March 04: A Sermon on Loftiness

2016/03/04 § Leave a comment

In this month in 1896 Louis H. Sullivan published “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.”

Historically known as a more pragmatic lot than their European brethren (and let’s be honest, it has tended and still tends to be dominated by brethren rather than the sisteren), American architects are rarely known as great theorists.  One of the most important and widely read writers (and as such, one of the most misquoted) was Sullivan.  By 1896 he had become a pretty big deal, mostly through work completed in partnership with Dankmar Adler in Chicago.  In this age of the skyscrpaer’s infancy, architects and the public took note of the firm’s tall buildings, which seemed to offer something newer, fresher, and somehow more right than the efforts of namby-pamby custard-tart New York architects who made their best college tries at piling up a bunch of short foreign precedents to the reach the full height of an office building.  Some were elegant solutions but others, not so much.   Sullivan’s approach was summarized in the “Tall Office Building” essay, which appeared on pages 403-409 in the March issue of Lippincott’s Magazine.  In it, Sullivan puts into clear terms (“clear” being a relative term in Sullivan’s case) his guiding ideas for designing the tall building, both in terms of certain functional considerations and his aesthetic approach.  The language is fabulous, pure Sullivan, beginning with the root argument, which is not a simple problem of “how to properly design a tall slender building.”  Here’s the issue as Sullivan observes it:

How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?  How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of higher life?

(Clio wonders what would happen if architecture faculty presented problem objectives worded thusly to their studio classes: Confusion?  Terror?  Mutiny?)

Sullivan expressed the problem of the skyscraper as one of expression, both in its formal and emotional meanings.  The solution, expounded across a few thousand words, culminates in the oft-used and usually misunderstood dictum: “form ever follows function.”

This phrase, neat and tidy enough to fit on a bumper sticker (even on the bumper of a Citroën!), when isolated from the rest of the essay, appears to suggest a reductive, rational, scientific model of building design.  Sullivan’s intentions were nothing of the sort.  He was all about the ornament, which is a crucial part of the “form” that he was thinking of as he wrote, and the “form” of the ornament served the “function” of the building—not to simply house number-crunchers and pencil-pushers and boilers and elevators, but to gratify the emotion that architecture is supposed to inspire.  Consider his words: the building is an exclamation; people respond with passions and sentiment.  He explains that the chief attribute of a building of this kind—by its formal merits, not its function—is its “loftiness . . . its thrilling aspect.  It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal.”  And thus the formal imperative is elevated as a functional requirement.

Sullivan’s essay was and is important because it is the work—too rare then as now—of a great architect laying down his thoughts at the peak of his powers and production; it is a window into his process and a light to understanding why so many people stand at the foot of the Guaranty Building (above) and the Wainwright Building and the Condict Building etc. etc. etc., and feel better for having looked up.  That in and of itself is a good goal for architects, and Sullivan can help them find their way—but architects need to understand what he’s really saying.  The reduced and flimsy retelling of Sullivan as a functionalist is just silly (he didn’t entitle the essay “The Tall Office Building Functionally Considered,” after all).  His is the same sad fate that poor Pugin has suffered (read about it here).  Sullivan only appears to be a proto-Modernist through a soundbite approach to his theory. Even if it is too much to ask for architects to read all seven pages or so of the original article, just looking at the buildings–really looking–should do the trick.

image: Guaranty Building, BUffalo, 1895 by Sullivan (from this source)

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