new value for industrial buildings


Mathieu Gorris

'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 The invention was an essential solution for the inefficient, outdated and me-dieval techniques used in the harbour.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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7 Jaeggi, A. (2000). Fagus. New York: Princeton Ar­chitectural Press.

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11 Worringer, W., & Rackham, B. (1928). Egyptian art. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Ltd.