story of Mitsubishi’s rise to global prominence in chronological order, emphasizing the Heavy Industry arm of the company, of which Nagasaki remains the global headquarters. Fortunately, the main narrative panels were presented in English. The hour-long visit was barely enough time to take in the English portions and engage with a smattering of the artifacts on display. Trying to read all or even a majority of the Japanese text would have been impossible. All too soon it was time for the requisite visitor photo shoot and then back onto the bus we went.

The stock “tourist” photo of Mitsubishi Pattern Factory. The proprietary content and historical technologies on display mean there’s a strict no-photography policy for the museum’s interior (though the exterior was fair game and the small coterie of docents was eager to take photos of the visitors despite the rain). I have amassed a lot of photos like this taken by insistent docents at various industrial heritage sites in Japan.

Across the harbor from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries sits the Glover House & Garden, yet another UNESCO JMIR site. This popular, scenic attraction features the primary residence of Thomas Glover (1838-1911), a British businessman and entrepreneur who was instrumental in establishing Nagasaki as Japan’s first center of industrialized shipbuilding.3 Glover’s house has been joined by several additional homes owned by other Western businessmen and engineers in Nagasaki (several recruited by Glover), relocated to form a kind of open-air museum of upper-class Western-style architecture. The house, which dates to 1863, is purportedly the “oldest surviving wooden Western-style house in Japan.”4 Part of the “foreign settlement” in Nagasaki, Glover’s house, like those in the surrounding “Dutch Slope” neighborhood blend European decorative traditions and floor plans with Japanese craftsmanship. The veranda extravaganza of the Glover Gardens, elegantly arrayed on a precipitous hillside in Nagasaki, compounds the “otherness” of Western architecture by showing not just one example of British colonial architecture, but many. Frontal symmetry, porticos, wraparound porches, classical columns, and sequences of formal entertaining spaces are features that are all instantly legible as “Western.” The interpretation of these structures further solidifies their otherness. Music meant to evoke nineteenth-century Britain blares in the background (much of it featuring bagpipes). In Glover’s own abode, the dining room table is laid with a lavish Western feast rendered in plastic. Statues of the foreign experts adorn the garden, clad in Western suits.

Typical residential architecture of the Dutch Slope. Merchant Niels Lundberg cleared this hillside for residential development after the start of the Meiji Restoration (1868), when foreigners were allowed, for the first time, to live elsewhere than the island of Dejima.5

Exterior of the Glover House.

Dining Room Interior of the Glover House, set with a typical “Western” feast.

The wraparound porch at the Glover House. Temperatures in Nagasaki can border on tropical, and this veranda for shade and ventilation recalls the climate adaptions of contemporary British colonial architecture in India and other warm climes.

The Tuscan porch of the former Alt House. William J. Alt (1840-1905), a British merchant, constructed this house in Nagasaki for his family in 1865. Like Thomas Glover’s house, Alt’s House is also the work of a Japanese master carpenter (here, Koyama Hidenoshin) and incorporates explicitly historicizing Western stylistic features. Compared to the sprawling and somewhat eclectic Glover house, Alt’s house has a more restrained symmetrical facade and floor plan.

A bedroom/drawing room at the Alt House. As at the Glover House, the Alt House has been restored to include period-appropriate furniture and decoration. The effect is very different from some of the “western” houses at the other Japanese museums, including the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum, which have been left entirely devoid of furnishings.


At the Glover Garden, as at many of the Japanese industrial sites I visited, the “foreign expert” as a type is celebrated for his technical prowess while, simultaneously, his otherness is reified through interpretive focus placed on his food, his dress, his comportment, and perhaps most importantly—his architecture. Indeed, I was rather taken aback by the strong “romantic” cultural connotations attached to conventional Western architecture throughout Japan. Photo opportunities to don Victorian garb and stand in front of brightly-hued Victorian buildings were not infrequent (as in Hakodate’s Historic Quarter and the Glover Garden). Taking selfies in front of the ivy-covered red brick warehouses that populate many of Japan’s historic port cities is a common practice. Kobe’s historic Kitano neighborhood, previously the residence of many European and American merchants, is today overrun with bridal shops and wedding venues. And when I visited Mojiko “Retrotown” just north of Kitakyushu, a wedding photographer was taking advantage of the magic hour glow across the brick and wood of Western-style port buildings. If Westerners (and western modernists in particular) have romanticized Japan by focusing on its tea gardens and its rustic sukiya style, Japan has developed a reciprocal (though not equivalent) relationship with the architecture of the West.

