Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

Gilding the Smokestacks: The New Symbolic Representations of Deindustrialised Regions

Sophie Watson

In Australia the combined and related effects of deindustrialisation, international competitiveness, the end of protection, global recession and a decline in the manufacturing sector, have left some of the older industrial regions in a vulnerable position. To reverse the tide of high levels of unemployment, decaying industrial buildings and run-down housing there have been attempts to restructure the economic and industrial base of these areas and regenerate their locality. Central to this response has been a redefinition of their image and the creation of new forms of identity. How an area is perceived and its physical/environmental desirability, however notional, will affect the levels of investment by industrial property developers, financial interests, and companies on the one hand, and the inclination of employers and employees to work and live there on the other.

In this paper I explore some of the new symbolic representations of two such areas in New South Wales in the 1980s: the Central Industrial Area of Sydney and Wollongong. Notions of masculinity are key here. Traditional manufacturing industries with kudos and allure have typically involved the use of heavy machinery, the imposing shop floor, the deafening sound of metals in motion. There has been a discourse and celebration of strength and the power of men's bodies in the workplace. Women in the manufacturing sector remain hidden, consigned more often to smaller workshops, and the less glamorous production of textiles and clothes. Even more than manufacturing, the mining and steel sectors constitute the site of 'real men's' work - work conceived and constructed as too rough and too tough for women.

Capitalist economies are restructuring on a global level. Some social scientists argue that with the growth of transnational companies, the mobility of capital, the opening up of new cheap labour sources and so on, international competitiveness forces nations to restructure their economies and their industrial base. In many Western countries there has been a shift from a reliance on the manufacturing sector to the provision of services, financial and business in particular, and high tech industries. There is the notion that the patterns are universal even if the forms that they take are differentiated spatially. What is often lacking in the analyses is a cultural focus, and little attention is paid to the symbolic modes of adapting to the emerging global system. Robertson and Lechner suggest that 'conceptions of the world system, symbolic responses to globalisation, are themselves important factors in determining the trajectories of that very process'.1

My interest here is how, in the context of an apparently similar process of de-industrialisation and re-industrialisation, areas become fragmented and differentiated. How do decaying areas seek to re-establish an identity and become culturally active, producing new meanings and images as part of this regeneration? To reduce global competitiveness to political and economic questions is to overlook a central part of the process.

As the economy restructures in the 1980s and new technologies bring changes in the form of the labour process, it may be that new images and meanings of masculinity are being drawn on and constructed. Are these central to the regeneration of these deindustrialised regions? Are changing notions of 'woman' and the increased participation of women in the national workforce reflected either in the current imagery or in the sex composition of the workforce in these regions? What difference do these new forms of representation make and how central are symbolic forms of production in the attempts to restructure these areas? These are some of the questions explored in this paper.

Modernisation is conceptualised around technological, economic and social developments associated with industrialisation and rationalisation. This transition to modernity and a radically transformed life in the urban centres of capitalism, is associated, in architectural discourse, with notions of function and of refined and impressive mechanical structures. But despite industrialisation being the motor for change, and industry the employer of the masses, industrial buildings are not the dominant symbols of modernity. The striking images of the artists and photographers connected with Camera Work and the 291 gallery after the turn of the century in America and the Europeans who followed them were not centrally industrial ones. As Martin Pumphrey comments 'their images of the Manhattan skyline and the modern skyscraper city have come to occupy a central place in the iconography of modernity'. 2 These are the built forms which came to symbolise the dynamic modernness of contemporary life. The representations of industrial buildings most familiar to us are the dark satanic mills and the dirty smokestacks of Lowry's early twentieth century Britain.

Modernisation is linked with processes of structural change and the ability of capitalism to develop and survive. Post-modern geographers3 introduce the notion of spatiality to theorise how these processes are articulated. Soja's latest book reflects the recent interests of geographers in the combination of time and space, period and region, sequence and simultaneity. Soja writes 4 admiringly of Berman's presentation of 'the material forces which contribute to the restructuring of the experience of modernity as a collective sense of the 'perils and possibilities' of the contemporary:

the industrialisation of production, which transforms scientific knowledge into technology, creates new environments and destroys old ones, speeds up the whole tempo of life, generates new forms of corporate power and class struggle.5

When areas go into decline because an industry collapses, moves elsewhere or rationalises its production, decay takes different forms. At the same time industrial sites are increasingly differentiated by responses to change. Within each there is an attempt to produce and maintain a unique sense of place and to create a myth of identity. This does not simply reflect economic imperatives or the intentions of planners. Instead industrial areas have to be read as distinctive, fluid, flexible and varied built forms. Their images may derive, in part, from the politics and resources of the 'local', from planners' dreams. But the practices of use vary in any one day. So do the meanings. As Meaghan Morris writes of shopping centres: 'we cannot derive commentary on their function, peoples' responses to them, or their own cultural production of "place" in and around them from (an) economic rationale'.6 These processes of identity are central to understanding the way in which industrial areas are differentiated in the 1980s. This is a period when the pressures of competition, both locally and internationally, reinforce the need for such an identity.

