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The Evil, Evil Grain Elevator

This last of three sequential essays on the dilemma of architectural versus sculptural presence in landscape hinges on an evil grain elevator. Most grain elevators are not evil. If you’ve lived near one — like the one in this photo — you’ll be intimate with its inexplicable neighborliness. If not, you can imagine developing a pleasing familiarity, seeing its mass out your fogged-up kitchen window, or (drink in hand) from your porch in early evening, or down that sidewalk dropping to town by the Carnegie library, or — better still — sighting its profile through your windshield crossing some rise at dusk or dawn on a long and fretful drive home. Grain elevators fall within a narrow range of sizes, like the clade of sauropods. Coincidentally, many of the towns in America’s central Midwest are positioned in the Jeffersonian grid so you can make out the next town’s grain elevator breaking the horizon about the time you lose sight of the last in your rearview. Grain elevators are thus landmarks for mapping landscape at the scale of township, the primary political unit, rather than town, the primary social unit. 1 Their mute towers are the campanili of the Midwest.

Because grain elevators are inherently dynamic forms — more three-dimensionally aggressive than some of the recent architectures I accused in the preceding essays of upsetting landscape — it’s a conundrum that their presence sustains rather than upsets the consistency of their landscapes. Adolf Loos might have argued this is because grain elevators, designed by engineers, resolve a direct problem directly, and are thus perceived as necessary (or vice versa, given Loos’s circular logic), unlike something truly offensive, like a house painted pink. Yet you, architect, could certainly imagine designing a building of such similarly urgent sculptural presence. Grain elevators might then seem to serve as persuasive examples of how sculptures and buildings are alike in making landscape, a strong counter-argument to the preceding essay in this series, which set out to prove they could mostly never be alike.

Indeed, architects have long admired the inherently sculptural qualities of grain elevators. Here is Le Corbusier indirectly doing so while proclaiming the common bond of architecture and sculpture (the “plastic arts”), from that chapter in Towards a New Architecture which is illustrated only with image after image of American grain elevators:

Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distinct and tangible within us and without ambiguity. It is for a reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms . Everybody is agreed to that, the child, the savage and the metaphysician. It is the very nature of the plastic arts.

Le Corbusier’s excellent triangulation of humankind notwithstanding, not everybody is agreed this is the very nature of the plastic arts. I don’t think these core forms are appreciated in the same way in a building as in a sculpture , in part because of the aforementioned evil grain elevator (it is, by the way, the same elevator as in the first photograph). To understand how this grain elevator is evil, it helps to again consider an over-arching question central to these essays: are buildings like sculptures in making landscape? But now I want to consider an artist’s point of view, partly to address the problem noted in concluding the last essay: that Loos’s compelling argument, as set out in Architecture , could not clearly account for ongoing evolutions within a landscape.

That said, I need you to temporarily forget the argument Loos made , that buildings (excluding monuments and tombs) are not experienced like sculptures in the perception of landscape. Instead, I need you to assume that buildings and sculptures are experienced exactly the same in landscape, primarily as objects, the qualities of which are differentiated by form . While this is an overly simplistic and conservative definition of a sculpture or building, it’s still useful, as the artist Robert Irwin, widely known for a series of installation pieces that play with perception, wrote a crucial essay about the kinds of relationships objects have with sites. In that essay, Conditional , Irwin identified four relationships that objects have with sites based on their formal condition, which he called site dominant , site adjusted , site specific and site conditioned/determined .

Top: Henry Moore, Large Spindle Piece , in Bretton Country Park, West Bretton, United Kingdom. [Photo by Lesley Rigby] Bottom: Pyramid of Kephren, Egypt. [Photo by David Heymann]

Any object that has a site dominant interaction with its location literally dominates by the strength of its formal presence, and its meaning evolves from the presumption that we perceive the site as content free, a neutral setting . The interaction between site and sculpture is a monologue given by the object, directed to itself and its internal traditions — to, as Irwin puts it, its oeuvre — with the site in respectful, rapt and silent attention. Irwin identifies Henry Moore as a sculptor who consistently generated site dominant pieces. Here is Moore’s Large Spindle Piece . If you read the first set of essays I published in this journal, you will have seen it before, dropped somewhere else on the planet. This is a traditional idea of Modern sculpture: freestanding, discrete, unbound to place, so fascinated with itself that we become fascinated as well. It’s like watching a body builder pose. Strangely, we accept such objects in landscape readily; but the sites Moore (or modern curatorial propriety) preferred — green lawns, middle-ground foliage screening the world of activity — may have creepily become our definition of landscape appropriate for sculpture.

