Sullivan's City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis
David Van Zanten, professor of art history, and Cervin Robinson (Norton,
REVIEW BY MARTIN BRADY
"Form ever follows function," wrote Louis Henri Sullivan (18561924).
Known as the "first master of skyscraper design," Sullivan cast
an imperious shadow over his world in the 1890s, when his impressive buildings
rose into the Chicago skyline, signaling the dawn of a new urban age.
But Sullivan's life wasn't necessarily an easy one, and in some ways his
reputation within the architecture community suffered greatly in the years
before his death.
These and other fascinating bits of information are contained within art
historian David Van Zanten's account of Sullivan's life and work. Neither
a biography nor a completely detailed academic treatise, Van Zanten's
book strikingly illustrated with photos by Cervin Robinson
manages a balance between the two. The author's narrative deftly explores
Sullivan's imposing persona and the legacy he left to the spirit of American
architecture, expressed not only through his grand extant structures in
downtown Chicago but also in churches, banks and private homes that remain
standing in small Midwestern towns.
"The real architect is first, last and all the time, not a merchant,
broker, manufacturer, business man or anything of that sort, but a poet
who uses not words but building materials as a medium of expression."
So wrote Sullivan in his lyrical Kindergarten Chats, published
in 1901 and 1902, the result of a series of meetings with younger Chicago
Sullivan's breathtaking use of ornament in his building designs is what
distinguishes his existing structures, such as Chicago's Auditorium Building,
which was completed in 1890. To be sure, there are plenty of important
examples of Sullivan's poetic transcendentalism around. These include
Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott Building, New York City's Bayard (later Condict)
Building and St. Louis' Wainwright Building. And lest we forget the departed
past, Van Zanten's text features archival photos of the magnificent Transportation
Building that Sullivan designed for the World's Columbian Exposition in
Sullivan grew up in Boston, the son of an Irish dancing master. Curious
about architecture from adolescenceand already a good draftsman
he never formally finished his high school education. A stint as
a nondegree student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology eventually
led to study in Paris. Then in 1880 he was hired by Dankmar Adler, whom
he later joined as partner in a Chicago firm that boasted as its chief
draftsman none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.
Said Wright of Sullivan: "[He] was a small man immaculately dressed
in brown. His outstanding feature his amazing big brown eyes. He took
me in at a glance. Everything, I felt, even to my most secret thoughts."
The young Sullivan first designed loft spaces, row houses and smaller
commercial structures. Then came an amazing period of productivity, from
about 1885 to 1895, when his firm accepted decorative commissions on the
grand scale and changed the face both figuratively and often rather
literally of architecture.
Sullivan executed his last Loop building in 1903. Personal travails plagued
him often after that. In 1909 his wife left him after 10 years of marriage.
The year previous he had sold the only property he owned. There was talk
of alcoholism. In 1922 the 66-year-old Sullivan was destitute and relying
on charity from friends.
Yet even when the large commissions dwindled, Sullivan continued to produce
jewels of design. The scope may have been smaller, but the structures
shone brightly. Among these, Van Zanten draws particular attention to
St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church and the Peoples Savings Bank in
Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the Babson House in Riverside, Ill.; the Bradley House
in Madison, Wis.; and the National Farmers' Bank in Owatanna, Minn.
Besides insightful analysis of Sullivan's artistic sensibility, Van Zanten
also offers discussion that compares and contrasts the architect's abstract
rationalism with the "earth-bound" classicism of his contemporary,
the great Daniel Burnham.
"Design, for Sullivan," writes Van Zanten, "was a process,
a performance, something that he did carefully and progressively to display
and enjoy his creative virtú. As such, Sullivan found theaters
for its performance in successively different contexts: first in academic
planning as taught at MIT and the École des Beaux Arts and evident
in his early theater interiors; later in architectural articulations as
his skyscraper and bank commissions ... [which] left little room for spatial
elaboration; finally in pure, functionless ornamental fantasy when real
building of any sort was denied him." The evidence for all of this
is there in the amazing entrance decoration of the Merchants National
Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, designed by Sullivan on his downward slope in
Van Zanten's book is intellectually engaging, historically vital and graphically
attractive. "Metaphorically," the author writes, "[Sullivan's]
career, as well as his architectural spaces, is an unrelenting struggle
outward toward light."
Martin Brady is a freelance writer based in Nashville, where he is
also the theater critic for Nashville Scene. He was formerly a
senior editor at Booklist, published by the American Library Association.
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