Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison

17 August 2011
Categories: From the armchair

coverLouis Sullivan has been my favourite architect for a long time. So long in fact that I have no clear recollection how I got so into him. Surely it was long before I attended a concert at the incredible Auditorium Building, long before I name-dropped him on Jeopardy!. Sometime in college or shortly thereafter I perused his written works, but never got very far into Kindergarten Chats or Autobiography of an Idea. Around that time I visited Buffalo, New York, and made a point of driving downtown to check out the Guaranty Building. But what in my past had given me the knowledge to do so… that’s uncertain.

Thus my recollection is, like so many Adler & Sullivan creations, lost to the sands of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I first noticed Sullivan’s work in the astounding decorative façade of his Carson, Pirie & Scott Building during a shopping trip to State Street. And I remember later finding a copy of his rare folio A System of Architectural Ornament According With a Philosophy of Man’s Powers at the university library, which delighted me with its sketches and befuddled me with its prose.

At any rate, as I picked up this reprint of Hugh Morrison’s vital 1935 overview and critique of the life, designs, and philosophy of Louis H. Sullivan, in my mind was the notion: “I love Sullivan’s stuff. His details and ornament are so amazing and so different from anything anyone else was building, then or now.”

Little did I realize that his ornament was not his greatest contribution to architecture.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the advent of the skyscraper the leading lights of American architecture were all wringing their hands at the problem that modern cities had thrust upon them: Real estate was expensive; city density was rising; the only remaining direction in which to build was up, up, up. Masonry buildings topped out at around twelve stories before they needed iron bracing to hold them up, but soon steel-frame construction came on the scene, and the skyscraper was born—in Chicago, as the Home Insurance Building.

Architects were at a loss: What to do with this new monster? It didn’t fit into any of their preconceived notions of building massing and proportion. To this end, early skyscrapers attempted to conceal their height by breaking the mass into a stack of shorter buildings. The Home Insurance Building is a good example: a two-story ground floor mass, topped by another two-story mass, then one of three stories, then two, then one—each section strongly delineated by its own cornice. (Another two stories were later added at the top, in much the same manner.) Meanwhile, its revolutionary structure is belied by the thick masonry of its exterior walls.

The leading journals were filled with articles that promoted this, shall we say, façade façade.

Louis Henry Sullivan, on the other hand, wrote lengthy arguments against that conceit. His many journal articles elucidate with deep profundity his entire philosophy of architecture; but really much of his florid prose could be distilled down, if a touch cheekily, to a single statement:

Tall buildings are tall. Deal with it.

That’s it in a nutshell. Never mind Sullivan’s amazing organic decoration, much of which was detailed by chief draughtsman George Elmslie anyway. So what if Frank Lloyd Wright owed a great deal of his innovative style to having worked under Sullivan (and later was a complete dick when given the opportunity to add to the historical record on his former mentor). Louis Sullivan’s great genius was in thumbing his nose at stultified convention.

His designs were the first to treat a tall building as a columnar form, with base, shaft, and capital—something now considered to be one of the core tenets of “Chicago School” architecture. The results were tall, soaring masses, and even with their elaborate festoons they exhibited a certain streamlined airiness that was decades ahead of its time.

That said, and this is something that this biography of Sullivan has been instrumental in revealing with its critical eye toward his designs, not everything Sullivan designed was a masterpiece. That’s not just including the ordinary, utilitarian edifices, the warehouses and factory buildings. It could also include some of what we now revere as his “lost treasures.”

For example, the destruction of the Wirt Dexter Building in 2006 remains a sad loss to Chicago’s architectural legacy. Yet if we assess the building strictly on its merits, what was lost?—a modest, relatively nondescript six-story commercial building. Although the Dexter’s Chicago Landmarks citation claimed its “unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building,” both designs were derivative of their contemporary, H. H. Richardson. Its odd, perforated cast-iron beams on the rear elevation “anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later”—but were not influential on other structures either in its own era or after; they were isolated experiments that anticipated later design, but did not cause it. I believe the Dexter received its landmark designation solely due to the fame of its architects and the dearth of their surviving works in Chicago (a list that is now frightfully short).

