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Elevator Going Down

October 17, 2011

At 8:00 AM on Sunday, October 16, 2011, a controlled implosion brought down the Ogden Federal Elevator. Built starting in 1914 (still a time of the horse-and-buggy), this 200-foot high concrete structure was one of 5 similar facilities built by the Canadian federal government around the same time to improve the flow of grain from prairies to ports. Influential French architect Le Corbusier used it in 1923’s Vers une architecture as an illustration of modern industrial engineering. Whether one agrees with his sentiments or not, here’s what he had to say:

Architecture is the masterful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light. Our eyes were made for seeing forms in light; shadow and light reveal forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders, and pyramids are the great primary forms that light reveals well; the image is clear and tangible for us, without ambiguity. That is why these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. Everyone is in agreement about this: children, savages, and the metaphysicians. It is the very condition of the plastic arts.

[…] Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones, and cylinders. Only the naves express a simple form, but with a complex, second-order geometry (intersecting rib vaults). That is why a cathedral is not very beautiful and why we seek in it compensations of a subjective order, outside the formal one. A cathedral interests us as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem, but one whose givens were badly formulated because they do not proceed from the great primary forms. The cathedral is not a plastic work; it is a drama: the fight against gravity, sensation on the order of feeling.

[…] Not pursuing an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculations (derived from the principles that govern our universe) and the conception of A Viable Organ, today’s Engineers make use of the primary elements and, coordinating them according to rules, stir in us architectural emotions, thus making the work of humanity resonate with the universal order.

Here are American silos, magnificent first fruits of the new age. American Engineers and their calculations crush an expiring architecture.

–Le Corbusier, Toward An Architecture, p. 102 – 106; translation by John Goodman, First Frances Lincoln edition 2008, published by the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Despite being something of a modern architectural icon, the Ogden Federal Elevator had become enmeshed in an urban industrial zone and so was deemed by its ownership no longer economically or logistically viable as a working grain elevator. After nearly a century on the skyline of south Calgary, no repurposing or conservation plan could be put forward to save it.

And so, in about 6 seconds on a quiet fall Sunday morning, a demolition blast reduced it to a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust.

I was able to watch & record the event with my pal Garth Wood, who was on top of researching the event while I was paying attention to something else. 🙂 He got some great still photographs, while I came away with this video. Police and officials had set up an exclusion zone around the facility for safety reasons. Despite the scouting Garth did the day before, due to the restrictions come Sunday morning we still had to do some last-minute pathfinding with Google Maps to find a location where we’d be allowed to set up. As quite a few folks found leading up to the moments of the blast, a ridge slightly to the north and west of the elevator site gave an elevated vantage point, though we couldn’t get close enough for a completely unrestricted view of the elevator within the surrounding industrial area.

That was probably a good thing. In the audio track, the voice you hear saying “holy crap” is me. 🙂 After the elevator came down, accompanied by a percussive sound & physical impulse that gave us a little push, a huge billowing cloud of dust expanded into the air much further than shown in the video. For a few seconds it looked to me like it might reach our position. But — whew! — fortunately it settled and drifted back to the east before getting too close to us.

It’s always a shame to see historic landmarks go down. At least in this case it appears the facility owner, Cargill, cooperated with the Calgary Heritage Authority to carry out extensive photographic documentation of the site before its operations ceased earlier in the year, and continuing through the several months of demolition work. So a visual record will remain of this structure that was once praised as one of the “magnificent first fruits of the new age” in architecture.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2011 13:23

    I saw a film a few years back about a family that does this within densely developed cities and the skill and engineering prowess it requires to drop a building like this is very impressive. Cool video Royce.

  2. October 17, 2011 13:31

    Thanks Steve. I was glad my friend Garth reminded me this was happening. Photographically, I’d do some things differently if I had a “do over”, including bringing an assistant 🙂 and using my 7D handheld with a mid-range telephoto lens to get some dynamic shots as the blast went down.

    The video was taken with a Canon 5D Mk II and 70-200mm lens in portrait orientation, on tripod #1. I like the vertical framing but wish I had had one going with horizontal framing as well. Tripod #2 had the big Pentax 645D on it for stills, but I missed most of the action because I just wasn’t dialed in and the slower performance of the camera meant being off by a blink of an eye would see the action go flying past. While I got some stills, they’re nothing great; Garth got a great series, fortunately. And I got to see it live which was an experience not to be missed.

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