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The remnants of another city flank Toronto’s spine of skyscrapers. Converted into offices, condos, galleries and lofts, former warehouses and factories are home to a new urban economy — one fuelled by laptops, real estate and the flow of global financial capital. On the bucolic banks of the Trent River some 180 kilometres away, however, a similar transformation has unfolded in a radically different context, where it is rekindling the industrial heart of a former company town into a community catering to remote workers.

Once a keystone of the Bata empire, the Ontario factory at the heart of the planned community of Batawa was the engine of the world’s largest shoe company, and the fulcrum of a massive — and massively ambitious — vision of industrial garden cities spanning the world. For most of the past century, Bata was the world’s largest producer of shoes; by 1975, its operations spread across 89 countries and six continents, boasting 90,000 employees and over 90 factories around the world. Then, around the turn of the millennium, the Batawa factory was reduced to little more than an empty husk, as the same currents of globalization once so successfully harnessed by the corporation swiftly erased much of its worldwide presence. Another 20 years later, with the former Bata shoe factory reimagined as a mixed-use residential complex, an erstwhile modernist utopia is quietly ushered into a new act.

Ontario’s revived Batawa factory is now a mixed-use residential complex. PHOTO: Scott Norsworthy.
ACT I — Shoemaker to the World

The Bata Shoe Company was founded by Tomáš Baťa in 1894 in the Czechoslovakian city of Zlín. Drawing on a long lineage of cobblers, the enterprising Baťa swiftly revolutionized the local shoe industry. Using canvas in lieu of leather to drastically cut costs and improve production, he also introduced steam-driven machine manufacturing as early as 1904, after travelling to Massachusetts shoe factories to study American assembly line production systems.

The burgeoning company became a major military supplier following the outbreak of World War I and rapidly expanded its manufacturing. Then, in the economic crisis that followed the war, Baťa provided his Zlín workers with food and clothing in exchange for a temporary pay cut, later instituting an early system of profit-sharing and performance-based employee incentives.

By the early 1920s, the company was a budding shoemaker to the world, pioneering everything from early production lines, mechanized manufacturing, globalized supply chains, scientific workflow management and 99-cent pricing. Hailed as the Henry Ford of footwear, Baťa combined the ruthless, automated efficiency of Fordism with a much-touted social conscience; the early experiments in collectivism and profit-sharing laid the groundwork for a radical reinvention of industrial management. And to support his vision, Baťa would build a city.

The industrial heart of Zlín as it appeared in the 1940s.

Inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement and Le Corbusier’s dogmatic urbanism, the Bata company reinvented Zlín as a city of the future. The company built employee housing, schools and recreational amenities — everything from a cinema, library, department store and swimming pool to a hospital and airfield — all courtesy of Bata Shoes. After Tomáš Baťa himself was elected mayor of Zlín in 1923, a master plan was developed by architect František Lýdie Gahura incorporating a repeating, rectilinear grid of employee “Bata houses” around a central industrial hub. A pupil of Le Corbusier, Gahura swiftly transformed the whole of Zlín into a sort of living factory, with marvels of constructivist architecture framed by greenery and open space. By 1928, the shoe plant itself was a sprawling complex of 30 buildings.

Then, in 1932, Tomáš Baťa was killed in a plane crash at the age of 56. But even in death he was ahead of his time, with the company’s extensive private fleet of aircraft helping to originate the modern practice of business flying. Although Baťa the man was gone, Bata the company remained poised to become bigger than ever, as control was passed to Tomáš’s half-brother Jan Antonín Baťa and young son, Tomáš J. Baťa.

Zlín’s myriad ‘Bata Houses’ remain a popular housing option in the city. PHOTO: FHS UTB via Wikimedia Commons.

Growth was explosive. That same decade saw the first international operations opening in the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. But Zlín remained the beating heart, with exports from the Czechoslovakian powerhouse increasing from 12,000 pairs of shoes in 1928 to a staggering 1,657,000 pairs in 1934. By that same year, the company boasted over 4,000 stores across Europe, as well as over 1,000 retailers in Asia and some 300 in North America. Under Jan Antonín Baťa’s leadership, the company also diversified its operations, manufacturing everything from airplane and bicycle parts to chemicals, mines and railway tracks, even opening a Bata film studio.

As the industrial complex grew, so did the city around it. Gahura was responsible for much of Zlín’s early functionalist development — including a hauntingly spare memorial to founder Tomáš Baťa — but the Bata company’s global ambitions were also reflected in grander architectural spectacles. Deutscher Werkbund architect Peter Behrens designed the company’s futuristic central warehouse, while Le Corbusier himself developed the city’s new master plan in 1935. All the while, austere cubes of “Bata Houses” tessellated across the rolling Moravian landscape, joined by the occasional cluster of row-houses and small apartment buildings.