The Central Industrial Area (henceforth the CIA) of Sydney encompasses Alexandria, South Sydney, and Botany. It has a long history as the major manufacturing centre of the Sydney region. Until recently it has been an area dominated by old, increasingly run down factories, pollution, heavy transport, noise and poor housing. Migrants settled there and were employed by local industry, many moving eventually to the newer suburbs to be replaced by a new wave of arrivals. A number of Australian born locals, and lower income households were also accommodated in the public sector housing there. Its main assets from an industrial investment point of view have been its accessibility, the cheapness of the land, and more recently, its proximity to Botany Bay and the airport.

Since the Second World War 130,000 jobs have been lost from the area and several major industries have moved elsewhere or closed down. The Reschs brewery site (Photo 1) is shortly to be turned into luxury flats and an international hotel, and other sites have been redeveloped for new industrial uses. The area is on the move, a new urban space is in the making, a new sense of place is being created. What is at stake for the local population is employment and their environment, for the investors it is finance, for the planners the management of space and land use, for the architects - visions, maybe. As Barthes wrote 'architecture is always dream and function, expression of utopia and convenience'.7

The Central Industrial Area of Sydney is not alone. In the Sydney region North Ryde, Parramatta, Burwood amongst others are all competing for investment too. There may be material advantages of one place over another - land prices and accessibility, for example - but as new forms of communication render location less relevant what counts more and more is the myth of an identity. The key to attracting investment and industry lies in projecting the area as a pleasant place to work, as somewhere that will impress the consumers of the product, and as a place of efficiency and modernity.

Wollongong provides a sharp contrast. Similarly industrial but dominated by a single employer, Wollongong has been synonymous with BHP. It formed an identity as a steel city, a coal city. It was seen as a city with a masculine profile, of real men, toughness, loyalty and coherence. Bonds were forged in the bowels of the earth. Like the CIA this was a region which made its wealth on the backs of migrant labour, but migrant labour of a different kind. Wollongong was populated by migrants who came from a small number of places, many from other mining communities. Migrants who came to Wollongong came to stay. Clubs were the visible sign of a shared social world where men met after the shift was done. Women did not figure in the city's mystique. The steel recession of the 1980s hit the Illawarra region hard. In the space of six months in 1982/83 nearly 20,000 jobs were lost in steel and coal. Unlike the CIA where jobs dribbled away over several years, in Wollongong restructuring hit with a big bang. A discourse of crisis and concern filled the press and preoccupied policy-makers. What was to be done?

Old industrial regions fighting to re-establish themselves face a climate of competitiveness, oversupply of industrial land, local unemployment and national and international restructuring. The need to be distinguished from similar areas, to create a new identity, to produce a revitalised image in the face of uniform processes becomes paramount. In the CIA, where the existing image was fragmented and unfocussed the regeneration has involved the discovery of a fresh identity. In the Illawara the old images have been revitalised, adapted and reconstituted, old givens have been rediscovered and appropriated.

The reading of industrial real estate texts gives some sense of how these new meanings in the CIA have been produced. The industrial property market is as much about persuading finance companies to invest, as it is about providing buildings for industry to use. Investors buy the complex and lease or sell units to industry. The decision on tenure is up to the user. Investment is the name of the game (with expected returns on capital of a little over 8%) so an oversupply of different areas means industrial real estate agencies use the representation and packaging of each site as the key to success. Gone are the days of function defining form. Form is the essence, unique identity is the key to a quick sale and bucks to be made.

Industrial sites are packaged in glossy plastic coated pamphlets reminiscent of record covers. Former emphases on uniformity, standardisation, convenience and utilitarian attributes are replaced by notions of exclusivity, flexibility, diversity, style and innovative design. It isn't just a matter of enough space to house the machinery, load up the trucks, and store the products. These new sites aren't about what you make but how you appear. These are the new 'high tech' industries - the dirty business happens up the back where no-one can see it, or it gets contracted out. As Jones Lang Wootton write in their 1987 industrial property report: 'The definition of high tech facilities has largely been in the eyes of the beholder; however, broadly speaking it is that type of development which houses clean industry and which contains a high proportion of office accommodation.'

