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?

The City Ship Canal

Caption for Figure 3.

“The Canal Harbor, Buffalo, New York.” The entrance to the City Ship Canal, circa 1920. From the left: part of the Great Eastern; all of the Dakota; a wooden marine tower (part of the old Frontier Elevator) that would soon after be demolished and replaced; part of Washburn-Crosby’s unique cylindrically shaped marine tower; and (behind the raised bridge) the Great Northern.

Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company.

First excavated in 1850, the Blackwell Ship Canal, later known as the City Ship Canal, cuts into the strip of land that separates Lake Erie from the mouth of the Buffalo River. Grain elevators have stood along its banks ever since the 1860s.

Made of steel in 1901, the Great Eastern was demolished in 1948. Also made of steel in 1901, the Dakota was demolished in 1966. Photographs of the Frontier Elevator (demolished in 1923) are hard to come by, but I will try to locate one and post it here. A clearer view of the Washburn-Crosby's unique marine tower can be had in Figure 4.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Connecting Terminal

Caption for Figure 2, which depicts the old Conntecting Terminal Elevator (made out of iron and wood in 1882, not the one made out of reinforced concrete and built to replace the first one in 1914).

“An Old Timer at C.T.T. elevator, Buffalo, NY.” Unloading grain at the Connecting Terminal Elevator, designed and built by Robert Dunbar. The elevator leg that has been lowered down into the storage compartment of the “old time” steam-powered, wood-hulled vessel owned by the Lackawanna Green Bay Line is part of the world’s first mobile marine tower. Its height can be suggested by the great height of the marine tower(s) at the neighboring structure, which is in fact the Marine Elevator (originally built 1848, burned 1879 and rebuilt in 1884). Note as well the congestion of the harbor and the various sizes of the vessels competing for access to the wharves.

Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company.

The mobile marine tower, also known as a "loose leg," was invented in 1882 by Robert Dunbar, the same engineer who had designed the Dart Elevator back in 1843. Originally powered by steam engines, loose legs became very popular after the electrification of power at the end of the 19th century. A tall building set atop wheels, the loose leg was originally a solution to the overcrowding of Buffalo's harbor. The idea was that, instead of moving the grain-bearing vessel closer to the grain-elevating "leg," the leg could be moved closer to the vessel.

The same idea had been used in the construction of the floating grain elevator, which was an elevator leg installed on a tug-boat that could be pushed or pulled into position between a ship in need of being unloaded of its cargo and a boat that was waiting to be loaded up. First used in the late 1840s, the floaters became widely used in the 1860s and 1870s in ports such as New York, Buffalo and New Orleans.

Below: both elevators as depicted in Buffalo's Waterfront, by Leary & Sholes (Arcadia, 1981), p. 28:

The Concrete-Central

Pages 334-337 of American Colossus concerning Figure 7, taken in 1919, and depicting the Concrete-Central Elevator, built in Buffalo, New York, in three stages, between 1914 and 1917. (Note: this image, reproduced here courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company, was originally intended to be the book's cover, wrapped front to back.)

What’s striking about Taut’s uncredited photo of the Concrete-Central (not reprinted in A Concrete Atlantis for some reason) isn’t so much the grain elevator itself, but the fact that the entire, thousand-foot-long complex – everything from the freestanding transfer tower on the far right to the last of the three “loose legs” on the far left – was captured by it. No “fish eye” or other specialized lenses were apparently used. The photographer had to be positioned in just the right place for such a shot to be taken. It is telling that Patricia Bazelon, who provided excellent “present condition” photographs for Reyner Banham, wasn’t able to find such a position for her photograph of the Concrete Central, in which everything except for the transfer tower is captured.

The problem of properly positioning yourself with respect to a colossal building was familiar to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Calling upon Claude-Etienne Savary’s Lettres sur l’Égypte, first published in 1785, Kant notes:

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. For if we are too far away, the parts to be apprehended (the stones lying one over the other) are only obscurely represented, and the representation of them produces no effect upon the aesthetical judgment of the subject. But if we are very near, the eye requires some time to complete the apprehension of the tiers from the bottom up to the apex; and then the first tiers are always partly forgotten before the Imagination has taken in the last, and so the comprehension of them is never complete.

But this section of the Critique, entitled “The estimation of the magnitude of natural things requisite for the idea of the sublime,” wasn’t intended as practical advice to aspiring photographers, whom of course did not yet exist. It was in fact intended to illustrate the difference between the two different forms of human imagination: intellectual apprehension (Auffassung) and aesthetic comprehension (Zusammenfassung). Jacques Derrida writes: “The former can go to infinity, the latter has difficulty following and becomes harder and harder according as the apprehension progresses. It quickly attains its maximum: the fundamental aesthetic measure for the evaluation of magnitudes […] The mathematical evaluation of size never reaches its maximum. The aesthetic evaluation, the primary and fundamental one, does reach it; and this subjective maximum constitutes the absolute reference which arouses the feeling of the sublime.”

