English Summary

SILOLAND – Old, dusty and modern

More than 150 grain silos structure the farmland of Lower Austria. They are landmarks, chance symbols of the cultural landscape of the outgoing twentieth century, and could be declared the region’s “agrarian cathedrals.” Unlike other symbols of rural areas with a highly developed infrastructure – windmills, oil pumps, and high-voltage transmission lines – the silos have been conferred a role in regional development. They are situated across from the church towers, and are, as a rule, taller than them; together they inscribe a “double-tower principle” in towns and villages. They beautifully rhythmicize the flat, slightly undulating agricultural landscape and form a network of high points, perfectly integrated in the rail infrastructure. And although the function and the program do not change, no two silos are the same. Their heights, proportions, additions and accessories vary significantly.

The volumetric capacity of the silos was and is indicative of the respective region’s level of production and at the same time is a functional logo, visible from afar, of the cooperative. In 2014, about 2,000,000 tons of grain were harvested in Lower Austria. About two thirds of that amount was dried, stored and distributed in silos, so the towers – which reach a height of 70 meters – could also be considered built manifestations of economic diagrams. They are an expression of the industrialization of Austrian agriculture. Storing bulk solids makes it possible to speculate with the product and to sell it at the “right” time, for example, to Italy, where it will be made into Barilla pasta and then will appear on the shelves of our local groceries.

Granary timeline

When humans added grain to their diet, its storage became an important issue: for millennia, they used closed containers (pots, baskets, crates) – the bigger, the better. What is probably the world’s oldest granary was found in Drah‘ in Jordan. It is more than 11,000 years old and represents the inception of agriculture. Crops were cultivated systematically for the first time, and the safe storage of the harvest was crucial to the survival of the now-sedentary people. In the meantime, the people and the grain have become mobile, but storage remains necessary because having the option of storing the grain is a safeguard against the volatility of grain prices.

In Lower Austria, the history of the earliest silos begins in Zeiselmauer, where the region’s oldest storehouse for grain is located, occupying a converted building that had originally been part of a Late Roman fortress along the Danube border. The structure dates to the fourth century; it has survived because it was used during in the Middle Ages as a granary.

During the baroque era, the depots were typically placed on high ground to ensure that the valuable goods would stay dry. Thick walls provide a stable temperature, and small openings allow for good ventilation. The grain was stored on several levels with well-ventilated wood floors: the grain was deposited in these spaces. The owners were either members of the aristocracy or the clergy; the granary illustrates the land tenure system and the balance of power.

The peasant uprisings of the mid-nineteenth century created a vacuum: the new independent farmers had to come up with a system to store and distribute the harvest and, above all, needed a way to finance their endeavors – a banking system. In 1862, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen established a savings and loan association in Germany, the first to provide affordable loans. Ten years later, the notion of empowering Austria’s farmers led to the passage of a law governing co-operatives. Raiffeisen becomes the new dominant force in the province. The goal of the Raiffeisen association was to install a cashier’s office, organize the agricultural co-operatives’ sales transactions, and erect warehouses, whereby the aim was, “to overlay the entire province with a network of smaller warehouses.” In 1886, the first Raiffeisen bank in Lower Austria was founded and the first cooperative granary erected in Pöchlarn. More co-operatives followed.

Until the 1950s, these granaries adhered to the typology of a building. These warehouses were organized horizontally, multi-story halls, so to speak, reaching heights of up to 25 meters. The exterior envelope was masonry – brick or stone – and had a pitched roof with different attachments and outlets.

Following the Second World War, in agriculture a major phase of mechanization and rationalization of all production methods and work processes set in. Yet it wasn’t the advent of the tractor, but rather the combine harvester that gave rise to a completely new situation with respect to the machinery farmers had on hand. Accompanying the rapidly increasing number of combine harvesters, the crops became larger and larger, and had to be accommodated in the storerooms.

Therefore, in 1953 a construction department was set up within the Lagerhaus association, and it began immediately with the construction of grain silos. A busy construction phase ensued, which would also change the image of the landscape. Then came a change in typology. The granary becomes vertical (up to 45 meters): the structure tilts up becoming a semi-tower, the Z-axis dominates the appearance. These structure were erected in a frame construction method. The top level steps back, putting an end to the pitched roof and turning the granary into an observation tower. At the beginning of the 1960s, a technological leap makes it possible to increase the tempo: once the sliding frame construction method was adopted, concrete silos could be erected quickly and economically. The highest tower (70 meters) is in Petronell: it rises up from the landscape and faces Bratislava.