The Bata Skyscraper in Zlín was one of the first high-rise buildings in Europe. PHOTO: Txllxt TxllxT via Wikimedia Commons.

The pièce de résistance was the Bata Skyscraper: Designed by architect Vladimir Karfík and completed in 1939, the 16-storey tower housing the company’s new headquarters was among the three earliest pre-war skyscrapers in Europe. Elevators, air conditioning and heating made for a futuristic workspace, with temperature and humidity controlled individually on each floor. The tower’s reinforced concrete skeleton, supported by spirally fortified columns, was wrapped in a facade of red brick and industrial glazing, translating the new technologies and clean, modernist lines of Bata constructivism to new heights.

But the building’s real audacity lay within. Measuring six by six metres, the whole of Jan Antonín Baťa’s private office was a personal elevator. Equipped with a telephone and washbasin, the mechanized room would allow him to oversee operations throughout the building without leaving his desk. Capable of travelling up and down the tower at a crawl of 75 centimetres a minute, the air-conditioned enclave presented a theatrical — even cartoonish — manifestation of futurist grandeur.

Baťa’s elevator office. PHOTO: NearEMPTiness via Wikimedia Commons.

He would never get to use it. As the iconic tower neared completion in 1938, Hitler annexed the Sudetenland and ravaged Czechoslovakia; the country — which arguably boasted the world’s most sophisticated industrial economy — was invaded outright the following March. And as the Nazi occupation swallowed Zlín, Jan Antonín Baťa attempted to negotiate. The chairman reportedly travelled to Berlin to personally meet with Herman Goering, attempting to persuade Hitler’s lieutenant to allow the company — already contracted to produce footwear for Mussolini’s forces in Italy — to continue operations. The Nazis wouldn’t have it. In late 1939, Jan Antonín Baťa fled to the United States and his nephew Tomáš J. Baťa escaped to Canada. By 1940, the Bata Shoe Company of Czechoslovakia was no more.

ACT II — Bata-Ville

As World War II re-drew the map of Europe, Bata Shoes reinvented its own fluid borders. The city of Zlín seized by the Nazis, the company rapidly expanded its robust international footprint. Before his sudden death in 1932, founder Tomáš Baťa had already laid the groundwork for globalization, and while retail operations proliferated around the world he gradually opened factories across Czechoslovakia and Europe. Beginning in the early 1930s, the English village of East Tillbury was transformed into a sprawling industrial estate. Meanwhile, northeast of Eindhoven, part of the Dutch town of Best was rechristened “Batadorp.” From India’s Batanagar and Pakistan’s Batapur to the Brazilian municipalities of Batatuba and Bataguassu, the shoemaker’s international footprint was reflected in an expanding global network of often eponymous factory towns — the Baťas weren’t shy about spreading the family name — around the world.

The Bata industrial complex in Batadorp was extensively retrofitted and continues to operate on a reduced scale, now manufacturing specialty safety shoes.

These factories and worker communities replicated the Zlín model, with Bata employees — and architectural plans — brought directly from Czechoslovakia. In both East Tillbury and Batadorp, long spans of concrete, red brick and factory windows announced a nascent Bata-ville, with each town’s industrial heart surrounded by rows on rows of modernist employee housing. Staffed mostly by Czech immigrants trained in Zlín, these new communities were joined by similar pre-war Bata-villes in Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia and beyond. And even as WWII devastated Europe, the sun never set on the Bata corporation.

The early life of playwright Tom Stoppard is a case in point. Born (Tomáš Sträussler) into a Zlín family in 1937, Stoppard was the son of a doctor employed by the Bata Shoe Company. On the first day of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the company helped relocate the young Jewish family to Singapore, where a Bata factory was already in operation. Then, following the Japanese occupation of Singapore, they were forced to move yet again, this time settling in Darjeeling, India. While Stoppard’s father remained in Singapore to volunteer for the British forces, his mother supported the family — becoming manager of a thriving Bata shoe store in India.

