Following Function: Putting the Industrial Buildings that Inspired the Modernist Movement Back to Work


Image details

By Miriam Kelly

While many modernist buildings are celebrated, the industrial buildings that inspired the modernist movement are less well known. In the shift to the post-industrial, these important buildings face challenges in common with many of America’s redundant industrial sites. This article considers three examples featured in Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, highlighting their importance to the early modernists, how their significance is understood today and the contemporary reuse models that could help secure their future.

Photo (Left): Sculptural cylinders of the Marine ‘A’ Grain Elevator (1925) in Buffalo (Photo Credit: Miriam Kelly, 2013)

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Europeans began to look to American culture as a means of renewing and regenerating their own. America was seen as the agent of an age of mechanisation and modernity, unencumbered by the ancient traditions of Europe and free to generate a new aesthetic. American engineers derived form from functional and structural inevitability, creating a vernacular for industrial times. In Europe, American industrial buildings were iconicized through photographs set alongside seminal architectural texts by Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Taut and, most notably, Le Corbusier in Vers une Architecture. Images of grain elevators and daylight factories became staples of modern doctrine, forging the dialectical confrontation between sculptural form and gridded space.

Le Corbusier chose an aerial photograph of the Brooklyn Army Terminal to illustrate his chapter on Surface; the second of his Three Reminders to Architects published in Vers une Architecture in 1923. Given his dismissive ‘fear’ of American architects, Le Corbusier was perhaps unaware that the two 980ft-long terminal buildings were designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the Neo-Gothic Woolworth Building! The Brooklyn Army Terminal was a vital link in the long chain of shipping along the southern Brooklyn waterfront during the first half of the twentieth century. Conceived towards the end of World War I to hasten the dispatch of supplies bound for the Western Front, the Army Terminal followed the innovative intermodal port model first used in the adjacent Bush Terminal in 1895. A dense network of rail lines ran alongside and through the two enormous warehouse buildings, which were connected by rail and sky bridges to the giant sheds straddling each of the four harbor piers. Encompassing four million square feet of floor space, the Brooklyn Army Terminal was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world when it was completed in 1919. Used briefly as a warehouse for the storage of contraband alcohol during Prohibition, the Army Terminal was America’s largest military supply base during World War II, employing 56,000 people, and processing over three million troops and nearly forty million tons of supplies.

Photo (above): Aerial view of the Brooklyn Army Terminal (Cass Gilbert, 1919) during World War II. Sky bridges and rail lines connected the two 980ft long terminal buildings to enormous sheds straddling each of the four piers, enabling the rapid transfer of goods, equipment and troops between land and sea.

Decommissioned in the early 1970s, the Army Terminal lay fallow for a decade. In 1981 it was purchased from the federal government by the city of New York with the intention of restoring the complex to its intended use as a light manufacturing warehouse. Over twenty years and four phases of renovation, the enormous terminal buildings have been gradually put back to work by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. After many years of decline and the transfer of commercial shipping across the river to New Jersey, the Army Terminal has become a key driver of regeneration along the Brooklyn waterfront.

Although rapidly constructed in a time of war, the warehouses were built for permanence. Eventual conversion for non-military use was anticipated, and local building regulations were observed although not required for immediate purpose. The buildings were designed for highly versatile divisions and combinations of space, enabling ready colonization by today’s diverse but complementary mix of business from balloon makers, to chocolatiers and HIV vaccination researchers. Over 100 companies and 3,000 people now work at the Terminal, encouraged by tax and other business incentives. By establishing a critical mass of light manufacturing and business activities, the continued use of the Brooklyn Army Terminal is seeding much-needed economic growth in one of the city’s most down-at-heel former industrial neighborhoods.

Photo (right): The impressive sky-lit atrium in Building B of the Brooklyn Army Terminal; one of the most dramatic early twentieth century interiors in the US. (Photo Credit: Miriam Kelly, 2013)

Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, it is the site’s potential as a vehicle for economic regeneration rather than any cultural heritage impetus that has ensured its survival. Its innovative, monumental construction and inclusion in modernism’s most influential manifesto privileges the Brooklyn Army Terminal in the American industrial vernacular. However, its significance as an icon of twentieth century design has yet to be fully celebrated.

Situated at the confluence of the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, Buffalo was the focus of grain trans-shipment from the western prairies to the eastern seaboard for over a century. When Anthony Trollope first visited Buffalo in the 1858 it was already “the great gate of Ceres” and was soon to become the world’s largest grain port.

The slow process of manual grain transfer between the ships of the lakes and smaller canal vessels was revolutionized in 1842 by local entrepreneur, Joseph Dart. His bucket elevator system scooped grain from boats into vertical bins using a steam driven belt, giving rise to a curious new building typology made first from timber, then steel and ceramic tile, and eventually concrete.

Photo (left): Buffalo’s outstanding collection of grain elevators was hugely influential among the European avant-garde when they were published by Gropius, Le Corbusier and Taut. (Photo Credit: David Torke, fixBuffalo)

The impact of Buffalo’s silo skyline was aesthetic as well as technological. Photographs of American grain elevators, including examples from Buffalo, where hugely influential among the European avant-garde when they were first published by Walter Gropius in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes in 1913. Reproducing them in Vers une Architecture (First Reminder to Architects: Volume), Le Corbusier heralded the grain elevators as “the magnificent fruits of the new age”. Further photographs in Bruno Taut’s Modern Architecture (1929) added Buffalo’s Concrete Central elevator to the visual lexicon.

