The Company’s Town
Thesis supervisors: Martino Tattara and Jesse Honsa
Individual Master thesis
Academic year 2021/2022
Company towns were a widespread form of settlement in Europe and the Americas during the industrial revolution, when commercial enterprises provided housing and facilities for workers around factories or in remote areas of material extraction. They had a clear economic logic: to keep labour abundant and cheap by funding its accommodation and care. Some company towns were also fuelled by a philanthropic desire to improve the lives of workers through well-designed dwellings and public spaces. Simultaneously, the paternalistic employer maintained tight control over every aspect of the worker’s life. The architects of some company towns sought to micromanage productivity by designing the spaces used by employees both on and off the proverbial clock. For better or worse, company towns were a perfect manifestation of labour relations under capitalism. Even before the real emergence of municipal management and housing, employers had an active stake in managing the urban realm. Their forms, design philosophies and strategies had a great influence on later urban practices.
Despite that strong historic link, company-sponsored housing is rare in the 21st Century. Labour movements curtailed employers’ autocratic control, while states began to replace businesses as the financiers of affordable housing—though often replicating paternal tendencies. Other types of work-centred institutions (universities, militaries) still sponsor housing onsite, but the company town is seemingly for the history books. Even corporations that invest in lavish office campuses—often producing workspaces that begin to resemble domestic environments—do not usually sponsor accommodation directly. Some corporations, including Toyota, Lego or Facebook, have or plan to provide housing, albeit by different means than the classic model. With the receding Welfare State and the growing pressure for affordable housing in many cities, business feel the negative effects of housing crisis and would have ample incentives to invest. Moreover, the blurring of the divide between work and home—exacerbated by the recent pandemic—calls into question where the responsibilities of the employer end.
The goal of this written thesis project will be to reconsider the relevance of company-provided housing today. It will study historic—and where possible, contemporary—examples of company towns and other formats of company-supported housing, asking how they were produced, managed and financed.
The thesis’ goal is on the one hand to analyse the domestic spaces, social facilities and urban spaces of selected case studies, considering how the design of such elements were informed by the imperatives of particular businesses, and on the other to understand the motivations and economic conditions for their development. With this knowledge into the spatial nature of company housing, and considering the contemporary needs of industry, the thesis will propose design agendas and/or policies. The geographic scope of the study will be decided together with the student based on his/her interests and the ability to access resources and conduct fieldwork.
The student will meet around four times with the supervisors (Martino Tattara and Jesse Honsa) in the winter semester, and on a weekly basis in the spring, with the goal of producing a written thesis between 15,000 (minimum) and 20,000 (max) words. This thesis is intended to work in parallel to the thesis design studio by Martino Tattara titled The Settlement Retrofit (MAIB42 campus Brussels). In addition to the individual tutorial activities, the student will therefore take part in the thesis workshop of November (8-12 November 2021), in the seminars and in the field-trip of February 2022 with the design studio.
Picture: Map of Pullman, Illinois, 1884.