new value for industrial buildings
'Industrial Past & Future'
Eindhoven University of Technology
dr. ir. Jos Bosman
ir. Marcel Musch
Geert Das Msc.
Research | The Grain Elevator
By 1937, the German architect Walter Curt Behrendt stated it was the example of America that gave decisive impulse to the German architects when they first tried to clarify the problem of structure. Moreover, he explains that this impulse did not originate in the skyscraper, as one might assume, but in the simple structures of industrial buildings such as the grain elevators located in the great ports of the United States (Behrendt, 1938, p. 99).
An important actor in spreading these similar interests was Le Corbusier, whose fascination for the grain elevator, and the industrial architecture in general, had a strong impact on the Modern architecture. In an article titled Sur la Plastique published in l’Esprit Nouveau Le Corbusier wrote that the study of these particular industrial forms was part of his research into “l’origine mécanique de la sensation plastique”, in which he concluded that the primary elements worked mechanically rather than symbolically. In other words, “Le Corbusier built his architectural theory around the primary elements because they worked mechanically to produce human affections” (Tell, 2014, p. 168). His writings worked as a powerful catalyst and thus the industrial objects ceased to be a merely functional structure and acquired various imputed new meanings (Hatherley, 2015, p. 475)
History of the grain elevator
The birthplace of this new type of industrial engineering is Buffalo, New York - where, in 1843, merchant Joseph Dart and machinist Robert Dunbar built the world’s first steam powered elevator following precedents set by Oliver Evans (Banham, pp. 110). The invention was an essential solution for the inefficient, outdated and me-dieval techniques used in the harbour. Buffalo gained a unique strategical postion in American geography after completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. It is since the realisation of this new infrastructure located at the intersection of two great water routes: on one side, the connection of the Great Lakes that could bring the produce theoretically in any landward direction (north to Canada; south to the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania; and west to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michi- gan) - and on the other, where the canal established a connection between the Erie Lake and the Hudson river extending to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. Buffalo benefited tremendously from this position and became the recipient of large amounts of grain (Brown, 2009). This increasing quantities of products and the fact that the harbour still relied on antiquated facilities resulted in the necessary invention of the grain elevator in 1843.
Thanks to this creation, which worked seven times faster than its non-mechanised predecessors, the city of Buffalo was able to support the incre-dible growth of American agricultural production in the 1840s and 1850s, but especially after the Civil War, with the upcoming construction of the railroads (Brown, 2009). Subsequently, the American cities were connected through an emerging international grain trade of unprecedented proportions that even shipped the produce to England, Germany and the Netherlands (Brown, 2009). It was the increasing amount of rural productivity - set in motion by the invention of the grain elevator - that America itself became an agricultural and economic colossus on the world stage: the planet’s single largest producer of wheat, corn, oats and rice, a distinction it claims to this day (Brown, 2009).
Definition of the grain elevator
In general the grain elevator can be defined as an “economic and expedient structural solution to the problem of storing enormous quantities of grain” (Hatherley, 2015, p. 475). The silos have an ultra modern form that represents rural functionality and are used for just one purpose: distribution and storage of agricultural harvest (p. 480). The grain elevators can be seen as a result of a somewhat accidental functionalism. Or as Hatherley states it: “this form is often taken as one of pure technocracy, an elegant form created by technical imperatives” (p. 475). Banham states in his book A Concrete Atlantis that the grain elevators “deviate from the strict and objective rationality of economical construction” (Banham, 1986, p. 17).
Though, aforementioned definitions were made long after the first ones were constructed and thus are descriptions with a mere pragmatic tone of voice. The impact of these industrial buildings on the earlier architectural critics was much stronger. Annemarie Jaeggi, for example, refers to the words of Arthur Holitzscher written in 1912 in his travelogue Amerika - Heute und Morgen. He describes these immense structures as objects built by giants - as something superhuman transcendent of normal earthly capacities (Jaeggi, 2000, p. 49).
Starting from that period the grain silos were published and distributed throughout Europe. It was the young architect Walter Gropius who got fa-scinated by them and started accumulating images of these gigantic and eternal objects. At a lecture on industrial art and building in Hagen in 1911 he first exhibited them, and two years later, in 1913, he published his images in the Yearbook of the German Werkbund (Hatherley, 2015, p. 476). According to Dave Tell, the “photographs achieved fame as icons of modernity” and since than architectural critics started meddling on this topic and registering their importance (Tell, 2014, p. 165).
