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Architecture as a Machine

Many early-modern architectural theoreticians were impressed by inventions of the machine age.  Some, like French Architect Le Corbusier, promoted the concept of architecture as a “machine for living”.  Still others, like Mies van der Rohe, spoke of the ‘machine aesthetic”.

From that same historical period, one may find many examples of “architecture as a machine” along Chicago’s waterways and railways.  Many other towns and cities have tremendous examples as well.

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR Grain Elevator, Chicago

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR Grain Elevator, Chicago

Perhaps one of the earliest examples of a tall “skyscraper”, granaries – better known in North America as grain elevators – first appeared along canals.  Canals introduced the idea of valuable “frontage” along waterway’s edge.  In order to achieve maximum financial return when building a facility along a canal, the formula was to use as little frontage as possible while building as large a building as possible – the idea of stacking uses vertically.  Grain elevators acted as a transition between transportation modes by way of a storage depot.  Grains would be brought to the elevator, deposited, and stacked on top of other grains in storage.  The act of transporting the grains upward caused great architectural drama; the economy of designing tall, vertical structures to store grains created sensations.  Once stored, grains had to be deposited back down to earth on a means of conveyance that could carry a larger amount of goods; the path returning to earth also creating impressive architectural forms.

Coal Towers. Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, 40th Street Yards, Chicago.

Coal Towers. Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, 40th Street Yards, Chicago.

Engaging materials along a similar sequence of path, coaling towers refreshed the coal bins of steam locomotives.  Initially built of wood, they were round in shape; a circular plan being the most efficient use of materials.  Later, when built of concrete, they were square in plan.  Perhaps squares are easier to arrange on a site than circles.

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR Bridge over Bubbly Creek, Chicago

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR Bridge over Bubbly Creek, Chicago

Architect / Engineer William LeBaron Jenney designed truss bridges during the Civil War.  He observed that trusses could be mounted vertically, rather than horizontally to create a ‘”skyscraper” frame.  While bridge trusses display breath-taking shapes and repetitions, the types of bridges that move – turntable bridges that turn around and drawbridges that go up and down -show an ability to move entire buildings.  Apart from amusement park rides, modern architects have never found reason to do this, though devices that move within buildings – like passenger elevators – are very useful.  The British architectural movement, “Archigram” had great, though fantastic visions of buildings that would pick up and walk, though none have come to realization.

Burlington, Northern & Quincy RR Roundhouse, Aurora, Illinois

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy RR Roundhouse, Aurora, Illinois

Roundhouses were initially facilities where railcars would be stored, then eventually facilities where locomotives would be serviced.  They were designed to fit into the tightest of spaces.  A locomotive would drive onto a turntable that would turn, pointing the locomotive – or railcar as it was – onto a track that led to the appropriate service bay.  Though most roundhouses were simply arcs, some roundhouses were near complete circles.  The latter types surrounded the turntable with almost 360 degrees of service bays, the leftover being a ‘slot’ that locomotives would drive through to approach the turntable.

Many have looked at these buildings sitting empty and derelict, wondering why they can’t be retrofitted into some other use.  True, a couple concrete grain elevators have been turned into hotels; square beds have a difficult time fitting into round spaces, and the walls can be so thick so as to create structural challenges in creating window openings.  Likewise, finding ways to introduce horizontal circulation at every level takes away from the original form. However, as I’ve explained to others before, these buildings are not unlike my old, manual typewriter.  Maybe its appearance could be updated by painting it a different colour, or replacing the strike pads with a different font.  It wouldn’t make any sense to “modernize” it to be an electric typewriter, and it would make no sense to do an adaptive reuse on a manual typewriter to become a coffee percolator.  A manual typewriter is a machine; its shape and form are intrinsic to its function.  Same with a grain elevator.  Or coaling tower.  Or roundhouse.

Posted in Architecture, History, Real Estate Development, Transit, Urban Planning.