Buffalo Grain Elevators and Early American Modernism (a Photo Essay)

The history of the United States begins with a (coup)age; with a fracture more radical and virulent in its time than any revolution since.  Transnational and perpetual in its effects, the American Revolution represents the painful birth of the first truly modern state.  Ever since, the nation has been defined by this first fissure, as much as it has been by its reaction to this primordial act of self-willed creation.

Thus, on the one hand, the United States is fundamentally modern and inherently radical (in part because of its modernity), while on the other hand it is essentially anti-modern and conservative.  This seeming schizophrenia is no where more evident than in the contemporary political landscape, and derives, in part, from the impossibility of creating a modern state divorced from the inherited baggage of the long history of Europe, out of which the States emerges, and which has loomed over this country as its perennial other since 1775.  The culmination of this contradiction is a culture that is at once original and derivative; a culture that has thrived, for much of its history, only under the shadow of European accomplishments, which it commonly dons to justify its ultimate worth.

This is, perhaps, nowhere more evident than in architecture.  The irony of this is that, while European modernists were busy theorizing American achievements, these achievements went largely unnoticed as manifestations of a truly modern “spirit” in America, until European architects exported its derivative forms to the States as an original product of the European imagination.  As a consequence, and with few exceptions, American early 20th century architecture was seldom “modern” in spirit, and American modernism does not truly emerge as an independent thought until the 1950s, at which time modernism was already in its death throes, unsubstantiated by the most horrific manifestations of the modernist imagination, the holocaust and the atomic bomb; in other words, by the time that the bankruptcy of the modernist utopian visions had been sublimated by the distopia of modern reality.

This is arguably most clearly seen in the history of America’s daylight factories and grain elevators; those early monuments to America’s modernist spirit, which, in their day, went largely ignored by the American architectural establishment as meaningful artifacts of either architecture or of modernity as such.  It is telling that the first acknowledgement of the formal, material, structural and (nascently) functional radicalism of these structures comes, not from the United States, but from Germany, where the architect Walter Gropius published images of American grain elevators and daylight factories in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes in 1913.  This was followed by the reproduction of these anonymously photographed buildings by Le Corbusier in a series of articles in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau in 1921, and then again (doctored and mislabeled) in his manifesto Vers Une Architecture in 1923.

These images were then complemented by a series of photographs captured by Erich Mendelsohn in 1924, and published in his Amerika:  Bilderbuch eines Architekten in 1926.  Many of the photographs from all three sources were then reproduced (in addition to many new photographs captured by the architectural photographer Patricia Bazalon b. England) in Reyner Banham’s (also English) 1986 book A Concrete Atlantis.  In each instance, whether utopian or critical, the main proponents for the essential architectural merit of these structures were all European, while the American interest in its own architectural heritage has largely been either preservationist or historian, in both cases entirely based on the importance of these structures for European theorists, and the European theorization/validation of their worth as architectural monuments in their own right.

In A Concrete Atlantis (and arguably in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment) Banham argues that European modernists misunderstood the grain elevators and daylight factories by over-emphasizing their formal attributes, while ignoring their structural, material and functional elements; and thus that European modernists proffered the image of modernism, without its promise of a fully technologically and functionally derived architecture.  With respect to both Gropius and Le Corbusier, Banham is justified in this assessment – the one exception being Mendelsohn, whose work is frequently categorized as expressionistic (and thus largely ignored), and  formal (which is both a misapprehension of Mendelsohn’s work and ironic, considering Banham’s critique of European modernism in general).

Yet, the American front has been strangely silent in this matter.  Today, the grain elevators and daylight factories of the first decade of the 20th century are considered nascently historically important for the cities in which they reside; today, many of these early modern monuments have either been, or are in danger of being, demolished, or threatened through extreme conditions of dereliction.  Perhaps, in this respect, America proves herself to be truly modern, at least she seems content to realize the ambitions of the Futurists, who argued that cities should be demolished every 20 years, in order to keep up with cycles of production that render most architectural monuments functionally obsolete in this span of time.  This is also in line with the essential a-historicism of America alluded to earlier in this article.

It also indicates that the Italian Futurists (fascist though they might have been) were much more in tune with the essential ethos of America’s distinct form of “modernism,” giving voice and theoretical precision to notions only nascently acknowledged by the American architectural establishment.  In truth, America’s great grain elevators and daylight factories are, given the standards of contemporary functionality and shifts in the American economy, no doubt obsolete; they stand, merely, as monuments to a long-forgotten past, and an unromantic one at that.  Then again, for a country, in some respects, consumed with the task of evolving indigenous architectural forms (Learning from Las Vegas, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.) they are also symbols of America’s ascendency as a distinctive civilization in the worlds eyes.

Thus, on the one hand, demolition is a fitting end, providing closure for an era that has long ago concluded its cycle.  Yet, on the other hand, this form of erasure essentially undermines certain aspects of America’s cultural contributions to the development of architectural forms.  Functionally and economically, these structures may be obsolete, but formally and symbolically, they are still rich and fertile fields waiting to be sown.  Thus the essential schizophrenia of American culture re-emerges; our acceptance of radical ideals, and a-historical rationalism, comes into conflict with our human desire to connect to historical trends that are deeply imbedded in the bedrock of our production, as a nation; as a people.

Yet the formal beauty of these structures belies their essential functional rationalism; belies the ultimate conditions that gave them form; that made them paradigms of a new type of utopian modernism on other shores, divorced from their ultimate ends, and abstracted through intellectual speculation.  Sadly, whether we accept the essential nihilism of the Futurists, or the idealism of Gropius and Mendelsohn, we will be fulfilling a distinctly American paradigm of modernism, evincing the fundamental schizophrenia of our civilization; we will be embracing fictions at both ends, but as someone who has recently had the opportunity to visit these structures first hand, I would argue that neither position captures the true potential of these buildings.

For, in the end, they represent the ability to return to a truer vision of early American modernism that is both idealistic and cynical; that is alternately exploitative and humane; a vision of American modernism that has been washed away by European modernism’s tendency for solipsism; a vision of modernism from which we might still learn, if, for no other reason, to bring it to a new level, to one that embraces the ideals that have come after its inception.  Below, you will find a series of photographs of three grain elevators in Buffalo, NY that I had the pleasure to visit, with the permission of their owner, Richard Smith, President of Rigidized Metals.

The day was beautiful, and my guides, Mr. Smith and Mr. Robert Skerker, were incredibly indulgent in giving me time to take a number of photographs.  This said, it would take repeated visits with the proper equipment to properly document these behemoths, not only as singular buildings, but as they stand clustered together along the edge of the Buffalo River; for at least part of their beauty derives, not only from the massing of volumes and the large metal arms and moving towers that are a hallmark of early 20th century grain elevator design, but also in how the massing of various iterations of grain elevator design play off of one another to create a larger architectural context – stunning in the stark beauty of its volumes, and incredible for the quality of detailing that was used, which evinces, not only an attention to functionality, but also to aesthetics.  The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the designers of the grain elevators were not only interest in constructing functional storage for grain distribution, but were invested in creating monuments to the industry that gave them birth.

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This entry was posted in architecture, Buffalo, Grain Elevators, modernism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Buffalo Grain Elevators and Early American Modernism (a Photo Essay)

  1. Nick Santos says:

    You might be interested in William J. Brown’s book on the subject: American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843-1943 (Colossal Books, 2009).

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