The Old Public Ward of Hakodate, constructed in 1910 to replace the previous iteration that burned in a major fire in 1907. Onsite signage describes this as “typical western style architecture of the Meiji era.”

For a mere 1,000 Japanese Yen (about $9), visitors can don nineteenth-century western dresses and pose for photos.

Dusk in Hakodate’s touristified Red Brick Warehouse District tends to bring out hordes of avid selfie-takers.

The Italian Kobe Kitano House in Kobe’s historic Kitano district. Many of the former merchants’ houses have transformed into cafés, eclectic museums, or bridal salons that serve the area’s booming wedding industry.

Twilight at the Dalian Friendship Memorial in Mojiko Retrotown. Though this building looks historic, it was actually constructed in 1984 as a tribute to the close historic connection between Dalian, China and Kyushu. It is a replica of a structure in Dalian that was constructed in 1907 as the office for the Toshin Railway and Shipping Co. The replica building blends seamlessly with Mojiko’s impressive collection of early western-style Meiji buildings, constructed during the port’s early twentieth-century boom. Today, Mojiko has strong romantic connotations, a fact clear the night I visited from the number of couples strolling and taking pictures with the town’s distinctive architecture.


The architecture of the Pattern Factory is deeply indebted to the influence of foreign experts like Glover, who facilitated Japan’s industrial development (and got rich doing so). The official UNESCO nomination package even describes the brickwork at the Pattern Factory as “British,” despite the execution of the overall design by a Japanese naval engineer. At the same time, Glover’s house, with its overtly British features, was executed by Japanese master carpenter Hiide Yoyama and features typically Japanese roof tiles and carpentry, visible in the structural timber bracing on the interior.6 These examples of architectural hybridity and cultural interchange are not hard to detect at Japan’s industrial heritage sites. However, I was surprised at how little and/or unevenly this nuance and cross-pollination was acknowledged across many of the sites I visited in Japan. Particularly, the public history treatment of factory spaces such as Mitsubishi Pattern Factory was frequently quite disparate from those like Glover Garden, sites which are full of clear stylistic signifiers.

The brick at the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory is laid in a traditional British pattern alternating layers of long and short sides.

16GloverHouse RoofTiles
Detail highlighting the traditional Japanese roof tiles used at the Glover House.


Japan is a nation still coming to grips with the ways in which industrialization is inextricable from imperialism and the rise of the modern Japanese nation-state. The country’s uniquely top-down industrialization was deeply entangled in the concurrent process of claiming a new, national identity that is at once distinct from but heavily contingent on western understandings of economic development and nationhood. Indeed, much of the interpretation currently available at Japanese industrial heritage sites attempts to make sense of the country’s technological progress in terms of periodization linked to the role and influence of foreign experts. The official narrative, perpetuated in the UNESCO nomination package, by the JMIR website, and through materials distributed at individual sites agree that that Japanese industrialization is characterized by three epochs:

  1. Trial and Error Experimentation (i.e. the Bakamatsu Period), c. 1850s–1868.
  2. Direct Importation of Western Technology, 1868–c. 1900.
  3. Full-Blown Industrialization, c. 1900–c. 1920.

This final period represented in the UNESCO listing marks Japan’s emergence as an industrialized nation, no longer dependent on Western outsiders. The interpretation of the sites belonging to this third epoch tend to present this period as the true realization of the modern nation-state of Japan. If technological development can be said to follow an evolutionary model (which is, of course, in itself problematic), this is the moment at which Japan “breaks free” from the supporting trunk of Western influence and begins to grow its own evolutionary branches. The interpretation at sites belonging to this period frequently claimed to have pioneered the first “wholly Japanese X” (where X is a shipyard, steel foundry, textile mill, etc.).7

As an architectural historian traveling in Japan, I was particularly interested in the ways that historic industrial architecture was being interpreted to support this typically Hegelian construction of technological and cultural progress, and in some cases to smooth over or obfuscate the internal contradictions present within this set of teleological assumptions. I discovered that spaces like the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory were frequently co-opted to reconcile a particular kind of double-consciousness around the origins and meanings of the country’s Meiji-era industrialization, particularly pertaining to the issues of the cultural and technological content of the process of industrialization itself.

