For whatever reason, whether it was because they were more interested in the systems of abstraction, purism and essentialism that were being developed in the arts at the time, or because the technical and cultural conditions of their era were not suited to the development of a functionally-determined architecture, the European modernists of the early 20th century never fully realized the promise of the techno-utopian, rationalist ideals of their early writings. This failure is as clear in the works of Gropius and van der Rohe, as it is in that paragon of European Modernist functionalism – Giaccomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory in Turin, Italy, in which the turning radius of the roof-top test track is too narrow to accommodate the vehicles that it was designed to test. However, while European architects were having a devil of a time designing to the standards of their rhetoric, American engineers and builders (whose model the European Modernists followed, up to a point) were realizing the modernist functionalist paradigm without relying on any form of rhetoric other than that of cost, program, material and expediency.
The results were, in many cases, as formally stunning, as they were functionally appropriate, and leave us wondering if European and American modernist architects had actually pursued the philosophy they were so vociferously pandering, what unique types of architecture might have emerged from the Modernist movement. Perhaps the best examples of this arguably adventurous, a-historical, “scientific” and pragmatic architecture are the grain elevators, and it is these behemoths that, more than any work built by consciously “Modern” European and American architects, best accommodate the mechanical metaphor of their era. For, unlike the Villa Savoye, which is both a little more and a little less than a “machine for living in,” the grain elevators were precisely machines; machines designed with the singular purpose of moving and storing grain.
This was accomplished, in part, by combining a rather simple structure (the storage containers that give the grain elevators their distinctive profiles) with an incredibly complex infrastructure that was itself tied into and reliant upon even larger infrastructural systems. From the marine arm – a tall tower set on train tracks that would “vacuum” the grain from a ship’s hull and pump it into the awaiting bin, to the internal systems of grain distribution, funneling, portioning and packaging, to the integrated railroad tracks at the base of many of the elevators, for the land-based redistribution of grain products. These are the essential formal characteristics of the elevators, and only very few of the grain elevators attempt to transcend this somewhat pedestrian lot with the addition of classical ornamentation or architectural flourishes. This may be a result of the fact that the grain elevators really need no ornamentation; the geometrical play of rectilinear marine towers and cylindrical storage bins, of point, line, plain and volume, rehearsed through the agency of their vast conveyance infrastructure of buckets, belts, filters, funnels, gangways, etc. provides an aesthetic richness of light and shadow, material diversification and formal nuance that would gain little from traditional architectural decoration, especially that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, the importance of the grain elevators is the fact that they essentially functioned as gigantic switches in a national system of food distribution. Thus, on the one hand, their function was very narrowly circumscribed, and it was because of this circumscription, that these buildings could be designed and constructed with the type of single-mindedness that they were. In other words, because the function was so specific, its formal response could also be more specific; and once methods for the rapid construction of flame-resistant concrete cylinders of immense volumetric capacity were devised, the final form of the grain elevators was well nigh codified for all eternity. On the other hand, as a machine, and at the level of infrastructure, the grain elevators evince an incredible complexity, one that is only enhanced by their relationship to national food distribution networks, which included the farms at which the grain had been sourced, to the processing plants and packaging facilities at which the final product was prepared, and the shopping-store shelves to which it was distributed, before entering the home.
Of course, this is only one aspect of the vast economies into which grain production and distribution figures; and at the heart of this system was the grain elevator. Today, the same functional specificity that once attracted the attention of European modernists threatens the grain elevators with obsolescence. New distribution channels and methods of production have left many of these Goliaths fallow for generations; quietly rotting by the rivers’ edges upon which they sit like silent centenarian sentinels, crippled by neglect, but no less dignified.
Many cities, Buffalo, perhaps, first among them, are desperately searching for ways of saving this part of their early modern, industrial past. However, adapting these paragons of functional planning to new and different programs is both difficult and costly, a condition largely imposed because of their extreme programmatic specificity. Yet, difficult is not impossible, and should be, for emerging architects and designers, a clarion call, evoking, as a minimum, curiosity, and at best, an intelligent, innovative and interesting response. This Fourth of July, I was fortunate enough to partake in a riverboat tour of Buffalo’s incredible collection of grain elevators. This is only the second time I’ve visited the grain elevators, and the first that I’ve seen them from the river – the pictures that are included in this post are insufficient for conveying the experience of seeing these structures in the round and at scale, but I hope they serve to evoke or sustain interest in these priceless endangered buildings, and to provide a glance at the history that they hold, and their place of privilege in the evolution of architectural form in the 20th century.