Hulking, imposing, and utilitarian, silos are an enduring urban feature, structures typically used for the storage of materials in bulk. They are important physical elements of the agricultural industry, storing grain, fermented feed, and other foodstuffs. These tall, typically cylindrical forms remain the subject of architectural fascination — from being symbols of technological progress for Modernist architectural figures of the early 20th century, to in contemporary times, instigating inventive approaches to adaptive reuse.
The Modernist architectural enthrallment with silos — grain silos in particular — is present in the oeuvre of what was termed as the architectural vanguard of the time, including, but not limited to, the likes of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Reyner Banham, and Walter Gropius. Photographs were one avenue for communicating this captivation, Walter Gropius published in a 1913 craftsmen journal photographs of the many grain elevators of Buffalo in New York. Le Corbusier’s 1923 mass-production oriented text Towards an Architecture features mention and illustration of them, and in the Soviet constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg’s The International Front of Modern Architecture, silos are described in admiring terms — as part of an architectural language powerful in expression and magnitude.
The grain elevator, at least from a reading of their forms by these architects, was a manifestation in landmark form of a crucial societal need – structures that by their very appearance spoke of the agricultural sector, and consequently, what people eat.
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This admiration has spilled over in some way to contemporary practitioners — in a significant number of projects that take this typology, with its typically high ceilings and distinctive elevation, and repurposes it for new use. Copenhagen-based firm Cobe completed The Silo in 2013, as part of a larger transformation of the Danish capital’s North Harbour into an industrial district. The building is home to a mix of public and private spaces, consisting of 38 apartments that, due to the building’s former use, are extremely generous in both floor heights and area.
Arguably the most well-known silo adaptive reuse project, in part due to the studio that designed it and the cultural prominence of the institution it hosts, is Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which opened in 2017. The museum — the world’s largest dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora — spreads across the structure’s nine floors, featuring a sculptural atrium space carved out of the tubular forms of the former silo. The Kunstsilo in the Southern Norwegian city of Kristiansand, Norway is currently in development — an abandoned grain silo that will house the world’s largest collection of Nordic modernist art. Its history, similar to that of the silo that now houses Zeitz MOCAA, is that of a building viewed as a representation of modernity, and, like its South African counterpart, is situated practically by the waterfront.
These two prominent architectural projects, both hosting significant collections of art, adapting a typology that perhaps lends itself well to public institutions, might propagate an architectural future where abandoned silos are even more sought out for adaptive reuse, as cities look to bring life to industrial landmarks that are hard to ignore, and as cultural institutions continue to seek expressive, sustainable architecture for adaptable creative expression.
Will more future adaptations of silos for public organizations in turn create their own typology, where the silo shifts from a symbol of industrial activity to one of creative practice? The buildings at the back end of societal, and global trade might be opaque — in terms of what people know about what goes on inside them — but they are too conspicuous to disappear into the streetscape. Maybe these conspicuous buildings, do indeed, have a public future.