Let’s return for a moment to the Glover House & Garden and the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory. The Glover complex claims to function as a near-exact recreation of the Westerners’ houses as they were lived in and experienced by the foreign experts and their families in the late nineteenth century. The furnishings and material objects come from the period and we as visitors understand that they can tell us about the lifeways of the former residents. There’s a clear interpretive agenda here; we can question the exact material accuracy, but in this case a house is playing a house. At the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory, a former industrial manufacturing space still stores industrial parts, but it has been fundamentally transformed into a factory playing a museum. Even though the UNESCO nomination document acknowledges the “British” influence of the brickwork, the structure as a whole has been co-opted to tell a different kind of story, one about the emergence of a modern Japanese state no longer reliant on foreign engineers and architects. Through the insertion of the museological apparatus, the meaning of the building is narrowly circumscribed by the textual additions and the nature of the objects presented. The building is claimed as part of Japanese cultural industrial heritage while at the same time being used a “blank space” that can be easily transformed to support a much more ambitious and temporally capacious narrative about Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the advent of modern Japan.

The epigraph of this blog post, drawn from a recent essay in Current Issues in Dark Tourism Research suggests that “industrial ruins” have a poignant communicative capacity, creating a unique interface of present and past, or as author Philip R. Stone writes, a “matrix of memory.” The capacity to function as a “matrix of memory” in the way that Stone describes, is not a feature equally present at all industrial heritage sites and is, I would argue, related directly to the architectural content of the site itself.

In the world of public history, not only in Japan, but across the globe, I’ve noticed a difference in the way we treat buildings that comprise the “industrial landscape.” I want to focus on a typology into which the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory falls; a building type I’m referring to here as the unspeaking, or mute factory. Functionally, these were sites of mass production or sites where raw material was extracted and/or processed. These processes might have historically taken place indoors or outdoors, but the flow of people, goods, and processes was fundamentally an architectural one, structured and ordered by the industrial built environment. By virtue of this function, these buildings and/or complexes tend to be large, designed to accommodate assembly lines (the Fordist factory, e.g.) or the storage of large quantities of raw materials (concrete grain elevators, e.g.). As a corollary, their interior spaces tend to be vast and flexible, frequently incorporating large horizontal spans. While these structures might not be wholly devoid of ornament or conventional stylistic features, these are minimal enough that they do not, by virtue of their presence, restrict the building’s interpretation (as at say, the Glover House). And finally, whether mechanical and/or architectural, the structure or complex includes features that require technical knowledge in order to be legible. While the idea of a basic single-family dwelling might be deeply embedded in nearly every culture, glass factories, reverberatory furnaces, and slip docks do not enjoy the same near-universal cultural recognition, and thus require additional knowledge to decode.

In other words, the lack of familiar historical-cultural signifiers in the mute factory distinguishes it from other buildings within an industrial heritage complex, such as administration buildings or managers’ houses. This raises a number of questions pertaining to the interpretation and preservation strategies of such structures. How does the unspeaking factory mean in comparison to other types of industrial and industrial-related buildings? What kind of story is the mute factory particularly adept at telling? How can public history interpretation work with built remnants of the mute factory to reveal new insights about the past; to, as Stone writes, “become a matrix of memory” that permits ambiguity and overlapping/conflicting readings of the industrial past?

Earlier this week, I revisited William Whyte’s 2006 essay “How Buildings Mean” (from which the title of this post has been borrowed) in hope of answering this first question. After months of visiting mines, factories, reverberatory furnaces, shipyards, and more, I’ve come to recognize that the familiar modes that architectural historians use in “reading” or, as Whyte would prefer “translating,” the meanings of historic architecture are not being applied in current public interpretations in the same way as we apply them to other types of buildings.8 This may seem self-evident. But the mute factory has become, I think, a cypher for our own agendas and narratives related to industrialization, a blank screen onto which we somehow feel uniquely emancipated to project our own beliefs or preconceptions. It is particularly susceptible to mediation through public history storytelling, or even architectural remediation as these spaces are adaptively reused to fulfill new programs. For better or worse, the multifarious meanings and concurrent interpretations that fill these spaces are often swapped for an easy master narrative, or converted to serve the whims of post-industrial real estate development.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Concert Hall Project (Interior perspective),” 1942, Museum of Modern Art, sourced from To cite an example that has been analyzed much more elegantly elsewhere, I would offer Mies van der Rohe’s iconic collage showing the conversion of Albert Kahn’s Willow Run into a concert hall. Whether in the ruinous imaginary of dark tourism or the slippage of modernity into modernism invented within the floating planes of Mies’s performance hall, the mute factory has been frequently treated a neutral receptacle of narrative, doomed by its own flexibility and “functionalism” to symbolical silence.


