Crespi’s urban design was inspired by examples from northern Europe, particularly British “company towns”. It was in England that the Industrial Revolution began, which changed workers’ lives dramatically.
Many people, whose families had been farmers for generations, packed up their belongings and headed to the cities, attracted by the machinery and chimneystacks. Thus, an unremitting exodus began. People poured out of the countryside and began to fill the metropolitan areas.
In the slums, made famous in Charles Dickens’ stories, people lived in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. There weren’t any houses per se, rather shacks piled up against each other. Sanitation was practically non-existent, resulting in outbreaks of diseases and chronic illnesses.
Utopians and reformers
The changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution were apparent to everyone, and certain politicians, scholars and researchers began to try to understand them. The so-called utopians, who took their name from the “utopia”, defined by the Treccani dictionary as the “formulation of a political, social or religious structure that is not founded in reality, but is proposed as an ideal or model”, began to promote urban and social prototypes based on harmony, order and rationality.
The projects had varying degrees of feasibility, but often they involved creating new extra-urban structures, independent and complete in and of themselves, that were developed near manufacturing areas, to provide homes to workers and their families and offering essential social and recreational services, or company towns.
The reformers were often doctors and sanitary engineers worried about workers’ health. Their studies and proposals tended to involve residential planning near production facilities.
The first villages for workers had a simple layout and were developed on vacant land, in areas where it was easiest to take advantage of natural resources, in particular, water, and low labour costs.
Usually, they developed on the initiative of a single entrepreneur. Over time, the idea took hold that the new villages were part of the factory and part of its long-term assets. These villages represent a model of a miniature city that offers all of the necessary services – home, church, school and cemetery. By setting up these company towns, industrialists could eliminate the burden on their workers of travelling back and forth to the factory. They created healthy production facilities, desirable living quarters and, at the same time, certain essential services. As a result of these efforts, they hoped that workers would be more attached to their jobs, be more productive, and that the social order would remain under control, with a lower tendency to protest or strike.
Saltaire is an English company town named after its founder, the textile tycoon Titus Salt, and from the River Aire.
The village, isolated from a large urban centre, is itself an integrated system that supplies energy, industrial production, residences and services, organised in an orthogonal layout. The project envisaged all the services necessary for health, hygiene and education of the workers.
The homes were assigned by the owner according to a rigorous social hierarchy, and were sturdy, rational and spacious.
The Scottish village of New Lanark, an industrial community founded at the end of the 18th century by David Dale, another textile entrepreneur, is famous for the design and commitment of Robert Owen. On 1 January 1800, he purchased all of Dale’s property, including the village and cotton mills. New Lanark became a laboratory for experimentation and implementation of his socialist ideas.
The site included cotton mills, homes for workers and various buildings for recreation and education.
The French company town of Mulhouse, developed by the Societe’ mulhousienne des cites ouvieres beginning in 1853, was one of the first to provide workers with small independent houses rather than the “barracks” facilities that were typical at the time.
More than 100 homes were built on the economical “sanitary-philanthropic” model, designed by Henry Roberts and presented at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
The model was a square-shaped building with 2 aboveground floors. Each block consisted of four independent homes with an internal staircase and lavatories under the stairs. Each home had a plot of land and a private entrance.
In Italy, the Industrial Revolution began only after unification in 1861, much later than in England, France and Germany. Hence, Italian examples of “company towns” appeared only toward the middle of the 19th century.
A few years prior to founding of Crespi, Alessandro Rossi, who specialised in processing wool, developed a company town known as Schio, in the province of Vicenza. Rossi, like Silvio Crespi, visited British manufacturing facilities from which he drew inspiration for his idea to create both a factory and housing for the workers.
Rossi’s example shows the attention given to both the production activities as well as social aspects, a rigorous and functional model representing a true prototype.