Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adaptive Reuse: A Practical Proposal

On pages 401-404 of American Colossus, I discuss the various ways in which grain elevators that have recently been abandoned by their owners can be "adaptively reused," that is, not used as grain elevators or grain-storage warehouses, but as something else. As I've noted before, the most common way to adaptively reuse a grain elevator is to transform it into a home, a house or a hotel. Old grain elevators have also been transformed into in-door rock-climbing facilities, planetariums and museums about grain elevators.

But what about grain elevators that have been abandoned and become derelict, even dilapidated? These are buildings that can't be reused without first spending massive amounts of money to clean them out, fix whatever damage has occurred, re-wire them for electricity, etc. On the other hand, these are, generally speaking, large buildings made of reinforced concrete, which means they are expensive to demolish. But be demolished they must, that is, if the land upon which they stand is to be sold to a buyer who doesn't want to adaptively reuse an old building, but build a new one.

Such is the "stand-off" or state of paralysis one sees in Buffalo, New York. The waterfront area is full of long-abandoned elevators made out of reinforced concrete. As time goes by, they continue to rot, get vandalized, etc. Though there are many individuals, groups and institutions in Buffalo who are involved in the documentation, appreciation and lamentation of the passing of the city's grain elevators, few of them are able to come up with truly practical solutions to the problem of adaptively reusing ruined buildings.

(Not all of the elevators in Buffalo are in the dilapidated state that renders the Superior, the Concrete Central, the Great Northern and the Connecting Terminal difficult, if not impossible, to reclaim. But those that remain in or near operable condition are more likely to be sold to ethanol-producers than reused as houses or museums, for which there is much less market demand.)

When the city has proposed or agreed that one of Buffalo's abandoned and derelict elevators be destroyed -- in the hope or with the contractual provision that the buyer of the "cleaned" property builds something valuable to the community on it -- the "preservationists" have found themselves in an untenable position. They had have no workable proposals for what to do with the Eastern States, Meyer Malting, Kreiner Malting, and, last but not least, the H & O Oats, all of which have been demolished since 2000, but without being replaced with a "new" building of any kind. The worst of both worlds: no elevator, no new building, just a vacant lot no one wants.

The demolition the H & O Oats is the most recent and most painful example. Between 2005 and 2007, there were those who wanted to demolish this abandoned and derelict grain elevator in the name of building something that would hopefully provide jobs and attract tourists/money to the area (a casino); and there were those -- the "preservationists" -- who wanted to save the elevator because Buffalo is the city in which the grain elevator was invented and developed. Both sides had strong cases: title to the land, in the case of the former (the Seneca Nation of Indians), and a pattern of indifference and neglect on the part of the city in the protection of these buildings, in the case of the preservationists. And yet both sides also had weak cases: respectively speaking, the casino could be built in such a location on the property that the H & O Oats need not be demolished, and there was in fact little else to do with the elevator (or, rather, what remained of it in the aftermath of a devastating fire in 1987) other than demolish it. In the end, the elevator was demolished and the casino was not built due to lack of capital funds.

And so, here is my proposal: commission internationally-known artists to paint gigantic murals upon these abandoned elevators, make a movie of the process, and then hold an exhibition, perhaps in tandem with a July 4th fireworks display and a projection of the aforementioned movie upon an elevator that had been painted all-white for the occasion. The effect would be truly spectacular!

Of course, the murals chosen for -- temporary? permanent? -- display would have to be much better than the one in Midland, Ontario (see below).

Gary Friesen wrote a piece about this, "North America's largest outdoor mural," in the 14 April 2001 edition of The Globe and Mail.

Painted on the side of a century-old grain elevator, the mural depicts a Jesuit missionary and a Huron-Ouendat native overlooking Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the Jesuit mission and the first permanent European community in Canada west of the Ottawa River. Built in 1639, Sainte-Marie was the headquarters of the Jesuits sent to preach among the Huron-Ouendat natives. In 1649, after years of deadly attacks by the invading Iroquois to the south, the remaining Jesuits and Huron-Ouendats burnt Sainte-Marie to the ground and eventually returned to New France (Quebec).

Visitors can easily see the mural from anywhere along the waterfront, although the pier to the far right offers the best face-on view. Binoculars and a lawn chair would allow the viewer to experience and really appreciate the extremely detailed workmanship by artist Fred Lenz. The weather dictates when work begins as the concrete walls must be totally dry for the special mural paints to properly adhere and maintain their vibrant colours. Visitors and residents delight in watching the progress through the warmer and drier months. The mural is scheduled to be completed in time for the dedication ceremonies during Midland's annual Waterfest Weekend in early August.

The gigantic waterfront mural is the crowning achievement of artist Fred Lenz's career and the highlight of Midland's outdoor historical mural project. Over 30 huge murals splash colour and local history throughout the downtown commercial core. Sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association, the mural project plays a major role in an overall downtown revitalization program. With a descriptive brochure and guide map, visitors can easily stroll through almost 400 years of local history. These brochures are available throughout the community. The exquisite craftsmanship will impress you as will your appreciation of Midland's rich and unique heritage.

This outdoor historical mural project is a great idea, and could easily be brought to a place like Buffalo, but this particular mural is just awful. "Extremely detailed workmanship"?! The left arm of the Huron-Ouendat, presumably gesturing to the settlement and not extending his hand in friendship to the missionary (whose hands are hidden), is clearly deformed. This is especially poignant, given that -- in 1930, almost 25 years before the preserved remains of two of the missionaries were discovered at the site -- the eight "Canadian Martyrs" of Sainte-Marie were canonized by the Pope. Inevitably, the canonization of these missionaries meant the demonization of their killers, who weren't simply Iroquois, but members of the Seneca Nation. I hope that I'm wrong, but I sincerely doubt that any of the murals sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association document the displacement and devastation of both the Hurons and the Senecas.

A really strong pro-Seneca mural would be perfect for Buffalo. Some old wounds have still not healed there. To recall the last few lines of an article published in The Buffalo News on 6 December 2005, in the midst of the battle over the H & O Oats elevator:

Several critics of the project said the Senecas were showing insensitivity by not including the public in its decisions.

John Laping, chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board, regretted there has been none of the scrutiny or public input required in Buffalo. "It's too bad the Seneca Nation does not feel the same kind of civic responsibility," said Laping.

Richard Lippes, the attorney filing the lawsuit against the purchase of the DL&W site on the grounds that it violates state and federal law, agreed. He hopes the Senecas will reconsider its decision to destroy the H-O Oats complex.

"The Senecas, perhaps more than most, should understand the importance of our history and our environment, and respect these historic structures," Lippes said.

To state the obvious: the "insensitivity" here is among those who do not know or simply refuse to admit that hundreds of years before this "historic" elevator was built -- indeed, hundreds of years before the founding of Buffalo itself -- the Senecas lived on these precise tracts of land, and that thereupon they had their own "history" and "environment." They want some of that land back? They have every right to it: not you, not me. Put that on your mural.

(Note added 23 December 2011: see the Stored Potential Project in Omaha, Nebraska, which used abandoned grain elevators to display silo-length scrolls of art on a temporary basis.)

No comments:

Post a Comment