Arts - Winter 2012

Reversal of Fortune

Sorting out contradictions in the work of Louis Sullivan, father of the skyscraper and innovator of beautiful ornament

By James Trilling | November 30, 2011
Louis Sullivan's 1918 Thrift Building, Sidney, Ohio (Derek Jensen)
Louis Sullivan's 1918 Thrift Building, Sidney, Ohio (Derek Jensen)


Most readers of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s 1943 blood-and-thunder novel of modern architecture in the making, will know or guess that her hero, Howard Roark, is based on Frank Lloyd Wright. Fewer will recognize the model for Roark’s first employer and mentor, Henry Cameron, a genius who suffers a bizarre reversal of fortune. A quirk of fashion demotes Cameron, almost overnight, from a respected artist—one of history’s good guys, an architect who values efficient function over the borrowed trappings of earlier styles, a modernist avant la lettre—to a back number. His downfall undermines a confidence we all share: that genius will out. Part of the modern myth of innovation is that innovators may go unrecognized in their own time, but if they manage to attain public recognition, we want it to be for keeps. We do not expect to see the history of taste run backward.

Cameron’s character is based on Wright’s own mentor, Louis Sullivan, and Rand did her homework. Cameron’s career closely parallels that of Sullivan (transplanted from Chicago to New York), and her account of his buildings and ideals does Sullivan full justice. Here, clearly, is an artist worth knowing about, and not just in the context of a cautionary tale. Yet Sullivan remains an elusive and equivocal figure in the history of American architecture. He is remembered as the father of the skyscraper and as the person who first insisted that “form ever follows function,” a phrase that became a modernist mantra, but he was out of step with early modernists. Some of his greatest achievements were in ornament, the least functional element of architecture—and that at a time when architecture was gathering itself for the great modernist leap, the rejection of ornament as it had been understood for thousands of years. As long ago as 1935 Hugh Morrison, author of the first full-length monograph on Sullivan, had it right when he titled his book Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. Sullivan foreshadowed modernism, but he did not achieve it.

Sullivan was born in Boston in 1856, studied architecture at MIT and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and in 1875 settled in Chicago, which was still busy rebuilding after the disastrous fire of 1871. In 1879 or 1880 he was hired by Dankmar Adler, an established architect 12 years his senior. When he was promoted to partner in 1883, the firm of Adler and Sullivan was born. Of the two men, Sullivan was by far the more imaginative architect, and Adler seems to have recognized this from the start, confining himself to the engineering aspects of their joint projects and giving Sullivan a clear field for artistic innovation. Together they helped define the Chicago cityscape, especially in the commercial realm—office buildings, large stores, warehouses—although they also designed houses and other relatively small-scale structures. When Adler left the partnership in 1895, Sullivan continued on his own, but circumstances soon turned against him. A wave of sentimental conservatism swept through American architecture at the century’s end, when everyone seemed to want the familiar forms of neoclassicism. Sullivan refused to conform and suffered for it. Commissions still came his way occasionally, mostly for banks in small midwestern towns, but he never regained anything like his former stature. He died, penniless, in 1924.

Sullivan’s afterlife begins in 1935, with Morrison’s classic study. Unfortunately, it was a tenuous sort of afterlife, existing mostly in the minds of those who wrote about the prehistory of modernism. As for the buildings themselves, it was as if Chicago, having given form to so many of Sullivan’s ideas, had regretted its earlier enthusiasm and done its best to gobble him back into oblivion. Of approximately 160 permanent structures built to the designs of Adler and Sullivan, roughly 120, or 75 percent, have been razed. Such destruction might have been expected in the opening decades of the 20th century, when Sullivan’s style was in eclipse. But it did not happen until later, when Sullivan had seemingly regained his place in architectural history. From 1900 through 1949 an average of six Adler and Sullivan buildings were demolished per decade. The number rose to 15 in the 1950s and 17 in the 1960s, then dropped to 12 in the ’70s, four in the ’80s, and one in the ’90s.

