Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Form Of An Architect

Now showing, one city at a time, and at very select venues, is a documentary film on the life and work of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the great Chicago architect of the Gilded Age. The documentary is written, produced, and directed by Mark Richard Smith, of Whitecap Films. A first-edition DVD can be pre-ordered here.

Louis Sullivan is sometimes called architecture’s “father of modernism.” From him came the principle "form follows function," a mantra of twentieth-century modernists. Sullivan believed that design (form) should reflect a building's structure, use, and setting (function). He wanted to stop in its tracks the tendency in America to impose historic architectural styles--classical, Gothic, Italianate, etc--on buildings whose actual functions were alien to them. He called for an aesthetic sensitivity to the unique conditions that characterize each building. He wanted architects to use their heads and hearts, not just their styles.

Sullivan applied his philosophy most famously to the skyscraper. In the late nineteenth century, buildings taller than four or five floors were just beginning to be constructed. The development of steel framing removed the need for enormously thick masonry walls at the ground level and allowed for unprecedented height. But architects considered that height an aesthetic problem, to be solved with one or more styles from Europe, and mainly an old Europe at that. Thus a building devoted to business offices might be adorned like a palace. Portions of these buildings evoke today the silly castle that appears at the beginning of every Disney movie. Height was frequently underplayed through varying the styles of the successive floors and including plenty of horizontal lines, as in the New York World Building below.


Sullivan, by contrast, insisted that the problem of the skyscraper, like every problem, “contains and suggests its own solution.” As though dressing a tall woman in high heels, he designed facades that accentuated the skyscraper’s height rather than downplayed it. In his seminal design, the Wainwright Building (St. Louis, 1890), uninterrupted vertical lines draw the eye ever upward. Ornamental flourishes along the way make the eye's journey a pleasant one without slowing it down. The repetition of windows faithfully reflect the interior space, which was dedicated primarily to a host of equally sized offices. Though only ten stories high, the Wainwright Building set the standard of “vertical organization” characteristic of the modern skyscraper. Sullivan's successors, of course, would often abandon the ornamentation he was so fond of. He cannot be blamed for the plain, dull, and cheap boxiness that followed him.


Sullivan quickly achieved recognition, but after the 1890s his career underwent a stunning, progressive financial collapse. He approached his craft with evident dedication, honesty, and brilliance. But while the accolades poured in, the commissions did not. His wife, whom he married when he was 42 and she 20, left him after nine years--exhausted, presumably, by the grinding downward economic spiral which Sullivan had put her on. And by his drinking. His last marital act was to give her $1,000 of the $1,100 he had made selling off his possessions at auction. After that he breathed a sigh of relief to be alone again, and then resumed his downward course. In the years before his death in 1924, Sullivan needed money from friends, including Frank Lloyd Wright, his former draftsman and protege.

History has well known its unrewarded prophets, its impoverished geniuses, its abandoned beautiful minds. But the decline of Louis Sullivan is almost too stark for explanation. Certainly his most damaging trait, as Mark Smith's documentary emphasizes, was his unwillingness to take on clients whose expectations differed substantially from his own artistic vision. Early on, Sullivan's partner, Dangmar Adler, softened the impact of this tendency, but the economic depression of the 1890s led Adler to take a well-paying job with an elevator company, and Sullivan henceforth had to go it alone. With no wife for most of his professional life, and no children for all of it, he was under relatively few pressures to conform to market demands.

For a single man who creates beautiful buildings, there are certainly worse fates than to die broke. At the same time one cannot help but chide this solitary genius with a failure to exemplify his own famous dictum. Sullivan's form as an architect never quite followed the function of his world.


  1. tony I made a great comment but it didn't take somehow. i dont' have the effort to recreate it. check out a book called the Devil in White City, a crime story set at the time of the 1893 World's Fair which has a wonderful discussion of all the great Chicago Architects deployed to design the fair. Sullivan worked with great angst at the overall design which was neo-classical.

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  3. I don't think Sullivan totally solved the issue of verticality. I like the concept "contains and suggests its own solutions". But,it's interesting to me that with all the advances in engineering and materials (not to mention computer programming) that the "solutions" don't appear visually much different than 100+ years ago. With little exception, the Wainwsright building looks basically like 1960's Houston skyscraper. The "problem" still remains.

    Nice blog, honey.

  4. Sorry about the lost comment. I adjusted the settings so hopefully the postings can now go through. I'll check out the book. The documentary says the White City took American architecture in the opposite direction Sullivan wanted it to go. As to the problem of the skyscraper, I would agree that it is not entirely solved, especially as skyscrapers are now much taller and much less ornamented than in Sullivan's designs. I wonder how far Sullivan would have allowed vertical organization to take a skyscraper before calling a halt. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a skyscraper a mile high, with evident relish. I can't see his old master finding a function for which a mile-high building was the proper form.