Moreover, Sullivan’s extreme adherence to his own design principles may prove detrimental to his buildings’ long-term survival. For example his late works, the “jewel box” banks, are to some degree misguided treasures. Their external (and internal) exquisiteness aside, the interiors of these buildings have a certain over-planned rigidity to them. The jewel boxes are so specialized in their tasks, so precisely geared toward the machinery of their use, that I am forced to wonder: What happens when, say, a building-and-loan office is no longer needed? Or when the mechanics of banking change so dramatically (as they have, in many ways, over the past eight decades) that Sullivan’s highly functional interiors become obsolete? Can his buildings adapt to changing use? Or do they become, simply, pretty boxes with nothing to fit in them?

And his refusal to compromise with what Daniel Burnham deemed a “democratic ideal”—what Sullivan saw, justifiably perhaps, as pandering to the lowest common denominator—was at times so steadfast that his late-career demise might well have been inevitable.

When Dankmar Adler broke their partnership in 1895, only to come crawling back six months later, Sullivan’s refusal to renew their tie was an all-too-human response; he surely felt betrayed by Adler, who had only a few years left to live. Yet Adler’s personal style of dealing with clients was part of the old firm’s strength, and surely could have helped Sullivan to get back on his feet. Instead, new projects continued their post-Panic-of-1893 stagnation.

The Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Fair—that grand, polychromatic departure from the forced classicism of the “White City”—was among the most eye-catching of any Fair buildings, and possibly (at least, according to Morrison) the most popular among visitors. Yet its outrageously over-the-top style, methinks a reactionary response to the Fair’s other architects, may well have been detrimental to modern architecture in the long run, for its sheer exuberance might have led fairgoers to think “that’s very lovely to look at, but I can’t imagine constructing something like that on Main Street in my town.” A simpler, cleaner, less adorned style, something Sullivan achieved in a few of his contracts within a few years of the Fair, might have been more approachable as a real-world possibility. Instead, the great takeaway of the Fair was a massive boom in old-fashioned, throwback—safe—styles: Roman and Greek columns and forms, temples of commerce and education and government, solid masses of masonry that sharply contradicted the lightweight steel structure they wrapped.

As Sullivan wrote near his death, the Fair set modern architecture back by fifty years—a declaration that loses some of its prophetic tone when we remember that it was written thirty years after the Fair. Still, when one considers such buildings as the Jewelers Building (1925–27 by Giaver & Dinkelberg) his statement rings true. Here’s a building, designed more than three decades after Adler & Sullivan’s game-changing Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings, still relying on Sullivan’s base/shaft/capital system—yet also stuck with classical applied decoration to the extent of five great gazebos, like Greek or Roman temples, plunked on its roofs.

The building owes a lot of its overall massing to Sullivan—but not nearly enough. And, perhaps, Sullivan himself is in some small way partly to blame for this. He was a genius who tried, sometimes desperately, but failed to bring his genius to the people.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that this book really led me to reassess my own biases, not only with regard to Sullivan but to architecture and historic preservation in general. I used to think that 99 times out of 100, demolition is bad, that buildings should be renovated and restored and reused, if at all possible. Now I’m not so stuck in that hard-core preservation mode.

Not every old building is worth saving, regardless of who designed it. And some great old buildings remain great, but lack vitality and purpose. In the end, if a building cannot be adapted to benefit the living, if it serves no other purpose than as a placeholder of architectural history, then inevitably it will probably succumb to economic realities. The Chicago Stock Exchange Building, for example, was destroyed by people who saw it as I have described his jewel box banks, inflexible to adaptation and therefore uneconomic; they were, in retrospect, quite wrong (it was readily adaptable, and was even profitable up to the day its tenants were evicted), and that building remains a tremendous loss to Chicago. But I have little doubt that if it were still standing today, forty years later, it would still be under the constant threat of demolition—for the right price.

Louis H. Sullivan was a great architect, of that there is no doubt. But he also had a tremendous inability to—well, either to go with the flow or to compromise his principles, depending on how charitably one views his steadfastness. I suppose the real tragedy is that we didn’t get enough out of him when he was alive, and we spent far too long under-appreciating what he wrought—to the extent that today we’re left with a mere handful of great works by the master, and a mixed bag of them at that.

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