Giedion explores mechanization from the medieval period onward. He builds, layer upon layer, an anonymous history; showing when ideas about mechanization first appeared, how they spread across nations, and how they create and reflects dominant cultures. Giedion begins with movement, or motion. He centers on the work of E. J. Marey and Frank B. Gilbreth, who captured in charts and sculptures the essence of motion. Ever the Francophile, Giedion draws a line from the theologian philosopher Oresme to Descartes, to Marery and to Gilbreth. "Movement, the ceaselessly changing, proves itself ever more strongly the key to our thought." (28). Mechanization reaches to the level of the atom, to the level of the cell.
In his opening remarks, almost as a toss-away, Giedion brings into focus a key question for my own work: why didn't the Romans create the automatic mill, as was done in1783 by Oliver Evans using principles and equipment no more sophisticated than the Romans possessed? Because, says Giedion, Romans linked invention to the miraculous, and not to production. This link and interest persisted even to the duck and flautist of Vaucanson: amazing automata whose internal workings could easily have been adapted to, and in fact were adapted to, spinning silk in France, well before the textile industry's revolution in England. But the French plans were never carried out. Giedion suggests that Vaucanson was working in a society with an orientation toward the miraculous, and just before the industrial revolution "what ... changed [was] the orientation from the miraculous to the utilitarian." (34)
Having explored representations of motion that would be subject to mechanization, Giedion, proceeds by way of a close examination of the Yale door lock, e.g., the mechanization of a complicated but ages-old handicraft. He turns to to the assembly line and scientific management, the all-encompassing "means" of mechanization in the 20th century, a theme which he explores in some detail in the next large question of the work: what happens when man tries to mechanize the "organic?" Agricultural machines, bread and meat are reviewed; emotions are fore-fronted. Once there were admirable world-changing harvesters; now there are horrible cake-like breads and inhumane unemotional slaughter houses: all these are the fruits of mechanization and the organic.
Giedion's next question is that of mechanization and the home: what is considered comfort, what are the typical postures of the ages, and how is mechanization used to create the home? Mechanization asserts Giedion, was either used to create a cheap way of turning out handicraft work, or used to pursue solutions hitherto unknown. He favors the latter. Most importantly, mechanization only facilitated trends that had already appeared. Medieval kitches, Rococo couches, dark ruling tastes of the Empire, the hideous reign of the upholsterer and the constituent furniture of the 19th and 20th century (these the true spirit of the age) pass in swift succession.
The work concludes with a survey of the mechanization of hearth and home: the kitchen moves in and out of living spaces, washing machines, ranges, egg beaters, vacuum cleaners and irons are considered in turn, and finally he turns to the question of hygiene as it relates to regeneration: what form shall the bath take? Can plumbing be mass produced? (In Giedion's time, it could not). In all of these questions Giedion is seeking to promote the idea of equilibrium between physic spaces and real spaces, bringing mechanization to a human scale.
Giedion's work reminds one of a performance by Rachmaninoff: there may
be better technical performers, but for dazzling flow and feeling, there
will be no competitors, no imitators. His thinking, one suspects, works
by intuitive leaps, just as his arguments proceed by metaphorical flourishes.
It is partial, passionate, prejudiced, conceived around spaces and not
interior mechanics. Giedion's work is marked by his stay in America during
World War II, and consequently, an especially great delight for an American
reader; medieval benches get mixed up with Horn & Hardarts, the Chicago
stockyards lead to the French Empire style. His significance for my own
work lies first in his assertion that mechanization as it is applied is
simply the expression of a culture's pre-orientation, and second, in the
intuitive leaps that I admire, but probably cannot imitate.