Saturday, January 27, 2007

Postindustrial Murdaland

If the Grain Pier don't get cleaned up, some asshole's gonna come along and build condos all over it.

- Nat, The Wire

The Silo Point grain elevator was built in 1923 by the John S. Metcalf Company of Chicago. The simple forms and rational planning of American industrial architecture would have a heavy influence on early European Modernism. That same year, in Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier wrote about: ' ... the American grain elevator and factories, the magnificent first fruits of the new age.'

Silo Point is now being converted to condominiums. The waterfront war between industrial interests like the Maryland Port Authority, and residential developers forms the backdrop for much of HBO's intricately nuanced The Wire. The question of the proper use for the grain elevator becomes a major plot point, looming over the second season of the show like the Industrial Sublime wall of the silos looms over the brick and Formstone rowhouses where the dockworkers live.

There's an implied contrast between the real grit of this black wall, a source of menace and sustenance for the stevedores below, and the building planned by the developers, glimpsed as a pristine white model in a scene filmed in the actual Bond Street Wharf offices of RTKL.

The model is a sterile white fantasy, no doubt as full up of yuppies as the silo was grain. Outrageous by virtue of its very inoffensiveness, it's a spot-on indictment of the kind of residential building that's going up all around the Baltimore Harbor and in postindustrial cities across the US. If the suburb is a place where you chop down all the trees and name the streets after them, then the urban waterfront is where you kill the old industrial buildings and give their names to condominiums: 'The Grainery'.

In real life, there are more nuances to the case than even the complexity of the best show on televison can illustrate. This is not a simple murder. There is a lawsuit over the unexpected collapse of the building's pier (sometimes these contested buildings get mysteriously destroyed).The most interesting aspect of the project that's going up on the site right now is that it's not a raze_&_rebuild kind of job, but an adaptive reuse that finds productive friction in the preexisting economic, political, and formal limitations. Besides that, it looks really cool.

Silo Point, as remade by local firm Parameter, Inc (their offices are in Locust Point right next to the site) and developer Henrietta Corp., is a clearly articulated, challenging building. By working with the existing structure, the architects are able to expand the original building's rationalist 16' grid into a diverse language of frame and infill that stays unified and coherent, with new and old clearly readable. The building's height allows for a residential density that would be impossible under the current zoning for the neighborhood, and its mixed use aspects back up that density with the necessary infrastructure. The center of the old silo portion becomes a parking gargage, wrapped in residences, while pieces of the old silos serve as visual anchors, becoming reminders of the building's original presence, and housing the exit stairs for the complex. This allows the building to hold its place in the neighborhood in a way that no new construction would have the right to do, by keeping it's connection to the history of the structure.

It's not a synthesis between the Industrial Sublime blank black wall and the prissily inoffensive white paper model, it's something else. There's a space near the puzzle of the functional and the mystery of the formal that's about working with the givens without being ruled by them, while maintaining enough imagination to create something that's genuinely new and interesting.


Silo Point on Google Maps

Silo Point on Windows Live Local


enrique said...

Fantastic post, Fred. The Wire, in my opinion, deserves more coverage as an active and current type of urbanism-criticism ... which you've beautifully anticipated.

sevensixfive said...

I just finished watching the third season yesterday. How great is it when Stringer Bell starts meeting with architects? said...

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