Trees or Mushrooms? Politicizing Citizen-Worker-Consumers in the City-Factory

Multilayered collage: The Homeowners’ Association (HOA) manager symbolically hands over a model house to a client, with a worker still working on the roof; a miniature factory has landed like a UFO on the desk where the two are sitting across from each other; oversized mushrooms grow out of the ground in the background. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

The ecological crises of the planet are closely linked to big cities, or more precisely to urban metabolisms, i.e. to socio-economic processes, especially to growth and profit-oriented production and consumption, which consume resources and energy, require an incessant supply of materials, goods and labor, generate waste, pollution and more. To get a better grip on this as a political field, it is high time to rethink the city as a factory, as Alin Răuțoiu argues in his contribution to the “Kin City” series.


In 1971, the radical architecture group Superstudio imagined twelve “ideal” cities through which to criticize high modernism. The seventh of these cities is titled “Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City” and, as the name suggests, extends the Fordist method of production to a metropolitan scale. Here we find the Grand Factory, which “devours shreds of useless nature and unformed minerals at its front end and emits sections of completely formed city, ready for use, from its back end”. The city’s inhabitants, especially the wealthy, are happy to move from house to house on a monthly basis. They take nothing with them, as the new houses are equipped with the latest appliances, designed in the latest styles. This vision of consumerist urbanism taken to a paroxysm seems today less a sardonic jab than a mere description.

Historically, cities weren’t places of production. Before the “Industrial Revolution,” cities were few and far between, serving as important commercial, administrative, political, and intellectual centers that consumed and distributed the raw production of the countryside. This doesn’t mean that production didn’t take place in cities. In addition to the work of the urban artisan guilds, the transformation of raw materials into consumables, such as grain into food or yarn into clothing, the slaughter of animals, and the splitting of firewood were household activities in both urban and rural areas. In a more sociological sense, the division between town and country itself produced populations, with towns producing citizens.

It was only with the advent of the “Industrial Revolution” that mass production of intermediate or even consumer goods became possible. Gradually, activities that had previously been carried out in the home began to be served by the market, with production itself being outsourced to the workshop or factory. This spatial reorganization, determined by an ever-increasing division of labor, happened so slowly that even in 1922, when Henry Ford published “My Life and Work,” the idea that the factory “could make shoes or hats or sewing machines or clocks or typewriters or any other necessity in the same way as it makes automobiles and tractors” seemed fanciful to the commentator. 50 years later, we would imagine the factory so powerful that it could create entire neighborhoods of fully furnished homes.

City as a factory or city-factory?

The dystopia of Superstudio’s vision conceals a more mundane horror beneath its transgressive excesses. This modern city is not only in danger of becoming the product of a factory, it is a factory. Pull out a single plant, as if uprooting a tree, and an entire social and logistical network is revealed, with roads and rails and pipes and wires dangling in the air, uprooting homes and institutions and other plants in turn. Either through the planning of the new industrial cities or through the painful systematization of the historical cities, the urban layout itself is shaped by the needs of the factory, almost as if it were growing out of it.

Factories need sufficient road or rail access to maintain an uninterrupted flow of raw materials and processed products. Factories don’t just spew out mechanical parts or cars or clothes or bottled drinks, they also spew out polluting residues that need to be disposed of through customized sewage systems. Utilities such as street lighting or the power grid are spillovers of industrial processes, with public consumption of gas or electricity only serving to regulate their private consumption in industry. Factories need workers, who must be housed, trained, and kept physically healthy, and who must either live close enough to work or be provided with transportation infrastructure. Finally, factories need other factories to supply them with parts, equipment, containers, and supplies, or to supply their workers with clothing and vehicles. Remove enough manufacturing facilities, like carelessly trimming a forest, and the city will shrivel and die, as we can see in the shrinking cities of Britain and Eastern Europe, the North American rust belt, or Mexico.

Cosmopolitan cities thriving in the age of deindustrialization do not refute this view of the factory city if we abstract the function of the factory and its role in the urban metabolism from the image of the “dark satanic mills” – a phrase that first appeared in William Blake’s epic poem “Milton: A Poem” (1804-8) and is often interpreted as referring to the factory-driven destruction of nature and human relationships during the “Industrial Revolution.” In doing so, we notice the non-trivial number of factories that haven’t been swept away by deindustrialization. They require fewer workers, are more specialized and therefore smaller, but thanks to improved automation and production techniques, their output more than matches that of the days when industry was more visible. As such, the factories remain as voracious as ever for materials, electricity, or gas, keeping the economic soil fertile.

That’s not to say that the largest metropolises live on lean production. Rather, I want to point out the continuity in urban development, rather than the discontinuities that are much more often mentioned. The organization of industry has changed, the sequence of circulatory and productive processes has been reconfigured, but these processes are still there. And if we understand production in terms of processes, we understand that the Fordist factory was as temporary and historically determined a way of arranging these processes as the earlier workshops and factories it replaced. There is no reason why, after the evacuation of industry from the household and the subsequent division of labor into intellectual and manual labor, there should not be an even more acute division of labor with its own spatial configuration. Therefore, we should no longer consider the factory as we know it, but the city as the unit of analysis, where we need to identify factory-like locations that perform many of the same functions as traditional factories.