Appearance is about unique architectural design: 'with the requirements of today's progressive industries in mind', 'futuristic tinted glass facades', 'black anodised glass', 'innovative, aesthetic architecture'. Notions of the 'natural' environment are woven into the fabric, and the creation of the 'natural' is as central to the developments as the built forms. Thus Alexandria Park 'blends the benefits of environment, technology and access' (Photo 2), while at 26-32 Kent Road 'landscaping will be advanced, offering a pleasant picturesque park setting for the estate with an automatic sprinkler system'. Factories are no longer to be concealed behind high fences banished to the ugly side of town, but strive instead to have maximum exposure to the world outside. This exposure is a notion associated with the sexual, particularly masculine sexuality, and openly invoked in Hooker's use of the dirty raincoat metaphor in one of its pamphlets. (Photo 3)

In the overtly nationalist slogans like 'Bound for Botany Bay with conviction - the costs are not criminal' (Photo 4 and 5, or the promotion of convict quarry tiles, there is both an allegiance to nation, history, and a recognition (and send up) of white Australia's origins. The pamphlets in Japanese reflect increasing levels of investment from that country in the Sydney property market. There is also an assertion of the masculine as controlling, efficient and masterful in the form of militaristic imagery. (Photo 6)

But the insertion of the domestic into industrial developments provides an interesting shift, as does the emphasis on comfort, the soft, the feminine. Gone are the hard stone floors, the cold and barren assembly lines, the canteen, the coin operated coffee machine. Inserted are the latest in kitchen designs, the microwaves and dishwashers - snappy and efficient entertainment areas are a must. Quality carpets, male and female loos, tropical plants in the foyer, the Australian native, evoking the 'natural' - the insertion of the tamed bush, spectacular atrium entrances, glamorous women at the desk. Meanwhile out the back, subcontracted to another site or to a migrant's home, the manufacture and assembly of goods hasn't gone away. It's simply removed, defined as distasteful. Working conditions aren't just good - they're 'cheerful, pleasant and enviable'. No place for men in dirty overalls. Inserted are the yuppie men in designer clothes. Where there are workshops they appear streamlined and clean. Bauman8 after Foucault argues that production is not a privileged force but merely one site where the surveillance of populations is carried out.9 In several workshops a panopticon form of design means the entire work area can be surveyed from a single tower. But different modes of image and looking are now being caught up in the surveillance of these spaces of display.

There is a sense in which the Central Industrial Area has shifted old forms of masculinity into the wings and reconstituted a notion of industry as clean cut with forms of gender refigured by the incorporation of yuppie style. This is not to say that the dirty work does not go on any more, but that it is shifted elsewhere with the upfront image, the 'exposure', sharp, smooth and even sometimes feminine. In the new tech industries the female to male ratio is at a rough equivalence, and where industrial sites are dominated by office space the presence of women is even more marked.

Wollongong is rather different. Discourses on masculinity vary in form and content. So too do the strategies taken by government, planners, financial interests and the unions to revitalise the city. These differences derive from the unique combination of investment, local resources and economic, social and spatial structures in the region, which have been subject to continuous change over the decades. The metaphor used by geographers here is one of 'layers':

The combination of layers is a form of mutual determination, of the existing characteristics of the area or regional system with those of the geographical pattern and effects of previous uses.10

In Wollongong the question has been how to rapidly substitute the jobs lost in BHP's radical restructuring. How to challenge the national media's representation of the city as 'down and out'11, how to fight for a new lease of life? The images evoke a cancer diagnosis, and the cancer has been fought. In less than five years seven major public sector projects have been completed, there have been three major retail expansions, 26 million dollars worth of private sector new buildings and over another 40 million dollars worth approved for, or under construction, 3.3 million dollars of industrial land have been sold, and a fivefold growth in tourism and taken place.12 How has this happened?

