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The flowering grid

Ornament could offer the key to a new flowering of architectural expression

First published in AR October 1977, this piece was republished online in September 2015

Ornament has always flowered in Chicago, indeed Louis Sullivan now has the status of a high-priest of controlled natural ornament. This article relates the more spartan methodology of Mies van der Robe back to Sullivan through Frank Lloyd Wright. It may be hard to imagine the ivy on Mies’s Illinois Institute of Technology as planned ornament but it does provide what Sullivan would have called ‘efflorescence’.

The scale and arrangement of the American landscape changes from random picturesque undulations to a more expansive rectilinear plain when moving west on to the prairie. The forests disappear to be replaced by an endless expanse of cultivated rectangles. This vast gridded field was established to facilitate settlement of vacant land and natural features that preceded the surveyor’s lines provide an organic counterpoint to the pragmatic needs of man. A series of ever-diminishing squares define the counties, townships, homesteads and finally the character of life itself in the Midwest.

The Chicago Loop rises as a logical extension of the surveyor’s mentality, where the grid dies into the waters of Lake Michigan. Shaped by ruler rather than usage, the major streets fall every mile and the interstices are divided into equal blocks. Lining these streets are the fabled structures built in the last century by Burnham, Root and particularly Sullivan. Long admired for technical innovation, they present one bothersome aspect, the decoration. Ornament, often critically dismissed, was considered to be an organic part of the total building. ‘We have in us romanticism, and feel a craving to express it. We feel intuitively that our strong, athletic and simple forms will carry with natural ease the raiment of which we dream, and that our buildings thus clad in a garment of poetic imagery, half hid as it were in choice products of loom and mine, will appeal with redoubled power, like a sonorous melody overlaid with harmonious voices.’1

The Loop office buildings were created for speculation and were equipment rather than architecture to their owners. The sparseness and economy of means long admired in these structures was often a result of profit motive, rather than architects’ intentions. The Monadnock Block was stripped of its ornament despite the protests of its creator, John Root. Economic pressures demanded that if ornament were to survive, it must recognise the realities of competitive building. Simultaneously, the failure of historical style strengthened the necessity for a new conceptual basis for ornament. The introduction of manufactured ornament created a crisis in nineteenth-century architectural thought. Craftmanship was threatened by the availability of mass-produced, low-quality ornament. The symbolic value of traditional form was further eroded by Picturesque Eclecticism, for historical style required conventions of usage to maintain authenticity. By destroying the logic of particular styles and freeing ornament as a compositional element, the validity of traditional form was jeopardised. In 1865 Owen Jones was prophesying that ‘from the present chaos there will arise, undoubtedly (it may not be in our time), an architecture which shall be worthy of the high advance man has made in every other direction.’2

Sullivan’s buildings must be viewed in this general atmosphere of a renewal of architecture through ornamental revolution (a sentiment that also produced Art Nouveau). The economic premises of speculative building coupled with the conceptual demands of advanced architectural thought called for a more abstract ornament that could also be economically produced.


Museum of Science and Industry (Originally Place of Fine Arts at Columbian Exposition, 1893) rebuilt in permanent materials 1929-1940 by D H Burnham and Co (Charles Atwood, designer) Typical of the correct European, Classical stye employed a the World’s Fair by a consortium of architect. First rendered in plaster, this building was rebuilt in limestone much later

The methodology employed by Sullivan is found in A System of Architectural Ornament, completed just before his death in 1924. Here Sullivan’s uniquely personal vision of architecture and the modern world unfolds, the last act of a tragedy. However, the magnificent pencil drawings overshadow the passionate text. The ideas presented have a clear relationship to nineteenth-century thought, particularly to Owen Jones. Sullivan was surely introduced to The Grammar of Ornament while working for Frank Furness at the time of the ornamental design for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Drawings executed later by Sullivan show a complete understanding and sympathy towards the concepts of Owen Jones.

