Designers of Worlds: The Professional-Managerial Class and Architectural Modernism

Ford Dagenham

Lately I’ve been reading David Gartman’s From Autos to Architecture: Fordism and Architectural Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century. It’s quite a fine book, even if Gartman’s Marxism is a bit more orthodox than is necessary and he has a propensity to mischaracterize Jane Jacobs as a right-wing libertarian. All in all, it’s a solid contribution to the study of Fordism – though it must be said that to call it an analysis of architectural aesthetics in the Fordist period (launching, I would argue, in the years of 1910-1913, and breaking down in the years of 1968-1972). Gartman’s analysis predates Fordism and even its most direct progenitor, Taylorism, and finds its starting point post-Civil War push for the “rationalization” of production in the US’s manufacturing sector. And, importantly, it might be problematic to say the book is about Fordism at all. What Gartman has produced, instead, is the story of the professional-managerial class, and the way it has shaped architecture, modern art, and urban planning.

The existence of a professional-managerial class (henceforth PMC) was first suggested by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in a 1977 article in Radical America. Unsatisfied with the generic nature of terminology such as “middle class” or even “white collar”, the Ehrenreich’s intention with the concept of the PMC was to describe a very particular class configuration that arose in the context of what Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were describing as “monopoly capitalism”. The PMC’s ranks includes “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts, etc.”, as well as “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers and other technicians whose functions… are essentially determined by the need to preserve capitalist relations of production.”[1] The first set dealt with the “social control or the production and propagations of ideology”; the latter with the management of the forces of production, typically through variants of Taylorist scientific management.

As capitalism and production technologies co-developed in the nineteenth century, the tendency towards ‘rationalization’, efficiency, micro-management, emerged to the forefront of all concerns industrial. This was not a new tendency, of course, and had been intrinsic to the capitalist mode of organization production and labor since its inception. It was by no mistake that Marx had chosen to describe the working class as an “industrial army” – and it was Foucault who had picked up on this choice of language connected capitalist organization directly to the evolution of “disciplinary mechanisms” that had preceded its existence. “…the techniques that made the multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital.”[2]

This making-useful of laboring bodies entails, automatically, the existence of a strata of not only managers, but those who develop the techniques of management in the first place. As great capitalist economies of scale necessitated coupling together of these laboring bodies with constantly renewing and upgrading technologies and organizational paradigms, a close relationship between those involved in management with engineers and technicians. One early example of this was the efforts of Charles Babbage, whose careful study of operations on factory floors in the 1820s led to his conclusion, detailed in his 1832 work On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers, that long-term profitability relied on the careful and well-managed division of labor. Babbage’s methodology would lay the groundwork for Frederick Winslow Taylor’s development of “scientific management” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which aimed to determine the most effective and efficient means of running production through the measuring of work cycles in seconds and the study of the body’s movement in relation to the technologies of production. This lineage reached its apex in the Henry Ford’s automobile factories:

…the assembler on Ford’s mass-production line had only one task – to put two nuts on two bolts or perhaps to attach one wheel to each car. He didn’t order parts, procure his tools, repair his equipment, inspect for quality, or even understand what the workers on either side of him were doing… Someone, of course, did have to think about how all the parts came together and just what each assembler would do. This was the task of the newly created professional, the industrial engineer… These original “knowledge workers” – individuals who manipulated ideas and information but rarely touched an actual car or even entered the factory – replaced the skilled machine-shop owners and the old-fashioned factory foremen of the earlier crafted era… In this new system, the shop-floor worker had no career path, expect perhaps to foreman. But the newly emerging professional engineers had a direct climb up the career ladder… they would advance within their profession – from young engineer-traineee to senior engineer, who, by now possessing the entire body of knowledge of the profession, was in charge of coordinating engineers at lower levels.[3]

Thus the outlook of the PMC came to be more or less synonymous with technocracy. As Harry Braverman writes, the first principle of scientific management was the “dissociation of the labor process from the skills of the workers. The labor process is to be rendered independent of craft, tradition, and the workers’ knowledge.”[4] This disassociation was followed by what he described as the “separation of conception from execution”, entailing the fracture between mental and manual labor. We could say, then, that there exists a relationship between the PMC’s technocratic impulse and what James C. Scott describes as techne – universalized, general forms of knowledge that “can be taught more or less completely as a formal discipline.”[5]


Gartman also suggests a relationship between the PMC and what the Frankfurt School diagnosed as “instrumental rationality” or “instrumental reason”. When it came to politics, the PMC was ostensibly leftist, focusing their efforts on a brand of reformism that derived from the managerial techniques first developed on the factory floors. The direction of capitalist development – the massive factory, the micro-managed division of labor, and the ballooning bureaucracy it called into being – was treated as organic, natural, and value-neutral. Any changes made had to take place within those parameters – something that can clearly be glimpsed through the progressive era’s efforts in housing reform.