Having sketched Gropius’ 1913 photographs, Erich Mendelsohn visited Buffalo in 1924 specifically to photograph and draw the grain elevators. Remarkably, he was the only European early modernist to see the buildings first hand.

“Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space. A random confusion amidst the chaos of loading and unloading corn ships, of railways and bridges, crane monsters with live gestures, hordes of silo cells in concrete, stone and glazed brick. Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light… … Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams.”

Today, the grain elevators of Buffalo comprise the most outstanding collection of extant grain elevators in the United States and collectively represent the variety of construction materials, building forms, and technological innovations that revolutionized the handling of grain. Although a small number of sites have been demolished (including the 1901 steel Dakota Elevator published by Gropius), nearly twenty elevators dating from 1897 to 1954 have survived the collapse of the Great Lakes grain trade. Most are abandoned, and only a few are still being used in the grain industry. Together, they form an extraordinary landscape of dense, sculptural verticality clustered along the Buffalo River.

Photo (right): Sculptural cylinders of the Marine ‘A’ Grain Elevator (1925) in Buffalo (Photo Credit: Miriam Kelly, 2013)

Recognizing that the Buffalo grain elevators are at risk, a local businessman bought the group of four silos at the back of his metalwork factory in 2006. Crowded together in the loop of the river, they form part of Elevator Alley, a battery of decaying giants standing sentinel along the waterfront. Together, they embody the extraordinary narrative of technical innovation and sculptural functionality that captured the avant-garde imagination. One elevator has been repaired and returned to use as a commercial grain store while the other three are now part of an extraordinary experiment in slow-burn regeneration. Having prevented their demolition, substantially removed commercial pressure and spent six years clearing rubble, the privately-funded initiative gives the grain elevators of ‘Silo City’ both time and public access to see if they can find their own way forwards. New uses are evolving organically and intuitively through the interest of local people, underpinned by a strong sense of custodianship. University of Buffalo students are regular visitors and are encouraged to think of this architectural playground as their own. The City of Night arts festival is now in its third year and welcomed 15,000 visitors to the site over a weekend in June. Silo City is already becoming a laboratory for the arts and industry, with cavernous spaces transformed through music and sculpture, urban sport and heritage tourism. Interpretations and collaborations are emerging, because the owner is open-minded enough to welcome them. Rather than Le Corbusier’s insistence on function, the project at Silo City speaks more to Aldo Rossi’s understanding of grain elevators as ‘the cathedrals of our time’ and admiring them, not for just purity of volume, but for their marking ‘the passage of time, the slow evolution of collective work’.

Photo (above): Theatre performance inside the Marine ‘A’ Grain Elevator (1925) as part of the ‘Silo City’ regeneration initiative (Photo Credit: Carlie Rikus, 2014)

When Le Corbusier put forward utopian plans for a linear industrial city, he was influenced by Detroit. The Motor City of the 1930s functioned as an interconnected locus of production within which individual industrial plants were organized around linear production lines. Le Corbusier’s 1935 tour of the Ford Motor Company convinced him to adapt automobile assembly line production methods to the building industry. In warning against suburbanization, perhaps Le Corbusier anticipated that Detroit’s decentralization would facilitate the rise of the industrial city, but also sow the seeds for its post-industrial demise.

The collapse of the motor industry, history of racial division, abandonment of the city’s historic core, rapid suburbanization and erosion of the tax base have burdened Detroit with a metropolitan landscape poorly adapted to the innovation it desperately needs. With some forty square miles of vacant plots and one third of buildings abandoned, space is Detroit’s greatest liability and its greatest asset. A key proposal in the Detroit Future City Plan (published in January 2013) is a twenty-year framework for consolidating the redundant land of Motor City into a “canvas of green”. The formalization of a new connective landscape is an affordable response to rationalizing the city’s infrastructure, redefining neighborhoods, remediating industrial contamination and producing food. Although very different in character to the industrial city system of the 1930s metropolis, it could provide a new productive network for sustainable transformation.

Photo (above): The Packard Automotive Plant (Albert Kahn, 1903) was the first modern steel, glass and concrete factory to be built in America and pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in industrial construction (Photo Credit: Miriam Kelly, 2013)

As attitudes shift from ruination towards regeneration, the Detroit’s problems are so profound as to present an opportunity to envision radical change. Having served as the world capital of the automobile industry throughout the twentieth century, the industrial heritage of the Motor City is internationally significant and pivotal to the city’s future. Urban strategies that build on the Motor City’s rich industrial legacy should enable Detroit not just to redevelop itself, but to reimagine what a post-industrial city ought to be.

While cultural attitudes and conservation approaches to modernist buildings are increasingly well-established, the debate to decipher the significance of the industrial buildings that inspired the modernist movement has far to go. In conjunction with an increased cultural appreciation of industrial buildings as ‘heritage’, some progress is being made to protect America’s historic industrial sites. However, important structures remain at risk, without proper recognition of their contribution to modernism or as extraordinary buildings in their own right. Many endure because of the sheer effort required to dismantle them, and it is often this inherent robustness rather than any cultural impetus that leads to their reuse. Despite his assertions otherwise, the transition to postmodernism exposed Le Corbusier’ grain elevators as proof of the importance of symbol and image over function. In the shift to the post-industrial, recognition of their significance and the insistence on appropriate new functions are essential if these important buildings are to endure.

Miriam Kelly is a British conservation architect with a particular interest in the adaptive reuse of industrial sites. She works in New York with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP. Her recent fellowship to research redundant industrial sites in Germany and the USA was sponsored by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.