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Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service
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Grain elevators led double life in shaping modern architecture

Fri, 04/11/2014

LAWRENCE – They dot the skyline of countless small towns throughout the Midwest, hulking cement towers often visible for miles. New research from a University of Kansas professor shows that grain elevators, those unassuming, utilitarian icons of the Midwest, have done far more than store grain. They have shaped the development of 20th century architecture and played a key role in the emergence of postmodern thinking.

According to Dave Tell, associate professor of communication studies, grain elevators were once the symbol of modernity, but over time they came to be viewed as a liability to modern architecture, paving the way for postmodernity. Tell recently wrote a paper on the subject, “The Rise and Fall of Mechanical Rhetoric, or, What Grain Elevators Teach us About Postmodernity.” The paper is under review by the Quarterly Journal of Speech.

Tell’s research begins in 1911 with German architect Walter Gropius’ interest in the architectural possibilities of reinforced concrete. In 1913, Gropius wrote an article that was illustrated with nine photographs of concrete grain elevators.

After the publication of Gropius’ article, the great French architect Le Corbusier became smitten by Gropius’s grain elevators, so much so that he reprinted them in his 1923 manifesto, “Toward an Architecture.” But before doing so, Le Corbusier had retouched the photographs with a paint known as gouache, essentially an early 20th century version of “photoshopping.”

The grain elevator photographs went ‘viral’ and were reprinted dozens of times in at least six different countries over a 100-year span. By the late 1920s, the grain elevator photographs were considered icons of modernity.

“At the peak of their influence, in 1969, Yale University’s Vincent Scully even used a doctored Le Corbusier grain elevator photograph to explain why Frank Lloyd Wright could be considered a modern architect,” Tell said.

Soon after, however, the intellectual cachet of grain elevators would fall.

First, a 1971 Harvard dissertation printed the Gropius and Le Corbusier versions of a grain elevator on the same page. With the photos next to each other, Le Corbusier’s fabrication was obvious.

To emphasize grain elevators’ appeal of function over aesthetics, Le Corbusier had removed signs of ornamentation in Gropius’ photographs and created the illusion of straight lines and hard angles. Once an icon of modernity, the grain elevator photograph now appeared to be the product of manipulation.

The discovery came at time when the field of rhetoric was being transformed from the study of public speaking to the study of symbolism.

“The Harvard dissertation demonstrated that the doctored grain elevator photographs were covered with gouache, which made them lousy symbols because they didn’t correspond with any actual grain elevators in the world,” Tell said.

To the great minds of the 1970s, the now fraudulent grain elevator photographs — once icons of modernity — suddenly appeared as evidence that modern architecture was misguided and that a new style of architecture was needed, as was a new way of thinking.

Charles Jencks, a theorist who studied the intersection of rhetoric and architecture, had just the name for such an enterprise. He called it “Post-Modernism” and explained the new term by borrowing from a rhetoric textbook and critiquing Le Corbusier’s grain elevators. Two other theorists, Robert Venturi and Fredric Jameson, were less dramatic, but they, too, announced the advent of postmodernity by critiquing Le Corbusier’s grain elevators.

“These three theorists, each working independently, used grain elevators as a way to announce the dawning of postmodernity,” Tell said.  “Simply by following the re-publication of these photographs, you can learn really interesting things about what was modernity and what was postmodernity. And why postmodernity seemed relevant, even urgent, in the early 1970s.” 



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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