The transformations in the factors of production have always played a fundamental role in determining the form of the buildings that house production itself. The early factories of the industrial revolution were designed around the demands of the gigantic coal furnace and steam engine, but the adoption of electrical technology in the economy of scale set off a transformation. As far back as the 1820s, factories in the United States were designed to be multistoried (in an effort to avoid land costs and to fit closely within the context of urban industrialization), with a flat-roofed long-boxed design to maximize the usage of space. The design and workings of the architecture itself was a reflection not only of economic demands, but the transformation of raw materials for building into standardized, easily-buildable types. This prototype would not be isolated to the factory alone, as Gartman points out:

These factories bore a remarkable resemblance to the urban tenement buildings that also arose in American cities in the middle of the nineteenth century to house industrial workers. Driven by similar economic pressures to maximize profitable space and to deliver a bare minimum of light and air to human occupants, urban landlords built long, rectangular “railroad tenements” with similar methods and materials.[6]



One of the primary fears of the PMC was the idea that the disconnect between social and cultural development and technological development would produce ‘psychic ills’ that were in need of remedying. Such concerns were the bedrock of the progressive era’s reformism; one notable example is the way that “cultural lag” produced by the disconnection spurred the Rockefeller Foundation to turn its attention towards funding and promoting the social sciences. The technocratic impulse was strong here “We see the abyss upon the edge of which the race is standing,” declared Raymond Fosdick (first the head of the Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene, and later long-time head of the Rockefeller Foundation itself). “We see the inevitable doom that lies ahead unless we achieve a measure of social control far greater than any which we have hitherto exercised.”[7] It is unsurprisingly, then the proposed solution was to harmonize the functions of society and culture with the systems of control being developed in the factories and its adjacent spaces of technical development. Society, in other words, was to be rationalized in the model of the factory.

The layout of the factory and the railroad tenement became models for the progressive reformers. If poverty existed, it wasn’t because of wider problems in the organization of production and labor, but because personal lives and living spaces had not developed to the point of adopting factory discipline and rationality. In a reflection of the PMC’s status as a class apart, these diagnosis did not target solely the lower classes, but the upper classes as well, whose choice of housing and design reflected the aesthetic forms of the earlier crafts era. To quote from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class,

This expression of economic facility or economic serviceability in any object—what may be called the economic beauty of the object—is best served by neat and unambiguous suggestion of its office and its efficiency for the material ends of life. On this ground, among objects of use the simple and unadorned article is æsthetically the best.[8]

While this might read as a call for simplicity and minimalism, the progressive perspective was that and more: the simplicity was the rote activity of the factory floor, and the minimalism the sparse functionalism of the factory itself. It has to be pointed out, of course, that what was taking place in the factory was neither simple nor minimalistic; the reification of the ideal of efficiency emerged not from material practice itself, but the gulf between the material practice and the PMC. If it appeared as simple or minimal, it was because that is how it appeared in the abstracted planning stage and from management at a distance. This dovetails closely with Scott’s depiction of the frequent conflict between techne and metis, the forms of knowledge that emerge specifically from lengthy engagements in material practice through time.