All the same, Hitler destroyed the company’s beating heart. After fleeing Czechoslovakia, Jan Antonín Baťa focused on re-establishing the company in North America. Accompanied by a 70-strong cohort of Czech workers, he relocated to Maryland, recreating a Zlín in miniature north of Baltimore. The riverside town of Belcamp was transformed by a headquarters capped by a twin set of imposing five-storey buildings and a new shoe plant alongside a modern Bata “hotel” – the latter two structures dominating the local landscape. By January 1940, the factory’s first international shipments set off down the Bush River and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, Jan Antonín Baťa’s nephew looked north. In 1939, Tomáš J. Baťa established the Canadian town of Batawa in southern Ontario, on a site near the town of Trenton that was chosen for its waterway access, urban proximity and cheap land. Then came a factory, a cluster of modest homes, and a group of 100-odd Czech immigrants ready to create a radically modern industrial powerhouse.

An understated showpiece of clean lines and measured proportions, the five-storey production plant asserted an unmistakable presence in the rural landscape. The building was constructed using modular elements and innovative sliding formwork and was supported by a remarkable waffle slab structure; its spans of red brick and factory windows announced a futuristic presence. Outfitted with cutting-edge technology and staffed by an expert Czech workforce, it was no ordinary shoe factory. It espoused the Bauhaus movement’s material honesty and aesthetic purity with understated panache, like its counterparts the world over.

The Batawa factory as it appeared in 1955.

In Stoppard’s words, Bata built “an empire of shoes.” But the Zlín model meant more than footwear. The company’s industrial operations were paired with employee housing, schools, recreational spaces and a wealth of amenities. At Belcamp, Jan Antonín Baťa’s hotel included a grocery store, bank, post office and cafeteria — along with a Bata shoe store. According to Larry Carmichael’s 2014 book Bata Belcamp, the company’s Maryland nerve centre even published its own local newspaper, serving both the 3,400 workers that operated the factory (at its 1950s peak) as well as the wider community.

A remarkably diverse and occasionally eccentric cultural vision shaped the company’s operations, often with little regard — and sometimes outright hostility — to local culture. While East Tillbury became home to one of the UK’s first espresso bars, the company also imposed a strict “tidiness mandate” that subjected workers to fines if they cluttered the front lawns of their Bata-built houses. Some of India’s Bata store managers reportedly even took to heating the stones in front of their shops in order to persuade the locals to adopt canvas footwear. In Batadorp, the company took a decidedly dim view of Dutch customs, forbidding its workers from wearing traditional clogs. Holland’s gable roofs were also disparaged: attics would only encourage clutter. Instead, flat-roof Bata houses were replicated everywhere, reflecting a modernism at once radically progressive and narrow-minded.

But the Baťas had bigger problems than clogs and attics. For starters, Jan Antonín Baťa’s collaborationist history would continue to haunt the company for decades. Just as his nascent Belcamp factory came to life, his American adventure came to an abrupt end in 1941, when he was blacklisted for his Nazi overtures. Jan Antonín decamped to Brazil, where he would establish a cluster of company towns — including Bataiporã, Bataguassu, Batatuba, Anaurilândia and Mariápolis — and remain until his death in 1965. Back in Canada, meanwhile, the young Tomáš J. Baťa became the company’s public face.

The son of the company’s legendary founder, Tomáš J. Baťa was only 25 when he came to Canada at the onset of the war. But he took to leadership quickly and confidently, building Batawa into an industrial force. In a three-part 1949 Maclean’s magazine series titled “The Fabulous Shoemaker,” Canadian journalist Frank Hamilton recounts Baťa’s first decade at the helm. Describing a man who “looks — and sometimes acts — more like a movie star than the popular conception of a hard-boiled international tycoon,” Hamilton illustrates Baťa’s suave yet bullish approach with an anecdote from Batawa’s early days: When a 1939 brick shortage delayed the construction of the factory, Baťa was incensed. “How do you get bricks?” the tycoon asked his foreman. “Do bricks grow on trees? Do hens lay bricks?” “No,” came the reply. “They make bricks.” “Well, then,” Baťa roared back, “make bricks.” As Hamilton reports, the bricks were made and the building was finished within the week.

It was an uncompromising ethos that often clashed with the image of corporate magnanimity carefully cultivated through the generations. The Bata company’s early years in North America were marred by accusations of low wages and exploitation. And while much of the criticism carried more than a whiff of xenophobia — Hamilton reports Baťa being called “a Bohunk, and a Damned Foreigner” — the company’s reputation as a champion of workers was belied by hostility towards labour unions, with Baťa signing unionization contracts only as a last resort.

End of shift at Batawa in 1945.

Nonetheless, all but the company’s most vehement critics recognized the Baťa family’s altruistic side. Taking stock of Tomáš J. Baťa’s mixed reputation, Hamilton conceded that most workers were “loyal to him personally.” Writing about the behemoth’s operations in the United States, Carmichael traces its approach back to founder Tomáš Baťa’s belief “that company resources should be used to enhance the employee experience and thus increase employee loyalty and productivity… The Bata Belcamp campus was built on this model,” he writes. And so was Batawa.

