Saturday, March 21, 2009

The City Ship Canal, continued

Caption to Figure 4.

Along the City Ship Canal. From the left: the Dakota Elevator; the new structure, made of reinforced concrete, that replaced the old Frontier Elevator; the Washburn-Crosby's unique cylindrically shaped marine tower; the complex's workhouse; a marine tower in the more conventional style (rectangularly shaped); and a flour mill, later operated by General Mills.

Photographed by Marjory Collins, 1943.
Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information.

From pages 305-307 of American Colossus:

Given all these changes [at the Washburn-Crosby complex], it is understandable that Mendelsohn might have overlooked a single, spectacular “detail”: the windowless cylindrical form, evidently made out of reinforced concrete, that stood on its own, directly in front of the reinforced concrete bins that were constructed in 1912, and that was almost as tall as the colossal workhouse built in 1909. If Mendelsohn saw that cylinder or, rather, if an adherent to the form-follows-function credo saw it, he/she/they might reasonably think that it was just another grain silo. After all, grain silos are cylindrical because the cylinder is the best form for containing grain, which is a grain silo’s function; this thing is cylindrical, just like the grain silos right behind it; therefore this thing must also be a grain silo. But the informed observer can discern that this cylinder is in fact the only cylindrical marine tower ever built in Buffalo. It is full of the machinery that elevates the grain, but no grain is stored inside it.

“Whoever did that leg,” Banham writes, “the conceptual leap is striking; and the idea that the concrete cylinder might simply be a constructional device that could be used to support or contain matters other than grain was to be widely exploited.” It was in fact exploited to the maximum at the Annex to the Electric Elevator, built in Buffalo in 1942, that is, at the very end of the line begun by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar in 1843. “All this, of course, has a curious effect on one of the persistent themes of the present study – the common notions of ‘functionalism,’ ” Banham writes. “It is no longer so immediately clear to the passerby what the various parts of the structure mean […] since a cylinder might be a bin or a leg, might contain grain, machinery or men. […] At Washburn-Crosby and its progeny, engineers […] were making nonsense of that treasured concept.”

But this just scratches the surface. A visitor to the site in question and yet completely ignorant of what he saw there, Erich Mendelsohn had spoken of the Washburn-Crosby in the most condescending terms: “Childhood forms, clumsy, full of primeval power, dedicated to purely practical needs. Primitive in their functions of ingesting and spewing out again. Surprised by the coinciding needs, to some extent a preliminary stage in a future world that is just beginning to achieve order.” What could he have possibly said if someone had told him that the cylindrical marine tower at the Washburn-Crosby was in fact an instance of form following aesthetics, not function? How could he admit that he had failed to recognize a deliberate, sophisticated and witty attempt to make a pun on visual resemblances?

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