Because it is often portrayed as the time when people really began to embrace technology for its own sake, I have a strange sort of nostalgia for the beginning of the 20th century. It's not really nostalgia--I wasn't alive then, and if I were, I suspect that this miraculous and sudden embracement would be exposed as pure myth.
Grain elevators were elevated to their heroic status during this time. Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, and others spoke of them as form following function, structures pure and worthy of imitation because their shape was dictated by engineering and physics. Reyner Banham documents some of these early elevators and their effects on European modernism in his book, A Concrete Atlantis.
Even without their architectural context, grain elevators are still spectacular. They exemplify technology which has moved from the wonderous to the mundane. Inhumanly large reinforced concrete structures are commonplace today, but for me at least, grain elevators still retain some of the awe they wielded when they were new and daring.
I recommend Lisa Mahar-Keplinger's Grain Elevators. The photographs are stunning and the text useful (if spare).
I also have some photographs I took on a recent trip to Buffalo, NY. (Thanks are due to my roommate Herbie, who was patient as I spent an hour scampering around taking them). In some sense, these pictures are abjectly failures: They don't convey just how honkin' big the elevators are or just how surreal it is to be in an empty field of tall grass with these huge concrete things rising in the distance.
Images on this page Copyright 1995,1997 David Rochberg. All Rights Reserved.