Architects discover silos

Grain silos are an architectural rendezvous, bringing together agronomy and modernism. The structures developed in America in the mid-nineteenth-century, characterized by a simple, definite, and functionalistic form, and admired and idealized by European architects. From Gropius via Le Corbusier to Worringer they were interpreted as evidence – but as evidence of a fiction. They could, in the Koolhaasian sense, be called false facts. Walter Gropius first published photos of American silos in 1913; the caption stated that they were located in Buenos Aires. In 1922, Le Corbusier used the same image, though with slight changes made to it – he created a photomontage and removed the pitched roof – and moved the structure to Canada. In 1927, Wilhelm Worringer appropriated this touched-up photo. Not one of them had seen the building in person. In his book A Concrete Atlantis. U. S. Industrial Buildings and European Modern Architecture 1900–1925, Reyner Banham sets forth the first true analysis of this building type, some 73 years after Gropius had introduced silos into the architectural discourse. For modernism’s “architectural poets” the silos were both inspiration and the promise of things to come.

It is noteworthy that the silos show up in Lower Austria at the same time they are disappearing in America. The heyday of the port sites, for example, of Buffalo, is a thing of the past; gigantic silo facilities were dismantled or converted. This time lag in Lower Austria is also linked to its smaller-scale agrarian structures. The rural co-operatives never really broke with tradition and have self-confidently embellished their “modern” tower-like corn silos with folkloric and religious artwork: sgraffiti, mosaics as well as three-dimensional works were added. The most impressive of them is a 54-ton sculpture mounted on the silo in Waidhofen an der Thaya. “Stone Farmer,” Carl Hermann’s sculpture of a man sowing his field, is steeped in symbolism; fertility, abundance, and common sense are the values that are deemed worth preserving. In this simultaneity of tradition, modernity, and, above all, pragmatism, the cooperatives’ silos could perhaps be designated “quasi-objects” in Bruno Latour’s sense of the term – Latour, the who has asserted that “We have never been modern.”

Dusty sustainability, an update

It is noteworthy that the majority of the silos are still in use, and almost coincidentally they have come to represent a highly sustainable building typology. The great advantage of the concrete silos as compared to the more recent steel silos is their inertia; changes in temperature and moistness are passed on very slowly. Thus, the grain has constant storage conditions and can be stored up to a year. Then the storage space is needed for the next harvest.

It comes as a surprise that these hermetic, vertical storage spaces contain a complex, delicate interior architecture of hoses and pipes. These are needed to fill – and empty – the individual silo compartments. The grain is dried, relocated (the bulk solids are moved from one compartment to another), filtered several times, sieved, and finally loaded on to a train or lorry. This processing produces a considerable amount of dust, because the consistency of grain is situated somewhere between a liquid and a solid. The individual grain kernels form clusters; the breakage and scouring that occurs creates dust.

As contemporary “update,” silos are also presently managed as transmitter sites. The silos’ “transmitting function” supports the thesis that silos operate as the motor for a new residential settlements. The silos already exist; they are vertical storage spaces whose program can change of be complemented by other new programs. Transmitter stations without silos often pose a problem with regard to design, and there have been astounding attempts to deal with them. For example, in Styria, plastic fir trees were designed and installed in order to camouflage transmitter stations in the forest. In England a fake silo has been devised that can be produced like a prefabricated building and whose aim is also to hide the transmitter. The landmarks, as portrayed by the Lagerhaus silos, can be the solution to this design problem. Silos convey images, conversations, and information that can activate a new “rurban” zone.

According to the building code, these towers fall into the category “high-rise”. Many of the silos are (still) connected to the rail infrastructure and for that reason have the potential to function as local terminals – where you can transfer from a bicycle, bus, or automobile to a train. The high silo density in the former border regions of Marchfeld and Weinviertel can become a self-confident starting point for a new European cultural and residential landscape. Distinguishing between rural and urban forms of settlement is no longer up-to-date. The myth about the countryside evolved from the urban perspective, which makes it appear all the more necessary to consider how human habitats will develop in the twenty-first century from a rural standpoint. Because in the past 20 years rural areas have not only successfully completed an (infra)structural transformation, but also an autonomous development that links them to urban zones in a unique way and includes characteristics that may inform future settlement patterns. Through the rapid expansion of transport and communication technology, rural areas have become connected to urban areas – extending even to the global scale – in a hitherto unknown fashion.