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Sullivan's City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan

David Van Zanten
, professor of art history, and Cervin Robinson (Norton, 2000)

"Form ever follows function," wrote Louis Henri Sullivan (1856–1924). 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 designers.

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 Chicago, 1891–93.
Sullivan grew up in Boston, the son of an Irish dancing master. Curious about architecture from adolescence—and 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 1914.

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.