Sunday, May 17, 2009

When to stay away

One of the major themes in my book is "the problem of properly positioning yourself with respect to a colossal building [...] Kant notes that 'We must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from going too far from them, in order to get the full emotional effect from their size.' [...] In Derrida's words, 'So one has to find a middle place, a correct distance for uniting the maximum of comprehension [aesthetic pleasure] with the maximum of apprehension [mathematical understanding]" (American Colossus,pages 335-336). To show that this positioning of oneself in the middle isn't simply a mental or psychological process -- more than a way of enjoying that which is disturbingly large -- but also a physical one, I quote the photographer Frank Gohlke (p. 337). As I have noted before, Gohlke claims:

For me, the essential grain elevator view is obtained through the windshield of a car or truck while traveling on a highway in Kansas or Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle. It is not a static view, but one that begins just as the elevator becomes visible above the center line, above five miles out of town, and continues until it disappears in the vibration in the rearview mirror. In the minutes that pass as the speck grows to colossal size and then shrinks to rejoin the horizon, many contradictory messages are created: we are powerful, we build for centuries, our monuments rival those of other heroic ages; we are insignificant, our hold on this landscape is tenuous, nature and time erode our greatest creations as if they were dust. What lingers is the memory, though, is the image of a solitary, upright form in the middle distance of an endless plain.

I have had a hard time reconciling all this with the example/rhetoric of Reyner Banham, the author of A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Architectural Modernism, 1900-1925 (MIT Press, 1986). In this pioneering work on the "Daylight" factories and grain elevators that were built out of reinforced concrete in Buffalo and elsewhere, Banham insists on the importance of moving in closer, getting out of the car and exploring such buildings oneself. "Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side [...] Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes up river to it or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot [...] That journey is worth it, however" (Banham, pages 165-166).

Banham made sure his readers knew that, worth it or not, the "journey" would or could not be undertaken by anyone. Only the tough or courageous could or should do so. "My foot crashed through a rotten plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert [...] Had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided that they had waited too long for my return" (Banham, p. 351).

My friend Orrin and I fancied ourselves to be just as tough and/or courageous as Reyner Banham was, and so, between 1989 and 1992, we not only asked for and were granted "official," guided tours of the Eastern States, the Perot, the Standard, and the Great Northern; we also took it upon ourselves to explore and even climb to the top of the Concrete-Central, the Superior, the Marine "A," and the GLF (all of which were abandoned and derelict). Those journeys were certainly "worth it."

But on page 405 of American Colossus, I humbly insist that "the most accurate description of our urban explorations in Buffalo would not be 'we risked life and limb,' but 'we knew when to stay away.'" I provide two examples, which I reproduce and illustrate below. In both cases, "staying away" meant "saying goodbye."

The picture above shows Meyer Malting, which was a small grain elevator built out of reinforced concrete by Monarch Engineering in 1914. Originally built to unload barley from vessels on the Erie Canal, which it faced, Meyer Malting was modified in the 1950s, when the canal was paved over and turned into railroad tracks and highways. By continuing to receive grain by truck, the malt house stayed in business until the late 1980s, when it was abandoned. Orrin and I got inside of it once. We only stayed a few minutes: the air was full of trapped car exhaust.

One day, we returned to Meyer Malting to take notes and photographs of what we'd seen the first time, but heard a noise from inside. If there had in fact been someone living inside it, or even simply visiting it, our presence might have been (mis)interpreted as invasive, hostile or unwanted. We knew from experience how difficult it was to get in and out of the building, and decided that it simply wasn't worth the risk. We left, never to return. In 2005, Meyer Malting was demolished by the City of Buffalo.

The picture above shows what remained after the fire of 1987, which destroyed most of the vast H & O Oats Milling complex in Buffalo, New York. Founded in 1893, H & O Oats built its first cereal mill on the site in 1914; it was designed by the A.E. Baxter Company. In 1931, the company added a set of grain tanks, which were made of reinforced concrete. The complex was closed in 1983 and temporarily used for the storage of tires. The fire of 1987 apparently destroyed grain tanks of all kinds: wood, steel and reinforced concrete.

When we visited the reamains of the H & O Oats in 1992, the basement looked to be permanently flooded. Someone had used a series of wooden planks to create a dry route to a staircase that presumably led to the upper levels. One of us remembered seeing a local TV news story about the rescue of a stray dog that had managed to get to the top of the 70-foot-tall structure, but couldn't get back down. We decided to stay away, and never returned. In 2006, the remains of the H & O Oats were demolished by the City of Buffalo to make way for a casino that was to be operated by the Seneca Nation. It hasn't been built.

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