The ornamental design process for Sullivan began with a perfect geometric form. Certain inherent axes develop in any pure geometrical figure and these became the ‘radial directives of energy’ through expansion or contraction. The design  developed along primary and secondary axes through a series of manipulations chosen by Sullivan, based on the innate geometry of the initial figure. This phase of design was considered to be mechanical or inorganic by Sullivan and only provided the geometric scaffolding for the development of the ornament. Next he introduced a system of abstracted plant form which grew along the geometric grid lines. The growth or ‘efflorescence’, as Sullivan terms it, enfolded in gradual undulations from a parent stem following the rules of Nature. As the design progressed, the geometric scaffolding ·disappeared in the luxuriant foliage (or ‘mobile medium’).

The transformation from inorganic geometry (or ‘mechanical mode’) to the ecstasy of organic growth (or ‘efflorescence’) represented, to Sullivan, the triumph of the will of the individual creator to express nature.

The method of application of ornament to a building was completely avoided by Sullivan in A System of Architectural Ornament. In actual practice his marvellous drawings were translated into clay moulds to form either terracotta tiles or cast iron panels. The economy of formed panels involved using as few moulds as possible and limiting the programme to meet the required budget. The resultant effect was fields of repeated motifs generally tending to particularise at the entrance and terminals.


Getty Tomb 1890. Louis Sullivan. The handling of fine materials such as limestone and bronze gates remain essentially the same in character

The repetitive nature of the material required clear modular organisation in order to maintain integrity of all parts. The modular grid played an important aesthetic role in the perception of the surfaceas a field. The balance between the static geometrical grid and the free luxuriant continuity of growth was perfectly controlled by Sullivan. The shallow modeling required by clay techniques produced an extremely shallow relief. The ornament. Seemsto struggle at the surface of the material to be free of its ground. ‘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 …. Here by this method we make a species of contact, and the spirit that animates the mass is free to flow into the ornament - they are no longer two things but one thing.’3 The power of Sullivan’s methodology is clearly visible. However, its influence goes beyond ornament. It extends to the core of Modern Architecture, to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright solved the one ornamental aspect which Sullivan never completely resolved; the exact relationship between ornament and construction. In Sullivan’s mind the ornament was articulated from the structure. ‘If now we bring ourselves to close and reflective observation, how evident it becomes that if we wish to insure an actual, a poetic unity, the ornament should appear, not as something receiving the spirit of the structure, but as a thing expressing that spirit by virtue of differential growth.’4 As Sullivan’s practice dwindled, the commissions became smaller and the ornamental programme more dominant; finally the entire façade became one overpowering ornament, distorting fenestration and entry. This jump in scale, only occurs two-dimensionally in Sullivan’s buildings. Wright perceived the possibility of raising this same ornamental methodology from surface to volume, in three dimensions. He attempted what Sullivan was reluctant to contemplate: to make the structure follow the rules of ornamental design.

Wright relates in his autobiography finding the Grammar of Ornament shortly after his arrival in Chicago. He gradually came to the opinion that there was one, apparent fallacy in Sullivan’s architecture. ‘Not until towards the end of my service to Adler and Sullivan did I perceive that the nature of materials meant no more to the ‘lieber meister’ than their nature had meant to the ancient Greeks but with a nameless difference. Materials, all alike, were only grist for the marvellous he sensuous rhythmic power of imagination he possessed … but, whether executed in stone, wood, or iron, all materials were ‘clay’ in the master’s hands and-well-that was enough.’5 Wright perceived that it would be possible to produce an architecture possessing the plastic continuity of Sullivan’s ornament; however, it would have to be based on the logic of building construction. The great houses of this period, particularly the Coonley, Willitts, Martin and Robie houses, share some interesting characteristics. The structures are firmly rooted in the earth. By stressing the horizontal axis they relate to the prairie, becoming part of the vast horizontal plan. The plan was determinded by a square grid, which became the basis for all proportions. The comparison of a plate from Sullivan’s book on ornament and the plans of the Prairie Houses reveals a marvelous consistency of formal development.