In his book Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier uses examples of grain elevators in order to explain the beauty of primary forms and underlines their relevance since these shapes “can be clearly appreciated” (p. 23). He describes these images of “cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids” as “distinct and tangible within us and without ambiguity” (p. 29). Le Corbusier states that light advantageously reveals these great primary forms and that architecture in its essence is the “masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” (p.29). He claims, like Walter Gropius, to find in the grain elevators an inspiration for a new form of architecture (p. 31). Dave Tell states that modern architecture became an universal architecture because of Le Corbusier’s persuasion machine, powered by his fascination of the grain elevator (Tell, 2014, p. 165).
In 1928, Erich Mendelsohn, on the other hand, describes them as a terrifying and uncontrollable organisms, ferocious and primal. He sees an “unplanned confusion; Monster cranes with gestures of living creatures’ and ‘childhood forms, clumsy, full of primeval power dedicated to purely practical needs. Primitive in their functions of ingesting and spewing out again. (...) a preliminary stage in a future world that is just beginning to achieve order ... an enormous organism ... an expressiveness that corresponds to world consumption” (Mendelsohn, 1928, pp. 44-5).
Mosei Ginzburg, like Erich Mendelsohn, didn’t agree with the opinion of Gropius and Le Corbusier that the silo has the connotations of order and the eternal. He rather saw these mechanical and monstrous objects as elements of an insurgent futurism. Mendelsohn and Ginzburg saw this industrial architecture as a “moving, jagged and complex piece of montaged anti-architecture”, instead of the “oppressive, looming and eternal” imagined by Gropius and Le Corbusier (Hatherley, 2015, p. 487).
Comparing the aforementioned architectural critics of the early 20th century, it’s notable to state that they were on opposite sides, but eventually, they all saw the silos as a starting point of a new order and understood the influence this industrial architecture could have on the future. Thus, the visual impact of the grain elevator was strong and the effect on architecture paramount. Moreover, the political en social iconography related to these objects became seriously relevant. In here the dream-analysis of Banham is essential in order to clarify the process that the silos ceased to be a merely functional structure and instead acquired various imputed new meanings. He draws attention to how these wholly utilitarian objects become the focus for both futuristic and archaic, dynamic and eternal ideas and dreams.
In this period the grain elevator becomes an image of progress, authority, sheer power and vastness. The overwhelming structures of great scale and size became an “image of an achieved, or achievable, emancipatory modernity, unifying city and country” (Hatherley, 2015, p. 474).
In the book Egyptian Art, Wilhelm Worringer compares the grain elevators with the structures of Ancient Egypt. He describes them as images of an essentially blankminded, ultra-organised and despotic state (Worringer & Rackham, 1928, p. 23). Also Walter Gropius sees correlations between both structures: “America, the home of industry, possesses some original majestic constructions which far outstrip anything of a similar kind achieved in Germany. The compelling monumentality of the Canadian and South American grain silos, the coal silos built for the large railway companies, and the totally modern workshops of the North American firms almost bears comparison with the buildings of Ancient Egypt” (Benton, Benton & Sharp, 1975, p. 54).
It will be interesting to understand whether the image of the silo in the United States and in the Soviet Union under the Stalinism regime created similar perspectives.
In the early 1920’s, the Polish poet Osip Mandelstam, wrote that the ‘new social pyramids’ - this is how he signifies the silo’s - supported a wrong model, since they could express an image of power and enslavement, such as it did in Ancient Egypt (Proffer, 1987, pp. 519-20). El Lissitzky, a Russian avant-garde artist, also believes the Egyptian pyramid is oppressive. According to him, the silo is an image bursting with dialectics: on one hand it’s the new form of an ancient and dynastic domination, on the other, it’s the image of a revolutionary future (Hatherley, 2015, p. 485).
Though, this results in a different imagery if the political background is not equal. Whereas, in the United States, the image of the silo’s offers a powerful economic position, and so they tend to display its industrial nature rather than covering it up. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, it suggests a “continuity between the Soviet dream of a socialist America, and the abortive industrial revolution of late Tsarism” (Hatherley, 2015, p. 480). In other words, the image of the grain elevator could, on one hand, be expressed in prosperity and physical growth, and, on the other, on political preference and non-physical dreams. Walter Gropius, at a lecture on industrial art and buil-ding in Hagen,described the silo’s as “a combination of socially concerned ‘reformed’ capitalism and an appeal to the awesome eternal values of form and hierarchy” (Hatherley, 2015, p. 476).