This desire to intensively interpret and “museum-ify” ambiguous mute factory spaces is a phonenomenon I encountered many times over throughout two months I spent exploring Japanese industrial heritage. For example, I also observed this public history tactic at the 1872 Tomioka Silk Mill, the only Japanese industrial UNESCO site outside the JMIR designation. At Tomioka, the Japanese government contracted with French silk expert Paul Brunat to design and operate a model silk mill in central Honshu. The mute factory portions of the complex—the cocoon houses and the silk reeling plant—have been treated in rather different ways. The ground floor of the East Cocoon House has been given the full museum treatment—videos, text panels, interactive displays. Unable to read the Japanese, I wandered through looking at the pictures and getting up close to the architecture. This area of the cocoon house was originally used as office space, a function registered by the tally of figures I found scrawled on several of the piers. In a room full of engaging interpretive installations, it would be easy to miss such a raw and (relatively) unmediated encounter with the past use of this structure. The silk reeling plant is presented as a specimen of efficient mass production, a daylight factory where machine and building become virtually one and the same. The protective plastic wrap (a necessary precaution, but distracting nonetheless) over the reeling machines gave the impression of being hermetically sealed—a space not so much haunted but taxidermied. More evocative and engaging was the upper floor of the East Cocoon Building, which has been left empty, just as this space would have been during the part of the year right before the annual silk worm harvest. The specter of absence and dim lighting in this space opened cognitive and emotive possibilities for visitor reaction and interpretation. Meanwhile, recalling the contrast of the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory and the Glover Garden, the buildings at Tomioka constructed for the French administrators and factory workers are explicitly construed as “Western” due to overt features like porches and breezeways.

Museum area in the East Cocoon House of the Tomioka Silk Mill.

A palimpsest of account figures inscribed on the pier. An intriguing detail that’s easy to miss for visitors busy reading the comprehensive narrative signage or watching the introductory video.

The silk reeling plant. The reeling machines (not original, part of a later upgrade) are today covered in protective plastic.

Upper floor of the East Cocoon House. Eerie silence dominates the experience. When Tomioka Silk Mill was started, Japan was still using preindustrial techniques for growing and harvesting silkworms, which meant that harvesting could only happen once per year. The silk worms thus had to be stored in the dark, cool cocoon house until they could be processed into silk at the silk reeling plant. This hybridized pre-industrial and industrial production technique is most palpable in the contrast between the empty brick and timber cocoon house and the iron and glass silk reeling plant.

Director Paul Brunat’s house (early 1870s), distinguished again by a combination of typically European features and Japanese construction and roofing techniques. This house is only open as part of special tours and limited times during the year.


This distinction is not a unique one to be made at a historic industrial site, nor am I trying to paint Japan’s interpretive efforts as sites like the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory and the Tomioka Silk Mill as any more duplicitous or contradictory than those I’ve seen elsewhere. But there does seem to be a particularly thorny issue at stake for Japan, where the rise and success of the Japanese nation-state so heavily depended on the country’s rapid industrialization, a process which was undeniably kick-started through the efforts of foreign experts. I argue that the conceit of the “factory as museum” has become a convenient mechanism in public history storytelling that industrial heritage places across the globe have relied on too heavily. It’s tempting to use the “empty” spaces to perpetuate a particular historical narrative, to fill these spaces with our own narrow curatorial agendas. But, as Philip R. Stone argues, such efforts ultimately are doomed to fail:

