Academic journal article Urban History Review

Modern Living "Hewn out of the Unknown Wilderness": Aluminum, City Planning, and Alcan's British Columbian Industrial Town of Kitimat in the 1950s

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Modern Living "Hewn out of the Unknown Wilderness": Aluminum, City Planning, and Alcan's British Columbian Industrial Town of Kitimat in the 1950s

Article excerpt

As a new town on the Northern British Columbian frontier, Kitimat represented mid-twentieth-century ideas of industrial resource development and town planning. Alcan executives saw Kitimat's town design as crucial to the recruitment and retention of a workforce for its megaproject of the 1950s and 1960s, which became the crown jewel of its global enterprise. The combination of high-tech aluminum production and town planning techniques promised employees a family-oriented lifestyle in a state-of-the-art town. Kitimat spearheaded this push or anew kind of frontier experience.

En tant que ville nouvelle du nordde la Colonbie Britannique, Kitimat incarne les idees qui circulaient au milieu du XXe siecle en matiere de developpement de ressources industrielles et d'urbanisme. Les dirigeants d'Alcan consideraient que la conception de la ville etait cruciale pour ce qui est du recrutement et de la retention des travailleurs pour leur megaprojet des annees 1950 et 1960. La ville est d'ailleurs devenuepar la suite un des fers de lance de toute l'entreprise. La combinaison de la production d'aluminium a la fine pointe de la technologie aux techniques d'urbanisme promet tait aux employes un mode de vie oriente vers la famille dans une cite dernier cri. La ville de Kitimat a ainsi initie l'essor d'une nouvelle experience de la frontiere.

Kitimat, British Columbia, starred as a model for frontier progress in North America's leading popular magazines of the 1950s. Harper's Magazine, Life, National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, Architectural Forum, and Fortune all featured stories about Kitimat, celebrating it as the embodiment of high-modern development. Harper's Magazine gushed in its 1953 feature, "Kitimat: Colossus of the Northwest," "The mammoth size of the undertaking makes the project a unique symbol of the vast industrial boom that nowadays is tapping the resources of the Canadian Wilderness ... Kitimat is a Rube Goldberg gadget of sublime proportions ... This fabulous undertaking is being done with the latest technological equipment, yet the frontier is still very near ... A race of supermen are roaming across our continent today without the rest of us being aware of them ... Their handiwork dots the face of America--dams, railroads, suspension bridges, canals, air bases, and now the Kitimat project." (1)

Saturday Evening Post joined the chorus with "Incredible New Frontier," saying, "Nothing was ever quite like this 'dream' community in the wilderness." (2) Still other magazines marvelled at Kitimat's dual identity as a high-tech industrial centre and comfortable frontier town. Clearly Kitimat enjoyed some special treatment from a host of popular magazines.

The Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) introduced Kitimat to North Americans as its new flagship industrial town by using the glossy pages of the day's most popular illustrated magazines. Kitimat embodied the company's global reach, fusing its ambition to demonstrate social virtue with British Columbia's provincial call to spur industrial development in the hinterland. Town planning, meanings of aluminum, and the metal's production each contributed to Kitimat's community identity as a modern-day industrial town. (3) Taking into account what a place produces can be centrally important to understanding the meanings of that place. At Kitimat the reputation of aluminum as "the metal of the future" (4) alloyed with progressive city planning ideas to promise a comfortable suburban lifestyle on the rugged northwestern frontier of Canada's Pacific Coast. Rich with boosters' rhetoric, Alcan promoted Kitimat as a transforming agent of its remote wilderness.

Aluminum's Expansion

What happened at Kitimat is a particular example of how global aluminum production stood at the vanguard of twentieth-century notions of progress. (5) Kitimat was one node in a web of production that tied Canada to British Guiana, Jamaica, and eventually Australia. …

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