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High rise ; Grain elevators stand tall as subjects of new UB exhibit

Buffalo, as people around the country have become increasingly aware, is a tuition-free course in the history of 20th century architecture.

Experts heap no end of praise -- much of it well-deserved -- upon Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House, the H.H. Richardson complex, Eiel and Eero Saarinen's Kleinhans Music Hall and Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building.

But down along the waterfront, amid a desolate post-industrial landscape, some of Buffalo's earliest and most historically significant structures stand largely derelict and comparatively unloved. Buffalo's grain elevators, utterly gargantuan structures invented here in the mid-19th century, have come to symbolize both the glory of Buffalo's industrial heyday and crumbling of that glory over time.

Since the majority of the buildings fell out of use, more than half a century ago, no one has known quite what to do with them.

Every once in a while, in an effort to help us answer that question and to broaden the architectural conversation beyond the well-worn subjects of Sullivan and Wright, an artist takes notice of the irresistible grandeur of the buildings and draws them out for public attention.

The latest in the long series of artistic champions for the elevators is Bruce Jackson, whose new exhibition of several dozen photographs, "American Chartres," opens Saturday in the University at Buffalo's Anderson Gallery.

Jackson began photographing the elevators during the 2006 demolition of the H-O Oats elevator on Perry Street to make way for a casino that was never built. (Its half-built skeleton now rusts with the rest.) That led him to a photographic exploration of the entire range of elevators along the Buffalo Harbor, which he shot from land and from water across several seasons and at various times of the day.

The sheer mass of the elevators, combined with the straightforward and utilitarian simplicity of their design, has led many artists -- from the famed Swiss architect Le Corbusier to documentary photographers Herd and Hilla Becher -- to embrace the buildings as the unique temples of modernism that they are.

Jackson sees himself as a part of that continuum, and the title of his show, "American Chartres," gets at that very idea. It comes from the reaction of the French poet Dominique Fourcade, who was so awestruck upon his first up-close viewing of the elevators that he compared them to the great Gothic cathedral in Chartres, France.

"It stands there, and when you see it, it is impossible not to be awed by it," Jackson said of Chartres Cathedral. "I think that's what the French poet was expressing when he looked at these elevators. He saw these huge objects that were built for a purpose, that were built by organizations that weren't thinking in terms of art or the future. They were thinking in terms of their own ends, what they wanted to do, just as the church did. Over time, that original purpose is gone, but the buildings remain and they have their own energy, their own personality.

"One of the things the great cathedrals do is make you think about your place in the world," Jackson continued. "They sort of put a physical, temporal perspective on you. It's hard to be a stuffed shirt standing next to a cathedral. And I think it's hard to be a stuffed shirt standing next to those huge towers downtown."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW    

WHAT: "American Chartres"    

WHEN: Saturday through March 6    

WHERE: University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, 1 Martha Jackson Place    

TICKETS: Free    

INFO: 829-3754 or www.ubartgalleries.org    

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