“With modern attempts to cleanse our past, to banish ambiguity, and to regulate the memory of space, industrial ruins are perpetual places of change which are always disturbed by disorder and inexplicable things. Time cannot simply be mapped onto industrial ruins, nor are they over-narrated heritage and ceremonial spaces. Instead, industrial ruins are empty meeting grounds that can haunt the contemporary visitor as we are forced to confront previous industrial dominion and hegemony.”9

If we accept Stone’s proposition that industrial ruins resist master narratives and easy chronologies, what then remains, in terms of interpretive strategies that might be brought to bear upon such sites? I’m certainly not arguing that industrial remnants shouldn’t be converted into full-scale museums, but merely that there are other types of treatment equally deserving of consideration, and that these might actually serve their stakeholders better in the long run, in addition to providing a less prescriptive and more flexible visitor experience. In my second SAH blog post, I looked at the possibilities of commercial adaptive reuse. As I discovered in South Africa, it’s easy for trendy adaptive reuse to end up furthering the gentrification of redeveloped industrial areas. I’ve encountered another solution in the last few months, however—one I hadn’t previously given serious consideration to before this travel year. This approach to industrial heritage preservation combines partial restoration, some interpretation, and frequently additional new built elements. It is a blend in some ways of adaptive reuse and full conversion to a museum. For lack of a better term, I’ve been thinking of this strategy as “parkification,” an approach in which the former industrial site becomes part of the urban environment, and in which historical memory is preserved but current use changes.

I found one of the most successful instances of this approach in the area called Yahata outside of Kitakyushu.10 Against the startling blue sky of northern Kyushu, the white towers of the Higashida Blast Furnace emerge as if from a Charles Sheeler painting. The four identical stacks converge towards the sky, rivaling in height the other major landmark of Yahata, Japan: a full-size recreation of an American space shuttle on the launch pad in a defunct theme park called Space World.

Higashida Blast Furnace, Yahata, Kitakyushu, Japan, originally constructed 1901 as part of the Imperial Steel Works.

Signage for the UNESCO Imperial Steel Works viewing platform and the iconic space shuttle of the now shuttered theme park Space World.


In earlier days, Yahata was an independent municipality. As with many other Japanese towns and cities in the late twentieth century, it has been absorbed into a more populous urban center that rapidly spread and expanded (in this case, Kitakyushu). As recently as the 1960s, Yahata was infamous for its pollution; the exhaust that issued from its smokestacks came in “all colors of the rainbow.”11 The industrialization of this area originated in the late nineteenth century, when Yahata became the defacto headquarters of Japan’s early steel industry. Indeed, my visit to Yahata in October was inspired by the presence of the three original buildings part of the Imperial Steel Works, one of the UNESCO JMIR sites and the first integrated iron and steel works in the country. These structures are located still on land held by the private steel corporation Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation, and are regrettably not open to the public. Wishing I had brought my telephoto zoom lens that day, I was able to glimpse the distant form of the First Head Office (1899), heavily scaffolded for preservation, from a viewing platform recently constructed to serve other industrial heritage gawkers like me.

The 1899 First Head Office of the Imperial Steel Works in Kitakyushu, one of the UNESCO JMIR sites. Not exactly a close encounter with industrial heritage, as the building is currently heavily scaffolded and the viewing platform is a few hundred meters away.

Historic image showing the development of the Imperial Steel Works, under construction in 1899. While the First Head Office remains on company property, Blast Furnace No. 1 (also known as Higashida Blast Furnace) has been converted into a historical park). Historic image sourced from interpretive signage at the Imperial Steel Works viewing platform.


Today, Yahata has been entirely transformed and stands as an example of successful redevelopment. No perceptible sign of the former smog remains, despite the fact the area is still partially industrial (i.e. Nippon Steel). Much of the remaining post-industrial area has been re-zoned for cultural attractions. Though Space World shut down earlier this year, the area is still home to numerous museums and educational institutions, including the Kitakyushu Museum of Natural & Human History, the Kitakyushu Environment Museum, and the Kitakyushu Innovation Gallery & Studio. A sprawling parking lot accommodates the myriad school buses that descend regularly on this part of town. Yahata has become field trip central.