Influence of the grain elevator
In The Concrete Atlantis, Banham states that the grain elevator had become “established icons of modernity”, and the connection between these industrial buildings and the modern architecture remains strong. He even stated that the silo’s are “the most internationally influential structures ever put up in North-America”, thus explaining the a powerful impact it has on the architects of the modern generation (Tell, 2014, p. 164).
What interests me, and what is the main aim of this paper, is to understand the influence of the grain elevators on modern architecture. This will be analysed in terms of morphology, conceptualisation and the use of materials. I want to clarify this with the use of pictures and a selection will be made on four different movements from four different countries, namely the West-European Modernism (Purism), Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and North-American Brutalism.
What all these movements have in common is that they want to get rid of all the influences from the classical architecture, thus creating a new language without any reverent to the precedent architectural styles. This is underlined in the Foundation Manifesto of Futurism - written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published in Le Figaro on February the 20th, 1909 - in which he declared that “modern structural materials and our scientific concepts absolutely do not lend themselves to the discipline of historical styles” (Curtis, 1996, p. 109). The Futurist movement of the early 20th century in Italy was important in the shift of perspective and William Curtis defines it as a “collection of progressivist attitudes, anti-traditional positions and tendencies towards abstract form, with the celebration of modern materials and on indulgence in mechanical analogies” (Curtis, 1996, p. 111). These philosophical, poetic and eventually formal attitudes were in contrast with the preservationist approach of the Arts and Crafts movement that stood for sentiments and nostalgia (Curtis, 1996, p. 99). In the work of Antonio Sant’ Elia, one of the protagonists of the Futurist movement, the “spi-rit of times was inevitably tied to the evolution of mechanisation” (Curtis, 1996, p. 111). He stated that the authentic modern architecture has to consider this dynamic mechanisation in “its functions, its methods of construction, it aesthetics, and its symbolic forms” (Curtis, 1996, p. 111).
In the projects that Sant’ Elia designed the theme of the city as a dynamic machine is always incorpo-rated and - even more importantly - the buildings were composed out of pure forms and stripped down to their most essential volumes of rectangles, cylinders and cones (Curtis, 1996, p. 111), thus referring to the simplistic but alienate forms of the grain elevator.
So the Futurist architects were visioning the city as a machine and were in favour of revolutionary change, speed and dynamism of all sorts. The expression of the projects had not so much a political importance, a theme which was on the contrary definitely present in Russia.
Simultaneously with the Futurist movement, architecture evolved in quite a similar way in former Soviet Union. Even though the political background was different, what the Constructivist Russian architects had in common with the Italians was their interest in industrial architecture. Whereas the Futurist movement had no political affiliation whatsoever, the Russians, on the contrary, had a strong connection with the political situation in society (Curtis, 1996, p. 107).
So it is important to understand the context in which Russian society evolved during the interwar period. The Soviet architecture of the 1920s emerged in a post-Revolutionary atmosphere and had a strong relation with the new social order. It encouraged individuals to formulate an architecture that had to express not so much the values of the existing order, but one that emerged from the progressive attitudes of the Revolution. Thus, the former national traditions ceased to be important and the primary aim was on the process of emancipation within society (Curtis, 1996, p. 201).
This wish to neglect all links with the past brought problems for the architects who were in search of a language of expression appropriate to the new ideals, resulting in a period of visual experimentation in which ideas existed mostly and exclusively on paper. A new vocabulary was required, one that could fit in the current situation (Curtis, 1996, p. 202).
The solution seemed to be extracted from Futurist ideas, that were co-opted, adjusted and moulded in combination with Marxists ideals in order to find “suitable metaphors to express the supposed inner dynamism of the revolutionary process”. Machine-worship became an essential theme, as if mechanisation could be identified with social and historical progress. Thus, the artists in the Soviet Union were obliged to understand the deeper processes of society more than anywhere else in the world (Curtis, 1996, p. 203).
A few of the most important architects in the interwar period were El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin, Ivan Leonidov and the Vesnin brothers, all facing the challenge of finding a new vocabulary to express the composition of Soviet society. Some projects of the aforementioned architects will be described briefly in the following paragraphs. The aim is to understand the relation of these projects within the context of society, the connection with industrial architecture and the similarities with the preceding Futu-rist movement.
