Friday, September 30, 2016

'Fordlandia' at the London College of Fashion

"Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Fordlandia."
So said Henry Ford, christening his secluded utopian city, located deep in the heart of the Amazon. Here, far from the prying eyes of Big Government, the philosophical concepts that powered Ford's company could blossom, and a pure technological, moral and cultural revolution would ensue. Optimism fizzed as the ground was broken and first buildings erected. Hopeful workers journed to the rainforest in droves, eager for a taste of Ford's bright new future. Yet now the dream is in ruins; machinery clogged up with muck, roofs caved under the weight of vines; the jungle having reclaimed its land.

Okay, okay. Henry Ford didn't actually say the quote up above. It's from the videogame Bioshock, in which a 20th century industrialist sets up a secluded utopian city, Rapture, based on his own philosophical principles. The city is run under strict behavioural controls. Everything quickly goes to hell, and the city ends up ruined and reconquered by nature. Also it's full of crazed genetic mutants. The similarities are striking*, Fordlandia a powerful symbol of reliance on ideology, mankind's hubris and the nature's indifference to men's dreams.

*Okay there's currently no evidence of hordes of crazed genetic mutants in Fordlandia

The city once more proves its inspirational worth in Studio Swine's Fordlandia exhibition, at the London College of Fashion. The concept behind the collection is to imagine what Fordlandia might have been like if it had succeeded. To this end it uses materials from the rainforest - primarily the abundance of natural rubber, but also woods, animal skins and tribal inspired designs. 

Thing is, Fordlandia posits that for Ford's project to have succeeded, nature and industry would have had to have entered a symbiotic relationship, each taking inspiration from the other. This is the world that Fordlandia presents: a sustainable, ecologically minded hand-made paradise of natural fibres, organic forms and hand-crafted objects. Now, you can go back and forth as to whether this would be how a working jungle-city might look, but one thing's for sure - Ford would have hated it.

From what I can gather from Greg Grandin's excellent book Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, the place was intended to dominate and pacify nature rather than work with it. The jungle was slashed and burned, the bulldozed level -  as if Ford were trying to exorcise some untamed spirit from the soil. Sewn into the fabric of the city was an aggressive sense of industry, the city and its citizens part of some giant machine dedicated to churning out rubber. This rigidity can be seen in the way Ford envisaged his workers living: strict work schedules, uniforms, a ban on alcohol consumption, dietary controls on unhealthy food and (perhaps most monstrous of all) enforced square dancing *shudder*. 

But perhaps the clearest example is the failure of Fordlandia's raison d'etre: rubber production. The monetary and industrial justification for the place was that it would solve the problem of farming rubber trees. Whilst experiments had been made in transplanting them elsewhere, botanists figured their natural climate would be most successful. What they didn't understand was the rubber tree's place in an ecosystem. Their regimented rows of trees generally failed to take roots and those that did were ruined by blight.

Fordlandia was so fiercely geared  to conquering nature through human ingenuity that I just can't connect the philosophy of this exhibition to the history. A 'successful' Fordlandia would have somehow pummelled the jungle into submission through the application of science, managed to harness industrial production of rubber and created a wholly artificial, synthetic society that existed in hermetic seclusion in the rainforest. For it to become ecologically minded, with an arts and crafts aesthetic simply doesn't make sense.

What this exhibition has come up with isn't an extension of Fordlandia, it merely shares a root idea: what would a sustainable urban environment within the rainforest look like (we'll ignore Manaus for the moment). The exhibition blurb says that it "imagines a world where Fordlandia is a success". It doesn't. That would probably look like an unfriendly, near-totalitarian misery-fest. What Fordlandia proves to be is a slightly underwhelming collection of rainforest-influenced furniture and clothes that don't really have much connection to the historical Fordlandia at all.

Fordlandia is at the London College of Fashion until 10 December. Details here.

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