All the while, Jan Antonín Baťa’s history continued to hover over his nephew’s public image. In 1947, Baťa’ the elder was sentenced to a 15-year prison in absentia by the Communist Czechoslovakian government, on charges of failing to aid the wartime resistance (a charge that the younger Baťa’ would see overturned 60 years later, when a Czech court also recognized Jan Antonín Baťa’s efforts to safely relocate Jewish employees). The two men also waged a legal battle over their empire, a dispute only put to bed by Jan Antonín’s passing. Either way, it was clear the future belonged to the younger Baťa.

In 1964, the company’s global headquarters was moved to Tomáš’ home turf, Toronto. While operations at Batawa continually ramped up, the global vision was finally encapsulated in a jewel of a corporate headquarters. Designed by acclaimed Canadian modernist John B. Parkin, the Bata International Centre was a high water-mark of modernism, asserting a simple yet unmistakably sophisticated presence on a hilltop above the intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road. Writing in the Toronto Star, architecture critic Christopher Hume praised it in almost spiritual terms:

Situated on a height of land in Toronto’s north end, the simple, modular edifice exemplifies the ideal of the building in a park. Simple and seemingly weightless, it rests on rows of columns, reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple. Unadorned yet poetic, the architecture pays homage to the past while extolling the virtues of the future.

The Bata International Centre in Toronto. PHOTO: BataLTD

The building was completed in 1965, coinciding with Jan Antonín Baťa’s death. Like Zlín before it, it was the future manifested in architecture.

ACT III — The New World Order

In 1980, Tomáš J. Baťa sat at the helm of a global giant, the world’s largest shoemaker. A year later, the WGBH newscast One Man’s Multinational followed him as he surveyed his empire, visiting four continents in a whirlwind tour. A sojourn to Kenya — where his company was the largest private employer — sees Baťa and his wife, Sonja, greeted as a sort of colonial royalty couple. Speaking in a polished and patrician mid-Atlantic accent, Baťa inspects the production line, commending and admonishing as he goes. In Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka, he visits another pair of factories, before overseeing the Bata Shoe Company’s annual Shoecon conference in Milan. There, 270 Bata executives from around the world surround him as he awards the annual Shoecon Cup to Maryland’s Belcamp factory.

But signs of trouble were already on the horizon. Even as Baťa presents the Belcamp management team with a shining trophy, voiceover narration describes a “$100 million operation… plagued by labour and management troubles.” Accelerated by a wave of neoliberal free-trade policies and advances in shipping, globalization now threatened the Bata system just as low-cost imports began to challenge its worldwide model of local manufacturing.

And just three years after this televised whirlwind tour, a young Michael Jordan would enter the NBA, catapulting the Nike swoosh into global recognition, and ushering in the era of brands and logos. Bata had neither the cachet of Nike swoops and Adidas stripes nor the new business model of cheap, centralized manufacturing in Asia.

For Batawa, it was the beginning of the end. Its factory, which employed 1,500 in 1989, closed its doors in 2000. But by then, the building itself was a carbuncle of a thing. The Zlín-style clean geometry had been re-clad in dull metal siding in the late 1970s, signalling an end to the Bata-ville idealism long before the plant was shuttered. Across the world, workers moved out of Bata houses and into surrounding communities, with the company’s cultural centres, grocery stores and newspapers consigned to another era. By the time it shut down, the building on the Trent River was just a factory.

The former Batawa factory as it appeared from the late 1970s to the early 2010s.

In Maryland, Belcamp was sold in 1999, the Bata hotel demolished the same year, and the last remnants of the factory shut down in 2004. Today, all that remains of the industrial hub is a short street bearing the name Bata Boulevard. Most of the Dutch hub at Batadorp was closed in 1996; and the East Tillbury factory was decommissioned in 2005, with operations relocated to Malaysia. In North America, Bata shoes disappeared from the shelves, with Canada’s last Bata stores closing in 2001. Seven years later, Tomáš J. Baťa died in Toronto at the age of 93.

Bata shoes may no longer clad Canadian feet, but the Bata name retains another kind of meaning. Spearheaded by Tomáš’ wife, Sonja Baťa’ — who trained as an architect — Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum opened the doors to its permanent home in 1995. Designed by acclaimed local architect Raymond Moriyama, the gently angular, limestone-finished building is a subtle Canadian icon. Inside, the trapezoidal walls and pointed glazing creates an elegant showcase for (part of) a permanent collection of over 13,000 shoes. As the brand’s industrial footprint in Canada faded, its cultural presence continues to resonate.

Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum is situated on a prominent stretch of Bloor Street. PHOTO: Eberhard J. Wormer

In 2002, however, the company left Canada for good. The Bata International Centre was (controversially) demolished by 2005. With Sonja Baťa’s guidance, the former headquarters made way for the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre complex. Designed by Fumihiko Maki and Charles Correa respectively — with a tranquil garden of reflective pools by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic — the two buildings form a spiritual and educational destination like no other in Canada. Just as the Bata International Centre embodied Toronto’s mid-century economic rise, the new cultural hub reflects today’s multicultural metropolis.

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre now stand on the former site of the Bata International Centre.

Now based in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bata has transformed into another kind of multinational. The brand retains a ubiquitous retail and manufacturing presence in India, where it remains “synonymous with shoes,” per Businessworld, and is even considered a part of ‘Desi’ culture. According to the company’s own website, Bata is still the world’s largest shoemaker by volume, boasting some 5,300 stores and 23 manufacturing facilities. But the Bata-ville era is mostly a thing of the past: worker housing, schools, dance halls, espresso bars and constructivist icons no longer define the company’s operations.

Tomas Bata Memorial, Zlin, exterior at dusk
A detailed restoration of the Tomáš Baťa Memorial was completed in 2019. PHOTO: BoysPlayNice.

Across Europe and North America, Bata is remembered in architectural relics. Long removed from the world-leading industrial engine of the early 20th century, Zlín’s imposing Bata skyscraper remains an emblem of the city, along with rows of erstwhile employee houses. In 2019, TRANSAT Architects unveiled a meticulous 18-year restoration of František Lýdie Gahura’s 1933 Tomáš Baťa Memorial, which honours the company’s founder. A radically pared-down structure bereft of plumbing and electricity, the space (which had previously been carelessly altered) evokes the shell of a factory. Inside, only the Junkers F 13 airplane in which Baťa died is on display. Even as an instrument of death, it fills the hauntingly spare volume with the spirit of flight.

a view of the airplane
PHOTO: BoysPlayNice.

In Canada, the mythos never reached such poetic heights. But in Batawa, where the old factory was saved from demolition, an industrial hub now breathes new life. In 2008, eight years after being sold to a plastics manufacturer, the Batawa factory and the surrounding 1,500-acre estate was repurchased by Sonja Baťa with the goal of creating a sustainably-driven residential community.

PHOTO: Scott Norsworthy.

A sensitive redevelopment of the factory led by Toronto architects BDP Quadrangle and Dubbeldam Architecture – and personally overseen by Sonja Baťa, all the way up to her death in 2018 – sees it adapted into a residential complex of 47 condominiums. The elegant mixed-use complex celebrates the old building’s original architectural presence while introducing new homes — and balconies — within its shell. Outfitted with geothermal energy and wired for ultra-fast internet, it features commercial space and ground-floor retail and was designed according to Sonja’s prescient vision of remote work. In its own small way, it’s still about dignity in labour — if only for the lucky few remote workers in lieu of the masses once employed by Bata.

PHOTO: Scott Norsworthy.

The former Batawa factory is at once an impressively forward-looking adaptive reuse project and a proud relic of another era. While the Bata-villes of the 20th century are either demolished, decommissioned or commemorated in architecture, the shape of industry and labour has radically transformed around them. The rapid global rise of Amazon comes to mind as a 21st century analogue. The American tech giant opened some 100 buildings in September of last year alone — an architectural footprint that dwarfs all the Bata-villes of the last 100 years — but the landscape of warehouses and fulfillment centres isn’t complemented by housing, recreation or cultural spaces. Compared to today’s era of disposable gig work, 12-hour shifts and urine bottles, the eccentricities — and harmful missteps — of Bata’s time seem downright quaint.

Inside the reinvented Batawa shoe factory. PHOTO: Scott Norsworthy.

For all the mistakes of the Baťa family and the Bata company, their era of western dominance reflected a time when the grand promises of capitalism — of prosperity, decent housing and dignity in labour — briefly seemed as if they might actually come true. Today, little is left of it. In Batawa, at least, the old factory’s architecture has been beautifully revived and reinvented. But somehow, it feels so much smaller.

Bata-Ville: A Shoe Company’s Quest for Global Utopia

The rise and fall of Bata’s planned communities traces the evolution of architecture — and capitalism — over the last century.

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