Having left the Imperial Steel Works, I made my way across the street to the Higashida Blast Furnace. My arrival was heralded by a chorus of “Hellos”; a frequent (and delightful) feature of my travels in Japan was the collective greetings of school children under instructions to practice their English on any foreigner. First operational in 1901 as part the steelworks, the blast furnace remained in operation until 1972. If I had anticipated a solemn industrial ruin, what I found instead was a vibrant playground. Related to the Imperial Steel Works but not technically part of the UNESCO listing, the partially restored furnace complex has been converted into something between a park and free outdoor museum. Everything actively dangerous had been cleared away or fenced off, and the remainder was being vigorously employed as a jungle gym on the day I visited. On the ground level, picnic tables capitalized on the shade cast by the blast furnace’s immense mass. Given good weather, this has clearly become an ideal place to let field-trippers have lunch and blow off some steam (industrial pun intended) between museums.

The shaded underbelly of the Higashida Blast Furnace creates a surprising venue for a school picnic.

A group of students really getting into industrial heritage (literally) with some serious haptic engagement.


Upstairs, an array of weather-proofed interpretive panels (all in Japanese) described the history and function of the blast furnace. And in one of the eeriest but most effective pieces of industrial interpretation I’ve seen to date, mannequins clad in full protective gear were posed as if going through the processes of steel making. This was one of the very few examples I’ve seen of industrial labor interpreted as a human process, a recognition that even though mechanization often meant the end to a reliance on skilled labor, it did not mean the elimination of human labor full stop. The full protective gear vividly brought to life the harsh working conditions of the blast furnace —the temperature extremes and unnatural postures required for this kind of work.

The upper viewing platform at the blast furnace takes visitors up close to the monumental machinery. Part of the joy of this presentation is the opportunity to move through the space in an unscripted way; the delight is in the exploration.

Photo-heavy interpretive panels on the upper level give a glimpse into the blast furnace’s past life.

The steelmaking process revivified through this interpretive installation. Under the cover of the shed above, this outdoor installation can be open year round.


The contrast between the posed mannequins and the rambunctious kids playing hide-and-seek transformed this into the most embodied industrial site I’ve visited, simultaneously populated by the ghosts of past labor and animated by the engagement of present audiences. It provided a uniquely haptic and bodily encounter between present and past. And further, it capitalizes on the unique ability of the unspeaking factory to store and transmit multiple, simultaneous readings, all while adding a new function relevant to current stakeholders. In the case of Yahata, the Higashida Blast Furnace operates as a potent symbol of the community’s transition to a largely post-industrial economy, bridging the steelmaking past and the contemporary cultural capital of the area’s other new museums.

The Blast Furnace wasn’t just an isolated phenomenon. I witnessed the deployment of “parkification” again after arriving in Chile early November, this time at the Muelle Vergara in Viña Del Mar, a historic quay constructed starting in 1892 and later rebuilt and reinforced in response to the growing demands of the sugar shipping industry, from roughly 1912-1941. Viña Del Mar, now a bourgeois resort town just north of Valparaiso, is no longer legible as a former industrial community. With its impressive crane and immense concrete footings, Muelle Vergara is one of the few built remnants of that history. It was recently converted into a recreation pier for strolling and fishing, though the original crane has been preserved as a monument. The interpretation at the site, though a little faded from sun and salty sea air, nevertheless provides a comprehensive history of the urban and architectural development related to Muelle Vergara. The summation panel acknowledges the site as a place where present (tourism) and past (industry) intersect:

Vergara Quay reflects urban, architectural, and historical values, but its significance is its strongest value nowadays. Its architecture has become an icon of tourism: a testimony of the city’s industrial history, its urban development, and its part played in greater Valparaiso’s port activity.12

When I visited, Chilean beach-goers were braving the frigid Pacific waters. On the quay, a series of new platforms designated as only for pescadores (fishermen) were in high demand. Other visitors strolled the quay, many stopping to take selfies with the crane. As a site of memory and a current space of leisure, the Muelle Vergara clearly has a role to play in the new life of Viña Del Mar.

The preserved industrial quay provides a monumental landmark on the beaches of Viña Del Mar, an intriguing architectural contrast against rows of International Style condos and postmodern mansard-roofed luxury apartments.

Pedestrian life on the renovated Muelle Vergara.

The iconic crane of Muelle Vergara, atop a concrete foundation completed in 1941. As I stopped here to take this photograph, several groups of visitors stopped to read the historic plaque and take a photograph with this piece of tangible industrial heritage.


