Forgotten structures (pt. 2) — Fordlândia

The iconic water tower of Henry Ford’s Fordlândia remains standing to this day — C. Senna

In this blog — titled ‘forgotten structures’ — abandoned developments of the 20th century, littered across the globe, are brought back to life. With the aid of photography collections and archival memoirs, we explore the legacy of intriguing structural ruins which time has slowly left behind. Each week, a new case is introduced and added to the list. Ultimately, the blog will construct a comprehensive collection of structural gems which deserve to be remembered. In doing so, we debate the general question of ‘what should be done with abandoned structures?’

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasureRumi

This week, we explore the intriguing story of Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s failed Amazonian city. Established in 1928, Fordlândia was a prefabricated industrial town located on the east banks of the Tapajós river. Ultimately, Ford’s vision was to develop a town which would secure a direct source of cultivated rubber for his manufacturing operations and house around 10,000 residents. The idea was presented by Ford to the then Brazilian government, who granted him 10,000km² of land in exchange for a 9% share of the generated profits. After six years, however, the town was abandoned and it is deemed as one of Ford’s most unsuccessful business ventures. This blog will explore the history of Fordlândia; how it came about, why it was abandoned and what remains.

Ford and a number of his business colleagues on their first scouting voyage to the Amazon — M. Wardell

When rumours began to spread of Ford’s plan, northern Brazil was captivated by the thought of a revived economy and a whole new way of life. After all, whether in Brazil, America, or anywhere else on the planet, Ford’s name was household. By the early 1900s he had built an all encompassing empire and carried the glimmering promise of economic development wherever he went. Within a decade of establishing Dearborn — a plant in Michigan that would go on to be regarded as the corporation’s World Headquarters — the Ford Motor Company had revolutionised the process of car production.

By introducing the assembly line — a means of isolating tasks within the complex operation of car manufacturing — it was then possible to produce new vehicles faster than ever before, making the company a global success. Added to this, Ford took pride in the fair treatment of his staff and in 1914 proclaimed that all Ford workers would receive a daily salary of $5 (the equivalent of around $120 today). He believed this would make his workers more responsible citizens and, in the process, solidify a client base for manufacturers.

Ford’s Dearborn factory in Michigan — J. Lloyd

Ford’s desires didn’t stop there, however. As well as his more sinister social ideas and blatant anti-Semitism, he became increasingly convinced that his role in advancing society had to go beyond the factory floor and, ultimately, encompass entire cities. As we will discuss, such a desire was equally as obscene. As Greg Grandin, author of ‘Fordlândia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City’, explained: “ironically, the force of industrial capitalism which Ford helped to unleash, was undermining the world he hoped to restore.” After an attempt to create a colossal manufacturing plant in Alabama failed to get off the ground, Ford turned his attention to the Amazon rain forest.

While Ford may have stated “we are not going to South America to make money, but to help develop that wonderful and fertile land”, it is clear that his interest in Brazil was purely business motivated. The monopoly on Sri Lankan rubber which Britain had succeeded in achieving was driving up costs for his cars, so he wanted to find a cheap source of latex that would allow the Ford Motor Company to produce its own tyres. As such, the outlandish idea of Fordlândia was born. Following delays in the arrival of materials, construction finally began in 1929. Under the command of the Norwegian-born Einar Oxholm, the city began to develop around a distinctive grid-pattern.

An aerial shot of one of Fordlândia’s residential quarters — The collections of Henry Ford

Ford went so far as to build a modern hospital, a power plant, a library, a golf course, a hotel, a dance hall and cinema, and thousands of clapboard houses for the employees to live in. Eventually, as the community grew, other businesses such as bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers were established. By and large, American residents were kept separate from their Brazilian counterparts and even lived in their own neighbourhood — Vila Americana. One thing that did unite residents, however, was Ford’s strict enforcement of a ‘healthy lifestyle’. This included attending poetry readings, square dances, singalongs and even abstaining from alcohol.

Fordlândia’s cinema and dance hall — M. Wardell

Unfortunately for Ford, Fordlândia proved to be wildly unsuccessful. The rubber saplings that Ford had planted (without the advice or help of a botanist, it should be noted — a somewhat measure of the man) were barely growing, and those that did grow were soon hit by a leaf blight, which ruined the remaining trees. By the end of the 1920s malaria also became a serious problem. Things culminated in December 1930, however, when agitated workers rioted, breaking windows and overturning vehicles in the road. Even the local press, initially friendly, turned on Ford and his project. Ultimately, his Utopian dream was in tatters. Despite the fact work continued for several days after the riots, there was almost no product to show for the millions of dollars Ford had poured into the jungle.

A typical labourer’s house — M. Wardell

Ford retired from the rubber industry in 1945 after losing over $20 million in the Amazon (over $200 million today) and the Brazilian government purchased all of Ford’s land for a measly $250,000. The moment news of the sale reached Fordlândia, its American residents almost immediately headed home, leaving its Brazilian natives confused and unemployed. In contrast to the excitement generated around its creation, Fordlândia’s death was a quiet one.

The ruins of a former Fordlândia building — E. Hanazaki

In regards to what remains, equipment from the sawmill and generator were left to the elements and vandals over the years, rusting in the thick Amazon air. The iconic water tower still stands, but the Ford logo proudly painted on its side has long since faded. An apt representation of the business venture in general. After the population languished at under 100 for several decades, it has since rebounded to about 3,000 residents in recent years. While not quite flourishing like Ford once hoped it would, the town remains self-sufficient and continues to grow.

Parts of Fordlândia remain entirely abandoned and unused — R. Mielnik

The current inhabitants of the town don’t have the good fortune of attending a modern school or being able to avail of a top class hospital, the way Fordlândia’s original residents did. But, in a way, they are better off. Fordlândia was created as the brainchild of one of the world’s most ambitious industrialists, a forefather of capitalism and a man who played a huge part in the creation of social, class and gender separation. Unsurprisingly, the remnants of this legacy are still felt today. Perhaps Fordlândia will develop more sustainably as a community-led town, free from the grand ambitions and illusionary desires of Ford himself.

To finish on a more positive note, it is important mention how the legacy of Fordlândia received somewhat of a renaissance throughout the mid 2000s. As well a number of journal articles, books and documentaries, the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson titled his fifth album after the city. The collection of ambient and electronic songs creates a beautiful soundscape to immerse yourself with, while contemplating the curious case of Fordlândia.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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