And so, unlike the beautiful, the sublime arouses what Kant calls the “negative pleasure” of feeling oneself overwhelmed or being “too close” to the colossal (Section I, Book II, SS 23). It calls for a step backwards. In Derrida’s words: “So one has to find a middle place, a correct distance for uniting the maximum of comprehension to the maximum of apprehension, to take sight of the maximum of what one cannot take and to imagine the maximum of what one cannot see. And when the imagination attains its maximum and experiences the feeling of its impotence, its inadequacy to present the idea of the whole, it falls back, it sinks; it founders into itself.” But this fall from the elevated heights of the sublime is not without its own pleasure: it “does not leave [the imagination] without a certain positive emotion: a certain transference gives it the wherewithal to feel pleased at this collapse which makes it come back to itself.”

Should one fear stepping back too quickly or not quickly enough, one can simply let one’s foot on the accelerator set the pace. Frank Gohlke, a photographer of grain elevators, writes,

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.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Frontispiece, continued

From p. 256 of American Colossus:

If we compare the photograph that George Barker took of the entrance to Buffalo’s harbor in 1883 and the anonymous illustration that was based upon it in 1885, we see a clear slide towards darkness. In Barker’s photograph, it is daytime, and the sky is partly sunny. There is plenty of light to see the words WATSON ELEVATOR written upon the immense, cupola-topped combination grain elevator and small island of that name, and to see that a smaller elevator (the unmarked Union Transfer Tower) stands upon dry land in the foreground. There is a lot of thick, dark smoke in the air, but it is clearly coming from the various steam-ships that are in the water. But in the illustration, it is a very cloudy day: neither “blue” (clear) sky nor sun can be seen. In this darkness, all one can see of the Watson Elevator is huge blurry slab of oddly shaped darkness (the Union has become part of it) from which black smoke is billowing and mixing with or causing the equally dark clouds in the sky. One is immediately put in mind of William Blake’s “dark, satanic mills.”

Barker's photograph was not included in the book because I didn't think it would look good enough.

Note the other two grain elevators that are visible: in the center, we see the Marine Elevator, and on the right, we see the Bennett, both of which were designed by the mechanical engineer Robert Dunbar, the designer of the Dart, the world's first steam-powered grain elevator.

Built in 1848, the Marine exploded and was rebuilt around 1881. The rebuilt Marine Elevator would remain standing until the 1920s, when the grain elevator now known as the Marine "A" was built. Because it seems small in comparison with its neighbors, the Marine Elevator captured here is probably the first one, that is, the one that exploded, not the one built as a replacement. This suggests that the dating of the picture as "1883" (which is based on a notation concerning this photograph I found in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division) is mistaken, and that it was more likely taken in 1879 or 1880.

Built on the site of the "old" Dart Elevator (which was built in 1843 and exploded in 1862), the Bennett was one of the greatest elevators ever built in Buffalo. It was immense, well-built and symmetrical, and thus "appealing" to "the artistic eye." It would remain standing until 1912, when it was finally taken down.


Published in Jane Meade Welch, "The City of Buffalo," Harper's Monthly, July 1885, p. 197, this illustration depicts the entrance to the harbor of Buffalo, New York, which was dominated by the Watson Elevator.

Reproduced courtesy of the Maritime History of the Great Lakes.


In my post dated Wednesday March 18 2009, I included one of the eight black-and-white illustrations that appear in my book, to be precise, Figure 1. There are a total of 7 of these figures, not including the frontispiece. As I mentioned at the outset, I will eventually upload all of these images, none of which are under strict copyright control. In this particular instance, the image is reproduced courtesy of the Maritime History of the Great Lakes.

Published by A. T. Andreas (Chicago) in 1884 and depicting an event from 1830 (the first shipment of grain in bulk from the Port of Chicago, undertaken by the "Osceola" of Buffalo, New York), Figure 1 was attached to my comments about the society of the spectacle because of its insistence that no one was there to witness this historic event, that Chicago's docks were virtually empty (spectacular) at the time, when in fact these docks were teeming with workers, supervisors, grain merchants, farmers, et al, and would remain so until the 1850s.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Society of the Spectacle: An Interview with Diet Soap

Q: How did you arrive upon the grain elevator as a starting point for your critique of capital and the spectacle?

