Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 978:
GRAIN ELEVATORS

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 wrote:

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 architecture.
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 everyone's mind.

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 unfinished concrete.

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 a beginning.
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 work.

(Theme music)


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 I've used.

For more on Le Corbusier, see Episode 596 and:

Le Corbusier, Aircraft, New York: Universe Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English edition.)

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 East Texas


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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