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Christine Metz Howard
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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.” 



President Barack Obama visited the University of Kansas on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 for a public event at the Anschutz Sports Pavilion. Read more about the event here: bit.ly/POTUSatKU The President was introduced by KU senior Alyssa Cole, following remarks by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. He discussed themes from his 2015 State of the Union address, including the importance of affordable higher education and child care to individual success and national prosperity. You can watch the White House's video of the event (http://bit.ly/1EBSWg5), and the White House has also provided a transcript of the president's remarks (http://1.usa.gov/1yMWJqy). #POTUSatKU
Do you think KU excels at innovation & economic development? Help us get an important @APLU _News designation: http://t.co/O8iSGG64tY
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See http://bit.ly/1xjjwJj). For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See http://bit.ly/1BoL9jv) The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (http://bit.ly/14fiBPl), associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.


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