I didn't so much arrive upon the grain elevator as work my way back to it. For the situationists (and Henri Lefebvre), the spectacle is a particular manner of organizing urban space ("cities") so that ever-growing masses of objects and people can circulate and reproduce, atomized, separated, in isolation. Guy Debord noted that the spectacle was clearly in place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and in Nazi Germany in the 1930s; and T.J. Clark has noted that the spectacle was clearly being prepared during the "Hausmannization" of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. I believe the spectacle was also in preparation on the docks of "booming" port-cities on the Great Lakes such as Buffalo, Toledo and Chicago in the 1840s. Before the invention of the steam-powered grain elevator, these docks were full of crowds of workers, who were required to unload the sacks of grain and barrels of flour that were carried by in-coming and/or out-going vessels. But the grain elevator -- which was the first mechanized "laboring-saving device" to be used in an urban setting (farm equipment had been steam-powered since the 1830s) -- could be operated by a mere handful of highly specialized laborers, and yet worked at a rate seven times faster than "traditional" crews. And so the docks of these port cities on the Great Lakes quickly/gradually became fantastically active and yet strangely empty, a fact that was noted as early as the 1860s and became obvious in the 1880s.

Q. Did you grow up amongst these structures?

Yes, but I didn't realize it until I was in my thirties. There was (and still is) a colossal grain elevator in Brooklyn, New York, where I was born in 1959. My family and I would pass by it often, because it is very close to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, but we didn't know what this colossal building was or that it had been closed down in 1965, the year my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. This grain elevator was imprinted on my memory, but I only realized it thirty years later, when my family and I were again traveling along the BQE and passed the elevator, which immediately attracted my attention. At first I thought I'd never seen it before, but then I realized that I'd seen it again and again as a child. An instance of what Reyner Banham calls "double vision."

Q. Have you ever been trapped inside one of these concrete monsters?

No. I have broken into, entered, explored and even "squatted" grain elevators, but I have never been trapped inside one. I'm struck my two things in your question:

1) being trapped in a grain elevator features in my book because Chief Bromden (in Ken Kesey's "Cuckoo's Nest") has a nightmare about being trapped in one; and

2) the idea that grain elevators are "monsters" is also a strong theme in my book.

Q: How is it that these hidden and ignored structures could be the first point in a history of a society that is mediated by images, by the visible?

Grain elevators are "hidden and ignored" precisely because of changes in the society of the spectacle. Take for example the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (mentioned above). It was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s upon what was once the Atlantic Docks, where grain elevators had been built and razed, built and razed, ever since the 1870s. Where it not for the spectacular shift from railroads to automobiles, several of those elevators might still be standing. This is one of the reasons that I conclude my history of the grain elevator in 1943: in the post-WWII period, grain elevators, formerly in the foreground, were pushed into the background, where they continue to operate.

Q. How could the history of the fetishized spectacular commodity start with what is thought to be an utterly utilitarian structure?

I'm not sure how utilitarianism figures here, but it is clear that the modern spectacle-commodity can be said to begin with the shift from sealed sacks of grain (unique products by unique people) to grain shipped in bulk (standardized products by anonymous people) -- a shift that was "required" or imposed by the grain elevator, which could only process grain in bulk. As early as 1860, observers were "fetishizing" the "liquid," "golden," and abstract beauty of immense amounts of grain shipped in bulk.

Note well that the shift from crews of stevedores/sacks of grain to grain elevators/grain in bulk took place at the same time as several other, clearly "modern" developments: the shift from stamped coins to paper money, the invention of the telegraph and "high-speed" communications, the invention of "to arrive" contracts and "grades" of grain, and the rise of financial speculation and "cornering" the market.

Q: To what extent is understanding the history of the spectacle essential if one wants to overcome the spectacle?

To a very great extent. To overcome the spectacle, one must see its unity (how 2009 is similar to 1843) as well as its "stages" of development: preparation (the 19th century); perfection (the 20th century); decomposition (ever since the 1950s, but especially today).

Q: Currently the capitalist/spectacular order appears to be in a crisis that threatens its capacity to produce the compensatory consumer practices that define every day life. Do you feel that this crisis represents an opportunity for working people?

Your question reminds me of a song by Gang of Four called "Capital (It Fails Us Now)," which I believe was first released in 1982.

the moment I was born I opened my eyes
I reached out for my credit card
I know I never did own my own suit
capital it fails us now come and let us seize the time
on the first day of my life I opened my eyes
guess where with superstars surrounded by luxury-eagers
I need a prison I need a hot fire
no credit no goods
"come on back" I say
they say "we're bankrupt"
capital it fails us now come and let us seize the time
capital it fails us now...
oh no! I left it in my other suit!
one day all will be living on credit
I'm still in credit -- just!
one day old, living on credit...

Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but this crisis/opportunity you speak of has existed for over a hundred and fifty years.