And there’s no reason that this idea of industry as park (the machine in the garden, we might say) can’t inspire contemporary industrial architecture as well. In Hiroshima, the Naka Incineration Plant (2004) in the southern part of the city aspires to do exactly that. This facility, which disposes of the city’s garbage cleanly and efficiently, is the design of architect Yoshio Taniguchi (better known for his work on the new MoMA addition). The poetry of ash turned into energy and waste into life in Hiroshima was not lost on the architect and planners—this is one of many urban interventions happening in the city as part of an initiative called Hiroshima 2045: City of Peace and Creativity. Urbanistically, the Naka Incineration Plant concludes an urban axis that runs all the way from Kenzo Tange’s iconic 1955 Peace Park and Memorial to the end of Yoshijima-dori Street. Beyond its metaphoric connotations, this is also a joyful and educational space to inhabit. A tunnel called the “Ecorium” provides a panoramic view into the heart of the interior workings. Models and digital interactive displays explain the function of each of the component machines and processes. Given the gleaming precision with which the whole edifice is orchestrated (no wonder, given its estimated $400 million budget), it’s hard not to buy into its technological utopian vision—waste management elevated to the level of art.

The gleaming central interpretive space, dubbed the Ecorium, at Yoshio Taniguchi’s Naka Incineration Plant.

Waste management truly designed for voyeurism.

Interactive displays elevate the Ecorium from pure spectacle to educational space.


But even more interesting and effective, I think, is the park space created intentionally at the rear of the building. Shielded from the rest of the industrial action and noise of this part of Hiroshima, Naka’s park is a semi-private urban respite. Walkways and grassy slopes are scattered with informal places for reclining, meeting, and picnicking. Given the relative remoteness of the Incineration Plant, it would be easy to see the good intention of this space going unused and unappreciated. But, on the sunny October day I took the bus down from central Hiroshima, a lively gathering of parents and children was playing out under the shade of the Ecorium’s cantilever. Built more than one hundred years after the Higashida Blast Furnace, the Naka Incineration Plant appeared to be bringing a similar degree of delight to the community enjoying it not for its industrial function, but for its compelling alternative vision of public life coexisting with industry.

The Ecorium conducts the visitor through the heart of the incineration plant through to an exterior public space. Compression here leads to...

Release in the form a cantilevered balcony overlooking Hiroshima’s industrial port.

A picnic for parents and kids takes place under the shaded refuge of the cantilevered viewing platform.

Moments for quiet contemplation or a group meeting exist throughout the Naka Incineration Plant park space at the rear of the building.


  1. Philip R. Stone, “‘Manufacturing Ghosts’: Visiting the Ruins of Our Industrial Past,” Current Issues in Dark Tourism Research (July 2017): 2. ↩︎
  2. Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Kyushu-Yamaguchi and Related Areas, World Heritage Nomination, (Japan, 2014): 127. The Mitsubishi Shipyard was electrified in 1897. ↩︎
  3. Ibid, 131. In my previous post, I discussed Glover’s second house on the coal-mining island of Takashima, and Glover’s role in developing undersea coal-mining there. ↩︎
  4. Ibid, 121. I have quoted this directly purely because there are many other buildings that make similar types of claims. After visiting the Glover Garden, for instance, I had lunch at a historic restaurant in Nagasaki advertising the “oldest Western-style room” in Japan. ↩︎
  5. “Hollander Slope,” interpretive signage, Nagasaki, Japan. Photographed September 28, 2018. ↩︎
  6. Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution, 131. ↩︎
  7. I’ve borrowed some of the language here from an introductory post to the UNESCO JMIR sites I wrote on my personal blog, The Rovang Eye. ↩︎
  8. William Whyte, “How do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture,” History And Theory 45, no. 2 (May 2006): 153-177. ↩︎
  9. Stone, 3. ↩︎
  10. Yahata is also anglicized as “Yawata.” I’ve chosen to use the version that appears on GoogleMaps to make it easier to search for the area. ↩︎
  11. Information from the “Radiorama” at the Kitakyushu Ecological Museum, located across the street from the Blast Furnace. ↩︎
  12. Interpretive panel at Muelle Vergara, Viña Del Mar, Chile. Photographed November 13, 2018. ↩︎
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