Explanatory to the subject of post-Revolutionary idealism were the abstract Prouns (1921) by El Lissitzky, which were seen as a bridge between the utopian and pragmatic. The paintings had a idealistic content and functioned as a basic form-language to sculpture, furniture, typography, architecture and urban planning. Because of the work of this protagonist, free experimentation with basic geometrical shapes was encouraged in order to discover a new language of composition which might shape a city and influence architectural thinking (Curtis, 1996, p. 203).
One of the best examples of a project reflecting the context within society is probably the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) by Vladimir Tatlin. Three volumes - a cube, a pyramid, and a cylinder - are suspended inside two interlacing spirals of open structural latticework. The inspiration for this utopian display of engineering came from a variety of sources such as oil derricks, fairground constructions, and the Futurist image such as Boccioni’s spiralling Bottle Unfolding in Space. In this paper project one can get a sense of the new orientation in the Soviet Union. Tatlin intended, for example, that the monument should be exceeding 400 meters and painted red, the colour symbolising the Russian Revolution. Moreover, the double helixes were designed as an expression of the new order. A famous Russian art scholar and writer, Nikolai Punin, wrote: “the spiral is a line of liberation for humanity: with one extremity resting on the ground, it flees the earth with the other; and thereby becomes a symbol of disinterestedness, and of the converse of earthly pettiness”. Tatlin’s tower can thus be seen as an “emblem of Marxist ideology, in which the actual movements of the parts, and the sculptural dynamism of the armature, symbolised the very idea of a revolutionary society” (Cur- tis, 1996, p. 205). The power of the designers’ idea was important. If it had been built, it would have diminished all nearby buildings, effectively overshadowing the monumental churches and palaces of the Tsarist regime.
Two projects designed by the Vesnin Brother, the Palace of Labour (1923) and Leningrad Pravda (1924), are also an expression of the situation in Soviet society. In the project for the competition for the Palace of Labour the different functions were articulated in simple contrasting forms. These main volumes were linked together by dramatic circulation bridges and than liberally dressed with a combination of radio masts, taut wires, and ships’ hooters. This results in a communal building that is, like many other in the Soviet interwar period, expressed as a social engine. As a second example I want to highlight the proposal for the Leningrad Pravda, designed by the Vesnin Brothers in 1924. In here, the visible movement of lifts within their glass cages is referring directly to the Futurist notion of a building as a sort of machine. This dynamic approach in combination with the use of light materials in the design is precisely recalling the Sant’ Elian images of a new architecture (Curtis, 1996, p. 206).
Finally, the Lenin Institute of Librarianship (1927) by Ivan Leonidov is analysed, in which he tried to forge a synthesis of poetry and fact together with form and function. The auditorium was expressed as a glass sphere, a form that conveys simultaneously a universalising intention and a metaphor of enlightenment. But this image of the world is not earthbound and thus has almost the character of a balloon which wishes to pull free of its cables and rise into the air. This theme of spatial hovering and visual lightness seem to be metaphorical, as if Leonidov was attempting to extract a meaning from Marxist ideas. The other main element is the stack tower expressed as a slender skyscraper. In here, elements slide past one another in the way of a Lissitzky abstraction in his aforementioned Prouns (Curtis, 1996, p. 211).
So architects in the Soviet Union applied their minds to the full range of social functions, but they also gave thought to the ideal relationships between them all, to town planning and other spatial reorganisations in the country. Artistic imagination here attempted to work hand in hand with economic reorganisation at the largest scale in the generation of a new visual and spatial culture.
In La Tourette Monastry, Le Corbu-sier implemented vestiges of the traditional enclave in his plan. With the use of bare concrete and stark forms he intended to find an equivalent to the stonework of old buildings. Thus, resulting in a monastery that “did not ape the prototypes but transformed them, restating them in a new structural terminology in concrete” (Curtis, 1996, p. 423).
The interior of the monastery (to paraphrase Le Corbusier) is d’une pauvreté totale or of a total poverty. “it possessed a stern moral beauty arising from the interplay of stark concrete surfaces, colour and light.” With great precision Le Corbusier was able to create a powerful “relationship of plan and volume, of the dense and the transparent, of the heavy and the light.” He managed to do this with the use of carefully controlled visual cues, in which visitors are led in a downward spiralling movement through spaces of varying light and intensity (Curtis, 1996, p. 424).