Those figures derive from a remarkable recent book, The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan by Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind with John Vinci and Ward Miller. The book’s creation is as dramatic a story as anything in an Ayn Rand novel. Few people devote their lives to architectural ornament; Richard Nickel gave his life for it. The story begins in 1952, when Aaron Siskind (1903–1991), one of the masters of 20th-century photography, was teaching at the Institute of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago. Moved by the impending demolition of a Sullivan building, Siskind assigned his students to record the architect’s surviving works. Nickel was the most assiduous in this project, and in the years that followed he continued to take photographs of Sullivan’s buildings and collect information about them, becoming the leading spokesman for their preservation. When preservation efforts failed, as they often did, Nickel salvaged ornamental fragments, and in some cases whole rooms, for museums around the country. In 1972 he was crushed to death by falling masonry while working to rescue parts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building.

After Nickel died, his colleagues, relatives, and friends formed a committee to carry on his work, with the ultimate goal of publication. After almost 40 years, that goal has been achieved. More than 200 of his photographs appear in the 2010 book The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan. The large-format, 461-page book has two sections of text: a group of essays (by Vinci) on aspects of the careers of both architects, and a catalogue raisonné (by Nickel, Miller, and others) of all known buildings and designs by Adler and Sullivan or by Sullivan alone. The essays are informative, the catalogue is invaluable, and both are handsomely illustrated, but the book’s visual heart is its 262 additional photographs, most of them full pages, by Nickel and Siskind. Viewed together they show how a teacher’s formalist eye, disdainful of context and enthralled with extremes of light and dark, can shape but not overpower a talented pupil’s more documentary approach.

To process all this visual information and appreciate what Sullivan accomplished, we must know that an architectural revolution took place in the last decades of the 19th century. For time out of mind, exterior walls had played a decisive role in supporting the weight of a structure. The taller the building, the thicker the walls had to be to hold it up. The thicker the walls, the more they encroached on the space they were meant to enclose, and the more pressure they put on the foundation. This was no great problem when buildings rose only a few stories, but the industrial age made new demands. In fast-growing American cities, New York and Chicago in particular, the invention of safe, efficient elevators and the need for more business space on limited acreage fueled a demand for taller buildings than was practical with weight-bearing masonry walls. Fortunately, industrialization provided the solution to its own problem, in the form of structural iron and steel. Instead of depending on massive stonework for support, the building’s weight was now distributed through a metal skeleton easily concealed because each component took up little space. The visible outer surface, which a generation earlier had been integral to the structure, was reduced to a skin, supported by metal and supporting nothing.

This structural revolution brought with it a visual revolution. Before that time, architects had been accustomed to making exterior walls, especially the main façade, convey something of what was going on within the masonry itself: the weight of stone pushing down, the strength of stone resisting that weight. Hence the conventional vocabulary of forms embodying the idea of strength or resistance: columns and arches and simple, massive blocks of stone. Not every façade reflected the actual interplay of forces that held the building together. But what prevailed, as it had for centuries, was an architectural aesthetic that at least pretended to take account of the needs of structure and the properties of masonry.

The earliest skyscrapers tended to be visually contradictory. Instead of emphasizing height, their architects deemphasized it by accentuating the horizontal elements in the façades and using decorative features long associated with the lower stories. The result has been compared to many low buildings piled on top of one another. Yet by the early 1890s a convention for expressing height was firmly established, one that would remain in force long enough to shape the great skyscrapers of the 1930s, up to and including the Empire State Building. The new convention—like a classical column consisting of a base, a shaft, and a capital—was largely Sullivan’s work, and he gave it verbal as well as visual form. In his seminal 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” he wrote,

What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. … The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

This vision coexisted uneasily with Sullivan’s fascination with ornament. The 1890–92 Wainwright Building (still standing) in St. Louis was Sullivan’s first steel-frame building and is probably the purest expression of his protoskyscraper aesthetic. Unquestionably it possesses “the force and power of altitude.” Unbroken piers, especially four large ones at the corners, carry the eye upward almost irresistibly. Yet at closer range we see that the building is covered with “dissenting lines,” namely the ornament, which, if it does not directly emphasize the horizontal, at least diminishes the “glory and pride of exaltation” by which Sullivan set such store.

