September 03: Something For Everyone

2016/09/03 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1856 Louis Sullivan was born.

Sullivan’s immigrant parents raised him in and around Boston.  After attending the architecture program at MIT for a year he moved to Philadelphia where he worked for Frank Furness.  In the early 1870s, faced with a choice between Philadelphia’s collapsed economy and Chicago’s post-fire construction boom, he chose to move to the latter, quickly finding a place in the office of William LeBaron Jenney (Mack Daddy of the Chicago School), which he left after a year or so to study (for a short while) in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Upon returning to Chicago he worked for a firm no one would know about if he hadn’t had some kind of crummy drafting position there.  By 1879 he joined with engineer Dankmar Adler and the firm swiftly took over a good chunk of Chicago, but after just fifteen years the firm dissolved in the midst of nationwide economic decline, unhelped by Sullivan’s temperament.  Sullivan completed a few great, but small, independent works in the next two decades, most significantly a series of midwestern banks (like this one in Owatanna, Minn.).  But in general, of the dwindling clientele that was drawn to him, decreasing numbers could handle his increasingly troubled personality.  On April 14, 1924 he died in a rented room on Chicago’s South Side, demoralized, broke, and alone.

Cue the legacy machine, which soon started spewing bouquets of praise for Sullivan’s work, eaten up by both sides of the divide that opened in the traditional soil of American architecture as the juggernaut of European Modernism began to roll across the US.  Given the fact that both Mods and Trads could embrace different aspects of Sullivan’s work–he was all about the steel frame!  he was all about the ornament!  hey you got peanut butter on my chocolate! less filling and tastes great!–, it’s surprising that for so many decades few fought for the preservation of his buildings (photographer Richard Nickel being the most significant champion).  The particular character of Sullivan’s work, with its structural simplicity and decorative richness, straddles the centuries and schools of thought.

In actuality, it is just really good architecture that fits the richness of his Belle Époque timeframe perfectly.  The case could be made that others in the Chicago School were just as good with their framing and its articulation, and what makes Sullivan rise above Holabird and Roche and Root et al. was his ornament, which is a curiosity in being a traditional idea in architecture but approached with the modernist ideal of invention, but turning the European Modernist prohibition against “decoration” (unless it was formed of metal beams or tubes).  Sullivan’s designs for the terra cotta and stenciling that animate his buildings were generated by his particular point of view and rendered in his peerless drawings.  He explains his process in a few written works he left behind.  The three longest publications (after that famous essay on skyscrapers) all date from the twentieth century.  The last of them, A System of Architectural Ornament, According With A Philosophy Of Man’s Powers, was published in the year of his death.  Commissioned by the architecture library of the Art institute of Chicago (which has lots, and lots of Sullivan material), its plates reveal the heart of his ornamental system and the somewhat quirky way that Sullivan brought together lessons of mathematics and nature studies with his own emotional fervor.  Sullivan’s embrace of various influence is evident in the very labels of the drawings: titles described them as “Organic,” as well as “Inorganic,” “Fluent Geometry,” “The Value of Axes (Life is Infinite),” “Fluent Parallelism (Non-Euclidean),” “Impromptu!” and “Fantasy.”  These words are not insignificant, chosen as they were by a sixty-eight year-old architect who must have been aware that his glory days were long gone and clients, as well as more opportunities to build, were fleeting.  The book was his last opportunity to make an impression and hand his ideals down to the next generations for their use and to explain his own works.

Sullivan shows a modern manner of conventional practice, traditional concerns with a future view.  He’s not alone in these values, but unique in the way he reached them–there’s no mistaking a Sullivan building.  He also took a sometimes whimsical approach to the serious matter of tectonics–who else could, in all earnestness, label a drawing “Geometrical Playground”?  One might hope that schools of different ideologies would find common ground in Sullivan’s built and written work rather than scrap over him like a contested battlefield.

Image: Plate 12 from A System of Architectural Ornament (from this source)

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