Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Frontier Elevator, continued

On pages 305-307 of American Colossus, I discuss the second marine tower that the James Stewart Engineering Company designed and built for Washburn-Crosby, the flour milling company that owned and operated the Frontier Elevator. Made out of reinforced concrete in 1912, the new Frontier Elevator was photographed (see above) by the German modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn during a trip to Buffalo in 1924. This second marine tower was accompanied by a new set of grain bins made of reinforced concrete; yet another set would be added in 1925.

In stark contrast to the first marine tower (on the right), the second one (on the left) is shaped like a silo, not like a marine tower, that is to say, it is cylindrically, not rectangularly shaped. The statement is clear; it is a statement of mastery. With the advent of the new building material (reinforced concrete), grain-elevator designers need not be constrained by (certain) past practices, and can create new ones. In this particular case, a marine tower doesn't have to "look like" a marine tower, but can look like a grain tank. In general, form can -- but need not always -- "follow" function. Form and function can also pursue (slightly) different paths.

And yet none of this was apparent to Erich Mendelsohn, who claimed that his photograph caught "Childhood forms, clumsy, full of primeval power, dedicated to purely practical needs" (Amerika). What could Mendelsohn have said if someone told him that the cylindrical marine tower of the Frontier Elevator was in fact an instance of form following aesthetics, not "function" or "purely practical needs"? How could he, as an artist, admit that he had failed to recognize a work of art (a deliberate, sophisticated and witty attempt to make a pun on visual resemblances)?

Above: David Plowden captures the Frontier Elevator (aka known as "the General Mills Elevator") in action in 1985.

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