Equally problematic, in a different way, is the façade of the former Schlesinger & Mayer Store in Chicago (built in 1898, expanded in 1903, and renamed Carson Pirie Scott in 1904). From a distance it could almost be a classic modernist building of the 1930s or later, a representative of the International Style. Yet ornament spreads like wildfire over the first two stories, claiming every square inch that is not window glass. It is complex, dynamic, and original, one of the greatest ornamental ensembles of its time, yet it contradicts Sullivan’s own principles for the relation of structure and ornament. In his essay “Ornament in Architecture” (1892), Sullivan wrote,

It must be manifest that an ornamental design will be more beautiful if it seems a part of the surface or substance that receives it than if it looks “stuck on.” … Both structure and ornament obviously benefit by this sympathy; each enhancing the value of the other. And this, I take it, is the preparatory basis of what may be called an organic system of ornamentation. The ornament, as a matter of fact, is applied in the sense of being cut in or cut on, … yet it should appear, when completed, as though by the outworking of some beneficent agency it had come forth from the very substance of the material and was there by the same right that a flower appears amid the leaves of its parent plant.

Much of Sullivan’s ornament is organic, not just in the literal sense of being based on plant forms, but in the larger, metaphorical sense of being governed by forces as diverse and complicated as life itself: ebb and flow, predictability and transformation, inevitability and caprice. It is, however, the ornament itself that embodies these principles, not, as Sullivan would have argued, the relation of ornament to structure. The ornament of the Schlesinger & Mayer building consists of cast-iron panels fixed to the flat surface of the masonry; what could be less organic, more “stuck on”? These are more than rhetorical questions. Critics have tried for decades to come up with an interpretation that makes sense not just of Sullivan’s architecture and ornament, but also of his architecture and ornament together.

Better not to try. None of Sullivan’s ornament emerges organically from the surface because too great a conceptual and perceptual gap exists between the simplicity of his surfaces and the complexity of his ornament. A true sense of growth would require a gradual transition from one to the other, a blurring of the distinction between plain and fancy, and between two and three dimensions. The lack of such transitions highlights Sullivan’s failure to practice what he preached. In fact it scarcely matters; in the realm of ornament, organic does not necessarily mean good, or vice versa. The real problem, over and above any question of theory versus practice, is the fundamental disconnection between Sullivan’s architectural and ornamental forms. They belong to different worlds. Not completely different, of course, since they are creations of the same mind, but different in that they arise from separate and even conflicting impulses.

The contradiction goes further. Sullivan did not always use ornament. Some of his buildings are simple to the point of austerity. Clients’ finances were certainly a factor, but not the only one. Sullivan-without-ornament is essentially factory or mill architecture, of a kind familiar since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. That is an architecture of pure function, with few if any concessions to appearance, but by the late 19th century it would have connoted manufacture and commerce every bit as strongly as Greco-Roman architecture connoted civic order and continuity. Since Sullivan’s buildings were largely intended for manufacture and commerce, there is an attractive forthrightness in his insistence on giving them their proper stylistic garb, however inelegant, rather than that of another time and place. His transplanting of mill architecture to the mainstream is a perfect instance of form following function.

As a child in New York in the 1950s, I saw whole neighborhoods of brownstone houses disappear almost overnight, to be replaced by taller brick buildings the salient feature of which, even to a child’s eye, was their featurelessness. Many of them are still with us, and though the “slums” that escaped replacement have taken on new life, the high-rise housing projects that were supposed to be part of the solution embody a pervasive depth of urban despair. This perversion of modernism has many lines of descent, but one of them leads back to Sullivan. Few people have done more to bring the charmless factory and warehouse into the modern cityscape, and to legitimize monotony as part of the formal vocabulary of 20th-century architecture.

The opposing impulses in Sullivan’s art are best understood as responses to the modernizing society in which he lived. Modernization and industrialization are closely related but not identical concepts. Industrialization refers to a level of technology and its economic expression, whereas modernization explicitly includes the social changes that come with a machine-based economy. Sullivan the designer of buildings, the functionalist, was in step with modernization; Sullivan the designer of ornament was not. Sullivan never became a transforming figure in the history of architecture, but he survives as a tragic and ironic one: tragic because he fought the future even as he worked to shape it, ironic because the collapse of his career came not from his inability to accept the future but from his refusal to imitate the past.

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