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The Van Nelle factory was built between 1925 and 1931. Its most striking feature is its huge glass façades. The building is currently a high-tech centre for design and communication that houses between 50 and 70 small and medium-sized businesses. The factory grounds still largely retain their original design. Among the most striking features are the glass aerial walkways that connect the factory buildings and the shipping office.
The factory was designed on the premise that a modern, transparent and healthy working environment in green surroundings would be good both for production and for workers' welfare.
The complex is the result of the radical application of a number of cultural and technical concepts dating from the early twentieth century. This led to a new, functional approach to architecture that enjoyed mass appeal right from the start.
The factory had a huge impact on the development of modern architecture in Europe and elsewhere. However, it is not just its architectural style, but rather its response to the social challenges of the day which makes the Van Nelle factory special. Its glass façade, with its large openable windows and advanced ventilation system, is quite unique, even though similar factories are to be found elsewhere.
DOCOMOMO has dubbed the Van Nelle factory - along with 99 other international heritage objects - an icon of Modernism.
Criterion ii: The Van Nelle factory was Europe's first 'daylight factory', and it is seen as an icon of the Dutch Modernist Movement.
The complex has immense value in terms of international architectural heritage. Its design was based entirely on an analysis of the technical and social functions expected of a factory, with particular concern for the development of the lower social classes.
The complex has great sociohistorical value as a building in which working conditions were of paramount importance. This is expressed in such details as the adjustable windows, the uninterrupted view they provide of the surroundings, changing rooms with showers and toilets, sports grounds, a garden, a canteen and a library. This humane approach to working life was a response to the onslaught of industrialisation, as exemplified by smoking factory chimneys.
Criterion iv: The factory is characterised by its serene, elegant architecture, which reflected the machine aesthetic and a trend towards lightness and minimalism. The undecorated, rhythmically proportioned buildings have black tiled plinths, white plastered walls and glass facades with graceful steel profiles. The complex had a pioneering impact on the history of construction and the development of building technology.
The factory's architecture and structure have been preserved in their original state, although it no longer contains any machinery, the manufacture of tobacco products having ceased in 1998. When the factory was given a different function as of the late 1990s, the authenticity of the building was carefully preserved. The architect who restored the premises worked on the assumption that the factory would become a world heritage site.
To some extent the property can be compared to the National Printing Bureau in Gatineau (Quebec). That building has International Style hallmarks and a facade in which windows predominate. However, the building is much deeper, and therefore cannot truly be classified as a daylight factory. The shoe factory built by Thomas J. Bata in 1940 in Batawa (Ontario) could be said to have been inspired by the Van Nelle Factory, but it has unfortunately suffered irreparable damage.
In the American states, the factories of Albert Kahn were also built with transparent facades. However, these are more solid structures, with a more overtly classical design. The only true glass facade in the US is to be found at the Chrysler-Dodge Half-Ton Truck Plant in Warren, Michigan (1938). However, this is just a single-storey building.
The golf tee-shaped columns that support the ceilings of the Starrett Lehigh Building (New York, 1933) are much more obtrusive than their Van Nelle equivalents, and occupy far more floor space. American factories have incidentally often been constructed so as to take up an entire block, and rely on interior courtyards for extra light. The graceful design and the principle of light entering the building from both sides make the Van Nelle factory unique.
As regards internal goods transport and the use of gravity in the factory (the 'vertical factory'), the Van Nelle factory was inspired by the Ford factories in Dearborn (Michigan, 1917-1928). However, the Ford factories were less concerned with the welfare of their workers.
in Germany, the X-ray tube factory set up by Carl Müller in Hamburg (1929-1930) is in some respects comparable to the Van Nelle complex. However, no use was made of gravity in the production process in Hamburg. Moreover, the building has since been incorporated in a larger complex.
The Fagus factory (Fagus-Werk) in Alfeld an der Leine designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer was built in 1911 and is still in use. Both the building and the production systems were designed differently to the Van Nelle factory, and the format is not the same.
There is another Bata factory in Zlin, in the Czech Republic. However the architecture is less transparent and unusual than in the Van Nelle Factory. Moreover, the factory has been drastically altered.
In Nottingham there is the Boots factory (1930-1932) designed by Owen Williams, also inspired by American models, but it has since drastically altered in crucial respects.
Some Modernist and constructivist factory complexes are still to be found in Russia. However, they are either extremely dilapidated or have been extensively rebuilt. Moreover, they are not 'daylight factories'. The closest approximation is the Red Star textile factory in St Petersburg (1925-29/1934-37, E. Mendelsohn). However, much of the complex has been lost.