Part of the process of attracting Federal and State intervention and private sector expenditure has involved tough masculine discourses with no indication, as in the CIA, that these have been modified. Frank Arkell is the mayor of the city. Characterised in the Sydney Morning Herald as 'the secret weapon of "Bustle City"', he is 'a man who does not see things in subtle shades' and a man whose attitude to Wollongong evokes a Mills and Boon hero:

Let anyone criticise his beloved Illawarra, even in a gentle way, and he is at his or her throat like a mad dog.13

Aggressive marketing has been crucial to Wollongong's success. It has joined the 'family' of vibrant cities striving for excellence in a competitive world. Kawasaki is the new 'sister city'. The city council, the unions and the employers have all played an active part developing tripartite mechanisms to solve the crises matching Federal government practices. The employment that has been created is predominantly employment for men, while woman, the feminine, is constituted through myths, through symbolic representations and images.14

In the entire Wollongong City Council Development Unit report promoting investment in Wollongong, there is only one photograph of a woman in the section on tourism (Photo 7). Unlike the 'real' man in the full size photo on the page opposite, captured in motion on his board in the tube of the wave and sprayed with the surf, she stands inert on the beach, surf board in hand, wearing the latest minimalist swimming costume. Sections on technology and change, patterns of growth, people and workforce, and so on, reveal the man absorbed in the job. (Photos 8 and 9)

Like the CIA there are strong attempts to invoke cleanliness and 'the natural', and to draw on the environment in the reconstruction of the city. Thus constant reference is made to the beautiful beaches, the escarpment, the lack of pollution, the sunrise over the sea and so on. Yet here the 'given' is more of a reality and less of a manufactured fantasy. Ethnic diversity is similarly celebrated and exploited in discourses on food and hedonism. Wollongong, then, is a fun place to be. Lifestyle, a notion foreign to the days of the long shifts at the coalface, is placed on centre stage. Wollongong, it is claimed, is looked to throughout Australia 'as a shining example of a community which has successfully undertaken the formidable task of rebuilding a city'.15

It is interesting, in conclusion, to reflect on how the promotion of industrial areas has changed in recent years. As declining regions fight to differentiate themselves and encourage investment from a limited pool of sources, the old geographical attributes of location, land prices and accessibility are shifted from centre stage. Not that these are no longer important. Rather that central to the success of the property development industry, and the real estate agents for industrial land, is the creation of a myth of unique identity, and the packaging of sites invoking distinct cultural images. Snazzy appearances, high tech environments, romanticised 'natural' and clean cut masculinities, the insertion of the domestic, are now common features of the industrial environment. In time the old plants belching out pollution, the broken up machinery scattered in yards, and the desolate forecourts will be images of the past.

Whether the production of a revitalised image is crucial to successful reindustrialisation is hard to assess. In Wollongong the Japanese interest in building a new hotel for Japanese tourists must in part be ascribed to a judgement that the region is emerging from the doldrums and that it represents a wise investment. The actual number of jobs that have been created is relatively small, but the period since the massive job shedding from BHP is also short. What the future holds is uncertain. In the CIA the speed of industrial property development, the rapidly changing environment, and the growing visibility of new industrial sites may suggest that the revitalised image has contributed significantly to its economic and industrial success.


1 R. Robertson and F. Lechner, 'Modernisation, Globalisation and the Problem of Culture in World-Systems Theory', Theory, Culture and Society, vol.2,no.3, 1985, pp.103-117.

2 M. Pumphrey, 'The Flapper, The Housewife and the Making of Modernity', Cultural Studies, vol.1, no.2, May 1987, pp.179-194.

3 E. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London, Verso, 1989.

4 Ibid., p.28.

5 M. Berman, 'All That is Solid Melts into Air', The Experience of Modernity, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982, p.16.

6 M. Morris, 'Things to do With Shopping Centres'. In S. Sheridan (ed.), Grafts Feminist Cultural Criticism, London, Verso 1988, p.194.

7 R. Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, New York, Hill and Wang, 1979.

8 Z. Bauman, 'Industrialisation, Consumerism and Power'. Theory, Culture and Society, vol.1, no.3, 1983, p.40.

9 M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality Allen Lane, vol.1, 1979.

10 D. Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labour. London, Macmillan, 1984, p.118.

11 Wollongong City Council 1983-87, New Dawns ... New Challenges. Publicity handout.

12 Sydney Morning Herald, 1988, April 20th, 1s.

13 Ibid., 3s.

14The exception is the newly promoted retail sector. In the Illawarra Report analysis of the retail industry we read: 'The Cinderella sector is retailing; often overlooked as a mere service industry capable only of supplementing the ugly sisters of manufacturing and mining'. March 1988, p.3.

15 Wollongong City Council, op. cit., p.2.

New: 1 February, 1996 | Now: 12 March, 2015