The inward focus of the Moore, and its ability to be deployed in many locations, suggests that any Hotel Six or Sonic might be the architectural equivalent; but the Moore is a prima donna, not a shill. So perhaps: Ziggurat at Ur, the Minaret on the Great Mosque at Samarra, the Pyramids in Egypt or those throughout Central America, or the Parthenon in Athens. Actually, these are site dominant primarily as forms . Like many pre-industrial era constructions, they differ in sited condition from the Moore in being locked exactly into place through some linkage to natural feature or orientation. Their sites aren’t really mute , and impart more — if faintly — to their uncompromising objects than the variable sites for the traveling Moores. But this they all share: it is the site that is expected to compromise to the uncompromising object, as it does in, for example, the staggering cutting required to start the Pyramid of Kephren on a level plain.

Perhaps more exactly site dominant objects are the Pyramid in Las Vegas (the Luxor), and the Parthenon in Nashville; one of those portable cast-iron churches designed by Eiffel; or Fuller’s Dymaxion House, Kahn’s Exeter Library, Eisenman’s House VI, Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. 6 Many skyscrapers are site dominant — from the Chrysler Building to the Gherkin — though the majority are too perfunctory or morose to dominate interestingly. Vast size is helpful but not necessary: Bramante’s Tempietto, Schinkel’s Neue Wache, the Ka’aba, the Treasury at Petra— all establish their primacy by other means, as do the follies at Stourhead, if only while in sight. Nor is symmetry or closed form necessary: Rietveld’s Schröder House and Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station are dominant forms despite their indeterminacy. A clear architectural equivalent of the Moore (as Irwin describes it) is Eero Saarinen’s Arch in St. Louis, an entirely hermetic expression of its own logic. It is not that such objects ignore their sites — both the Moore and the Arch are aware they will be sited, and recognize this in their form. But the recognition is general, not local, implicit rather than explicit. A site dominant artwork or architectural object seems to validate its site in the perverse manner that a mediocre hotel may be elevated by the presence of a celebrity. Today this quality can be seen in forms like Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest, Ito’s Mikimoto store, or Foster’s Hearst Tower.

Top Left: Eero Saarinen, Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, 1965. Top Right: Toyo Ito, Mikimoto Ginza 2, Tokyo, 2005. [Photos by David Heymann] Bottom: Mark di Suvero, Bygones , 1976; here installed at Storm King Art Center, Cornwall, New York. [Photo © Mark di Suvero and Menil Collection]

Objects that are site adjusted — Irwin’s second category — remain in the foreground, as with site dominant entities. But some aspect of the object mediates between the desired hermetic perception and conditions of the site that threaten or strengthen that perception. The work of the sculptor Mark di Suvero serves as Irwin’s example. The di Suvero shown here at first appears site dominant, but the angle of the lower beam has been adjusted to the slope of the hill beyond (either in composition or in siting), and this resonance helps quietly integrate the strong object into its site. Still, the work is conceived, in Irwin’s terms “in the studio”: its meaning remains internal to the object’s tradition, or to the artist or architect’s oeuvre. If the dialogue of object and site is largely monopolized by the object, at least the site is acknowledged in the opening remarks, and may even be asked its opinion.

Irwin’s choice of di Suvero is telling. The reticence of these sculptures with regard to location — you have to look closely — points to the hierarchical status of site at work here: important, but less than the human invention. Examples of site adjusted objects with roughly this same proportion of internal idea to site response might include Pei and Cobb’s Hancock Tower in relationship to Copley Square, or Mies’s extraordinary and strangely unbounded gathering of towers at Dominion Centre in Toronto, or Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in relationship to the Duomo in Como. A more generously site adjusted object at building scale is Asplund’s Stockholm Library. Here a substantial portion of the program is used to prepare the site for the presentation of an essentially hermetic, idealized type form — the cylindrical reading room inside its perfectly ordered cubic wrapper — which references a history of meaning associated with the architectural form of libraries, an oeuvre, rather than with sites. Asplund’s freestanding object correctly sits in isolation on what appears to be carved terrace in a hillside. But this carved mass is all building (note the restaurant embedded in the side), a vast basement providing service spaces for the library, while negotiating between the messy circumstances of the actual hill, the desired purity of the library object, and the complex grid of the city.