Text and photographs by Michal Ojrzanowski
The southbound drive from Chicago to Champaign along I−57 is a drowsy 140-mile procession of silvery grey road and neatly arrayed corn and soy fields dotted by barns and farmhouses set beneath a vast midwestern sky. Just past the halfway point, once you have given in to the landscape’s persistent rhythm, one might notice a foreign silhouette along the train tracks inlaid against the horizon. Just outside of Gilman, Illinois, but far enough to evade any landmarks that may announce its presence, this concrete construct changes its profile repeatedly—alternating between one massive object and two autonomous shapes.
This enigmatic coaling tower typology has lost its utility and relevance as the collective understanding of early twentieth-century culture has too begun to fade. Born of a calculated logic to serve society and industry by fueling steam engines, these structures are now considered novelties: the site of choice for rebellious teenage hangouts, photo opportunities for rail road enthusiasts, and motorists’ topics of conversation speculating on what exactly they did. With their steel chutes, walkways, and control booths long scrapped, the raw shells of form have been disassociated from their function, further mystifying the diverse formal language once so ubiquitous.
During their heyday, coaling towers fulfilled the role of a fundamentally simple storage vessel for coal. Coal would be loaded into the elevated storage tower by an attached conveyor mechanism and subsequently dispensed by chutes into the locomotive’s coal-car, or tender. The coaling tower’s sloped chutes located adjacent to—or at times straddling—the rails permitted traffic flow while servicing parked trains, preventing congestion at the station ahead. Following these basic guidelines, each tower personifies its pragmatism unencumbered by the abstract rules of symmetry or proportion.
Coaling towers depict what happens when the ordinary reluctantly, and despite itself, loses its timeliness. Vying for relevance, ordinary, unlike its often-misread cousin typical, is charged with the context of its locality and characteristics of it function. It is common but not generic, and thus leaves itself in a vulnerable position as aspects that form its very identity begin to change along with society, leaving it meaningless.
Yet, the undeniably anthropomorphic character these constructs exude, deceives the hidden value of these relics to remind us of the impact specificity has on marking the overarching transience of culture. They are an example of the ease with which our mannerisms and typological shorthand can fall victim to time’s ability to dissipate the presumed rationality of the customs and rituals of our everyday lives.
Coaling towers provide a moment of pause for us to question our fixations and at the same time create previously unforeseen relationships with the contexts they find themselves in, counteracting the ever-increasing vagueness of our built environment and material culture. It is this new status of novelty that frees coaling towers from their past lives of servitude as we project upon them our own interpretations of what we see before us.
Michal Ojrzanowski is a graduate student at the University of Michigan Taubman College and an alumni of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is interested in the mutually influential relationship between form and society. He has practiced at STL Architects in Chicago and HS99 in Poland.