In the following section I will focus on the North-American Brutalism of the 1960’s, and in particular the Government Service Center in Boston by Paul Rudolph. The design process of this great project began in 1962 and its construction started in 1966 and lasted until 1971. The architect develops a design that linked together three structures, whereas the initial idea was that Rudolph had to shape just one of the three buildings on the complex.
Paul Rudolph was trained by Walter Gropius at Harvard University, but he soon rejected the reductivism of his teacher. This is visible in the Government Service Center, in which the buildings “were surely part of a robust reaction against the spindly International Style of the 1950’s” (Curtis, 1996, p. 558).
In finding his personal style, Paul Rudolph referred often to the spatial dramas of the Italian Baroque and the late works of Le Corbusier, such as the aforementioned La Tourette Monastery. Many similarities can be found in the work of this North-Ameri-can architect (Curtis, 1996, p. 558).
Paul Rudolph, and his contemporaries of the Brutalist movement, drew essential lessons from Le Corbusier in the direct use of materials. Rudolph learned from him the expression of monumentality and ruggedness, and gave his own moral meaning to it (Curtis, 1996, p. 434).
This acquired knowledge is clearly utilised in the Government Service Center in Boston. Here, the building is given a vaguely primitive air with the use of its violent contrast of scale and colossal piers in rough corduroy concrete. The complex was stepped in section with curved stairs and cascades of platforms linked to spiralling towers, resulting in a kind of fortress with a sequence of sil-houettes that are expressed in an exaggeratedly irregular external volume (Curtis, 1996, p. 560).
In order to conclude this essay, the influence of industrial architecture on the different Modern movements will be clarified. In the four regions, varying from Italy to Western Europe - and from Russia to North-America, the impact of industrial architecture on the new movement differs. These distinctions are both on a political level as on an architectonic one.
Whereas the Futurist movement in Italy has a very powerful ideology, the relation with industrial architecture and politics is less worthy to note. The reference to the grain elevator is not necessarily evident, even though primary forms are used and modi-fied. The elements are set in motion with the use of cutting basic forms, resulting in a shift from the static to the dynamic. Though, in contrast to the Russian Constructivists, the theme of movability is used more direct and in this manner it relates to Sant’ Elia’s descriptions of the city of the future as a dynamic machine (Curtis, 1996, p. 539).
So where the grain elevator didn’t ‘arrive’ in Europe yet when the Futurist movement was set in motion, it surely landed on European soil in the time the Soviet Constructivists started developing their ideals. This is the reason why the Russian architects have a stronger connection with the grain elevator. Russian architects used silos as an important reference. They preserved its industrial meaning but criticised and modified it. That’s a very crucial difference compared to the Futurists.
The Constructivist movement can not be separated from political ideology. Here, industry is linked with agriculture and thus the consists of the whole country, both urban and rural. With the use of powerful imagery a domestic connection is established aiming for unity of the people and the nation. In the USA, on the other hand, the goal of the imagery is to express technical prosperity in terms of innovation, efficiency and mechanisation. So the difference is that in communist Russia the community is the most important and in capitalistic America it is the nation. But between these two great countries, one important similarity can be found. On both sides they tend to use the silo architecture as a tool for propagandising certain ideals.
In contrast with the Soviets, the West-European Purists separated the industrial meaning from the grain elevator. These architects - Le Corbusier among them - merely utilised its primary forms but neglected the industrial connotation completely. More as a sculptor instead of an engineer he used the primary forms and modified them. In La Tourette Monastery one can see the result of this composition of basic volumes that are set in motion. Creating a comprehensive play of primary shapes working together in a Constructivist and Cubist manner.
This tradition is pursued in the work of Paul Rudolph, in which - referring to Le Corbusier - a composition of intersecting volumes is constructed. The use of concrete and its shaping is similar in the work of Paul Rudolph and Le Corbusier, resulting in a plastic and dynamic piece of art.
The aforementioned movements all have one thing in common: a certain attitude in the search for an Utopia. These ideologies are different considering the political background in the country and its connection with the industrial architecture. Whereas one - without a doubt - is directly influenced by both the image of the grain elevator and politics, like the Constructivist in the Soviet Union. Others - like Le Corbusier and subsequently the Brutalists - neglect the impact of industrial architecture, but uses its primary forms as a foundation that will be modified and transformed into a new architectural language.
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