by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 978.
Today, let's talk about grain elevators. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Italian architect Aldo Rossi
recently looked at American grain elevators and
The Great Plains of America are vast ... its
villages turned inward as if time had stood still.
These people [weren't] seeking America, but
escaping Europe, and in [their] first wooden silos
[was the] memory of [European] architecture. Over
time the silos rose with ever greater assurance and
created the landscape of the New World. In
abandoning the problem of form they rediscovered
Those great grain storage elevators grew
up along the new railways of the Midwest in the last
century -- first in flammable wood, then tile, steel,
and concrete. They locate our towns just as
cathedrals located the towns of Europe. Drive the
highways of Kansas and Nebraska, and a tall gray
windowless elevator, topped with a windowed shed,
announces each whistle-stop from miles off.
Their city cousins are huge multi-barreled ranks of
contiguous white concrete cylinders. The one in
Hutchinson, Kansas, is a half mile long with
hundreds of cells. But in both types the insides
are a complex array of elevators, chutes, conveyor
belts and partitioned grain silos.
Mention grain elevators and most people think about
explosions. Grain dust is highly flammable, so
elevators are carefully designed to avoid sparks.
Explosions are to elevators as crashes are to
airlines. They're really quite rare, but so
devastating when they do occur that they're on
In any case, our 19th-century Midwestern farming
communities forgot their old European silos and
created a new architecture of pure function for
storing all that grain. Just after WW-I, Europe
realized that America had created a whole new
architecture, one with no antecedents.
Le Corbusier hated the pillars and arches of the
old architectural orders. They were inhumane; they
didn't serve the people who used buildings. Now, a
new idea -- perfect functional simplicity serving
people and their purposes. Le Corbusier found that
profoundly beautiful. He used urban grain elevator
themes in his radical new designs, wrought in stark
When the German architect Erich Mendelsohn visited
the grain elevators of Buffalo, New York, he wrote
that he'd seen
stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred
cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light,
everything else now seemed to have been shaped
interim to my silo dreams. Everything else was only
Yesterday afternoon, I went to look at
Houston's abandoned rice elevators. A hundred times
before, I'd ignored those huge white hulks lying hard
against the clear blue sky. Yet they are prototypes
of our functional 20th-century architecture. They are
wonders of the world -- rendered in their clean,
anonymous, geometrical grace and simplicity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Mahar-Keplinger, L., Grain Elevators,
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architectural Library, for suggesting the topic and
providing the Mahar-Keplinger source. Architect
Susan Whythe provided the Choay and Baker sources
below. Mahar-Keplinger provides the two quotations
For more on Le Corbusier, see Episode 596 and:
Le Corbusier, Aircraft, New York:
Universe Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English
Choay, F., Le Corbusier, New York:
George Braziller, Inc., 1960.
Baker, G.H., Le Corbusier: An Analysis of
Form, Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold
(U.K.) Co. Ltd., 1984.
Photo by John Lienhard
A fairly small barrel type of grain elevator in
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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