Production-as-a-service and service-as-a-product

To further narrow down the city as a unit of analysis, two symbols of the “immaterial” service economy around which cosmopolitan cities are built prove very instructive: office buildings and urban shopping malls. Throughout Romania, for instance, there is a strong isomorphism between the old factories and these two types of buildings, as they are both located on the sites of former industrial platforms. This isn’t a coincidence of geography, but because they share the logistical needs of former factories, especially in terms of space, electricity consumption and generous transportation routes. The relationship between manufacturing and services isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

A minority of the work done in office buildings is immaterial production, such as consumer-oriented software development. Instead, most of them are better understood as the office floors of multiple former factories, both Romanian and Western, layered on top of each other, with the same class of workers doing the same kind of accounting, planning, design, human resource management, and customer service work that they would do in the field for manufacturing plants and warehouses. The office buildings are not places where digital technologies enable a new kind of intellectual work, but rather places where digital technologies enable the spatial reconfiguration of the same kinds of intellectual work that emerged with the “Industrial Revolution.” By outsourcing the cost centers of manufacturing plants and grouping them together for some economies of scale, the new thing that has been created rhymes strongly with the very first factories, where labor was only formally subsumed under capital through the grouping of craftsmen, but hadn’t yet undergone the real process of subsumption by technological means.

Urban malls have an even clearer relationship to production, or rather reproduction. In her 1920 essay “Communism and the Family,” Alexandra Kollontai notes that “[all] that was formerly produced in the bosom of the family is now being manufactured on a mass scale in workshops and factories,” transforming the household into a mere site of consumption. All the domestic work that remains is unproductive or reproductive labor, such as “cleaning (cleaning the floors, dusting, heating water, care of the lamps etc.), cooking (preparation of dinners and suppers), washing and the care of the linen and clothing of the family (darning and mending),” which will soon be eliminated by industrialization. Kollontai saw the task of communism as doing away with these kinds of tasks, which took up too much of women’s time.

At the same time, Kollontai acknowledged that this process is underway even under capitalism. Some of these tasks have been solved through the development of durable goods, such as washing machines, and others through the means of physical infrastructure, such as indoor plumbing. The food court, with its plethora of fast food outlets, is the most developed form of transforming a formerly unproductive domestic process into an industrialized commercial one. Fordist labor organization is alive and well in the kitchen of a fast-food “restaurant,” where repetitive actions assemble standardized components on specialized tools to mass-produce commodities. Inside every shopping mall there are at least three or four mini-factories. In a sense, laundromat-like services similarly solve the problem of cleaning and mending clothes by industrializing the process, but the more general solution is to not deal with the problem at all, not unlike what’s happening in the “Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City.” Fast fashion turns the unproductive labor of mending a garment into the productive labor of creating a new garment, and for a decade before the proliferation of online shopping, the mall was the main marketplace for these kinds of items.

Production of what?

At this point we should ask, if the city is a factory, what does it produce? The answer can be found in a third factory-like environment, the construction site itself, where each developer becomes a “nomadic factory.” Urban development not only links the previous two factory-like sites, but also relates them to financialization – conventionally understood as the engine of the new economy because of its ability to create money seemingly out of thin air. As such, the city is constantly producing and reproducing itself, growing in width and height, devouring shreds of “useless nature.” But Superstudio’s parody doesn’t just centralize and display what is diffused and obscured in our existing cities, it also makes a fetish of the factory. If, in sociological terms, the traditional city produced citizens, the conveyor belt city produces consumers. On the other hand, the city factory, from its earliest days and especially since Ford, has produced worker-consumers who think of themselves as citizens.

There are no two ways about it. If the peasant or the citizen could consume more, they would have done so. The main source of friction for their consumption was the low productivity of their work and the amount of time they spent on necessary but unproductive tasks. But how much more would they have consumed if that weren’t the case? A secondary, but not unimportant, source of friction was that the household combined what would become intellectual and manual labor, reproduction and consumption. In the traditional household, the material and temporal costs of each act of consumption were known and could be rationally evaluated. The Fordist factory, where the office floor throned over the shop floor, produced the awesome high modernism that colonized the imagination with the idea that a city, a country, the world itself, could be planned in the same way that the production line could be planned.

The new kinds of factory-like sites do not give way to this excess of rationality, and so cities sprawl and develop with little rhyme or reason. The character of a building or a neighborhood is not something to be decided by an urban planner, and with the notable exceptions of Vienna and North American suburban HOAs, it’s certainly not something to be debated among residents and then demanded where it cannot be produced by them. Rather, our living environment is an expression of our consumption habits. The new factory-like sites are not trees that require a carefully balanced ecosystem, they are fungi, and they grow in the soil of our indifference to what goes on in the mycelium.

Not only to think of the city as a factory, but to understand the city as a factory is to take control of the city from the bottom up. And, more than that, to take responsibility for the city. It’s not “The Great Factory” that devours “useless nature,” it’s us as worker-consumers who confuse our consumption preferences with choice and think our work is immaterial, while it’s entirely essential in a material sense to the city as factory that, on this planet of cities, drives an ecological-economic vicious circle, in which “economic and ecological excesses are increasingly devastatingly intertwined and mutually reinforcing, causing, for example, pandemics, biodiversity loss, sanitation emergencies, resource wars, and the slow violence of climate catastrophe.” Are we ready to finally overcome the curse of the “dark satanic mills”?

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information:

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