Needless to say, the progressive dream of an architecture, urban planning, and of ‘healthy lifestyle’ (based on what can be described as “therapeutic consumerism”)[9] was rejected by the lower and upper classes alike. Gartman describes how for the upper classes, it was the ornate stylings of Beaux-Arts, gothic architecture and Art Deco that rose to prominence as the design styles of choice. Instead of embracing the functional rationality of the factory and its output, corporate firms decided to pursue a loud individualism that attempted to break with mass production standardization. The working classes, likewise, broke with the careful logic of industrial rationality. Gartman draws attention, in particular, to the way that, much to the progressive’s dismay, places like Coney Islands, with their fantastical architecture and escapist dreamscapes, developed rapidly in syncopation with the increasingly technocratic domination of production. This divide, between the PMC and the other classes, can be further reflected in Rem Koolhaas’s classic argument in Delirious New York that Coney Island was itself a kind of “model” for Manhattan’s own development.[10]



Even if the architecture desired by the progressives in the ranks of the PMC was not to come to fruition in the United States (at this early stage, at least), it would greatly inspire similar class formations rising in Europe at the time, and play a fundamental role in the development of architectural modernism. Case in point would be the careers of key members of the Bauahaus school, and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier – who perhaps was, over all others, the father of architectural modernism.

Le Corbusier was enthralled with the American system of mass production: his vision of the home of the future, which he classically described as a “machine for living”, was something that would be “built on the same principles as the Ford car I bought”.[11] He would pepper his writings with references to Ford’s systems, and included pictures of the company’s manufacturing plants to support his arguments. When he finally visited Ford’s factory at River Rouge, Detroit (designed by Henry Ford’s architect of choice, Albert Kahn, whose architectural style had greatly influenced the progressive reformers), he found in it the prototype of the social order for coming ‘machine age’. “In the Ford factory,” he wrote, “everything is collaborative, unity of views, unity of purpose, a perfect convergence of the totality of gesture and ideas.”[12] For Le Corbusier, Fordism was first and foremost a principle of harmonization, an organic whole that executed the plans developed by enlightened engineers. This, in turn, was the foundation of his Ville Radieuse (the “Radiant City”), his great unfinished project of the 1930s that was intended to be the blueprint for a syndicalist society organized on Fordist principles. It was also technocratic to its core:

The despot is the Plan, the correct, realist, exact Plan, the one that will provide your solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. The Plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy of the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the lament of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds… and this Plan is your despot: a tyrant of the people… a product of technology.


In Germany, the celebration of mass production and Le Corbusier’s distinctive take on it blended with elements of De Stijl (a Dutch avant-garde that emphasized materialism and functionalism) to create what was known as Neue Sachlichkeit, the “New Objectivity”. The Bauhaus school of design was part of this tendency, and maintained direct links to both De Stijl (by way of De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg, who first coined the term ‘machine aesthetic’) and Le Corbusier (first through the studio of Peter Behrens, where Le Corbusier and several Bauhaus founders studied, then through the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, where Le Corbusier would debut the plans for Ville Radieuse project). It had not always been committed to the instrumental rationality of industrial mass production: Bauhaus’s genesis was rooted in the promotion of arts-and-crafts forms of production. Walter Gropius, the founder of the school, had created the word Bauhaus as a neologism, combining “building” and “Bauhütte”, the German name for the stonemasons who had been involved in the construction of the Gothic cathedrals. Gropius saw the goal of Bauhaus as being the creation of “new guild of craftsmen, without the class snobbery”.



This would soon change. Gropius would steer Bauhaus to a position of meditating between neoclassical craftsman production and the systems of mass production, but when Hans Meyer assumed leadership of the school in 1928, the technocratic dimensions of the New Objectivity were fully embraced. Like Le Corbusier, Meyer would invoke the Fordist system developed in America, and include images of factory interior and exteriors with design briefs. Mies van der Rohe, another leader in Bauhaus, would adopt the same perspective as the progressives in the US on the unavoidable nature of a society dominated by mass production and Fordist rationality: “Let us accept economic and social conditions as fact. All these take their blind and fateful course. One thing will be decisive: the way we assert ourselves in the face of circumstance. Here the problem of the spirit begins.”[13] And just as the American progressives did, Mies came to see the role of architecture and planning of harmonizing society and culture with the level of technological development. It is thus completely unsurprisingly that the New Objectivity’s advocates came to recreate the very same exploitative relations found within American factories. German architect and city planner Ernst May and Bauhaus designer Bruno Taut both

used standardized building sections and precast concrete slabs, which eliminated the need for most skilled construction labor. Gropius used Taylorist time and motion studies to cut labor costs at his Dessau and Praunheim housing estates. Le Corbusier also embraced mass-production methods at his Pessac housing settlement outside of Bourdeaux, even though he realized these would undermine the skilled trades. He bragged that his design for concrete houses was “capable of being erected by unskilled labor”. The entire project was based on a standardized 5×5 meter cell, which allowed him to use factory-built, standardized windows and pre-cast concrete beams. However, some workers at the Pessac site, especially the masons and cementer workers, refused to work under the new methods, and construction went forward only after Le Corbusier himself took control of the site and eliminated, in his words, “all doubtful elements from the work force.”[14]

Despite these instance – or perhaps because of them – the proponents of the New Objectivity were tasked with building a new, ‘egalitarian’ society for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Like their counterparts in the progressive movement overseas, the SPD adopted the PMC vision of a fully Taylorized society, and in many cases it farther than the Americans ever went. The progressive’s efforts had been largely tied to the promotion of consumerism. Henry Ford, for example, had tried to simultaneously block out labor radicalism and boost consumption amongst his workers by offering raises – yet they could only be obtained by capitulating to scrutiny by the company’s Sociological Department, which monitored workers to ensure they were living with the ‘moral aptitude’ that corresponded with Fordist efficiency.[15] In a similar vein, many progressive reformers argued for ‘hygienic lifestyles’ that were uncluttered, clean and efficiently organized around therapeutic consumerism. This was to be reflected in the designs of the homes themselves – a notion that was seized by the SPD, who took it a step further by replacing the emphasis on consumerism with a doubling-down on scientific management. “To save time, they conducted Taylorist time studies of everything from potato peeling to floor mopping.”[16] These studies informed, in turn, the architecture designs and urban plans of the New Objectivists, having been hired to carry out the SPD’s housing reforms.

As Gartman points out, the goal of this housing reform was to not only provide homes for the industrial working class, but to make this working class docile and pacified in the name of production. As he writes,

officials of the labor movement wanted workers’ houses to promote the rationalization of working-class domestic life as well. Like the middle-class reformers in America, SPD leaders sought to eliminate what they considered the evils of the older proletarian culture, such as taking in boarders, frequently saloons, and participating in mass culture. They wanted a working-class culture that was rationalized and disciplined in order to support the rigors of rationalized factory work. And fearing a return to the mass mobilizations that might threaten their positions, these leaders also wanted a privatized and individualized lifestyle, focused on the nuclear family and the home. These goals were also supported by a number of large capitalists, as well as bourgeois feminists, educators, and social workers.[17]

[1] Quoted in Brian Holmes “1968: Black Power, New Class” Three Crises

[2] Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish Vintage Books, 1995 pg. 221

[3] James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production– Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry Fress Press, 2007 pgs. 31-33

[4] Harry Braverman Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century Monthly Review Press, 1998, pg. 78

[5] James C. Scott Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Yale University Press, 1999 pg. 320

[6] David Gartman From Autos to Architecture: Fordism and Architectural Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century Princeton Architectural Press, 2009, pg. 28

[7] Quoted in Lily Kay The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology Oxford University Press, 1996, pg. 34

[8] Thorstein Veblen The Theory of the Leisure Class Dover Publications, 1994 pg. 101

[9] See T.J. Jackson Lears “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930” Advertising & Society Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2000

[10] This is covered at length in Rem Koolhas Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan The Monacelli Press, 1997

[11] Gartman From Autos to Architecture, pg. 81

[12] Ibid, pg. 81

[13] Ibid, pg. 85

[14] Ibid, pg. 105

[15] An extremely detailed analysis of Ford’s Sociological Department is Georgios Paris Loizdes “Deconstructing Fordism: Legacies of the Ford Sociological Department” West Michigan University, 2004

[16] Gartman From Autos to Architecture, pg. 105

[17] Ibid, pg. 102

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Designers of Worlds: The Professional-Managerial Class and Architectural Modernism

  1. dmf says:

    passed this posting along to RS to see what he makes of it as he has been working along these lines in his own way.

  2. Pingback: Designers of Worlds: The Professional-Managerial Class and Architectural Modernism | My Desiring-Machines

  3. Pingback: Lecturas para comenzar el Lunes 19 de diciembre de 2016

  4. S.C. Hickman says:

    Reblogged this on southern nights and commented:
    Edmund Berger with a review of David Gartman’s From Autos to Architecture: Fordism and Architectural Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s