Krause Music Store 1922. Louis Sullivan. Last work of Sullivan with entire facade treated as one large terracotta

In a building such as the Unity Temple of 1906, Wright reaches a total synthesis of ornament and structure. It is like a fine piece of ornament from Owen Jones, for, ‘there are no excrescences; nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better. The general forms being first cared for, these should be subdivided and ornamented by general lines; the interstice may then be filled in with ornament, which may again be subdivided and enriched for closer inspection.’6 This building, more than any other is the exact three-dimensional equivalent of Sullivan’s ornament.

The process of design in Wright’s Unity Temple and Sullivan’s development of ornament are clearly analogous. Wright had accomplished Sullivan’s plasticity in three dimensions, the space of Unity Temple becomes a ‘mobile medium’. The residual floral asymmetry of Sullivan was maintained in plan by Wright as a naturalising aspect. However, the power of abstraction coupled with the pragmatic advantage of modular construction marked the rise of the grid as a dominant feature in the architecture of Chicago. The next step was taken by Mies van der Rohe who was heavily influenced by the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The European work of Mies van der Rohe displays the impact of Wright’s buildings. The continuous horizontal flow of space and open planning have their origins in the great Prairie Houses of Wright. The strict rectilinearity and the appearance of an overall grid as an ordering device has its source in Wright’s scale transformation of ornament. However, the organic link of house to ground plane has already been violated by further abstraction. The gradual drain of naturalistic form is continued in Mies’s work until only the grid remains. The means of Sullivan’s ornament becomes the end of Mies’s architecture. A comparison between Mies’s European work and the later buildings in Chicago illustrates this process.


Monadnock Block 1891. Burnham and Root (John Wellbourne Root, designer) This office building was stripped of its ornamental programme against the architect’s desires

The plan of the Barcelona Pavilion displays an apparent free arrangement of planes beneath a clearly articulated structural grid. However, a more detailed examination reveals a second system or organisation at work. The platform is gridded by joints in the paving blocks. Precisely at the intersection of the module lines the corner columns fall. The screen dividing walls, although freely deployed, all centred on the same grid, as did all of the benches and furniture. Every building element is related to the grid; it is a geometric ordering device of the utmost importance in the plan, section and elevation of the building. At an even more detailed scale, the attachment screws and fasteners maintain the all-pervasive grid. The method of composition of the Barcelona Pavilion remains essentially the same as that of Sullivan and Wright, only the grid is more dominant, through Mies’s reduction of the parts and removal of applied ornament. The overall asymmetry continues (as in Wright’s houses), the only organic counterpoint to the mechanical mode of the grid. It is only after Mies’s arrival in Chicago that the pragmatic logic of construction forced the total expulsion of the natural element from his architecture.

In 1937 Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the United States to become the director, in 1938, of the Department of Architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was offered the commission to design the campus of the newly formed university. In the planning of the new structures at IIT, his methodology resulted in a building type apparently quite different from his previous work. It was obvious that the programme for a total university could not be solved through open planning. The buildings would be more than one storey in height and classrooms would necessarily be closed volumes of space. The budget was low enough to necessitate the use of standard elements of construction. Therefore, Mies set about developing a system that was as flexible as possible and capable of solving all functional problems while utilising a rational structure and prefabricated parts.

The design of the campus at IIT began with the placement of a three-dimensional modular grid over the en tire area of the Site. The size of a standard classroom determined the structural grid. This was then subdivided to form the grid of the planning module. All the partitions fall on this modular grid. The columns and beams necessarily coincide with the planning grid, so partition loads are carried directly on beams. The next step was to place all those elements that did not coincide with partitions and structure (such as lights, diffusers, and doors) in the centre of each module. This guaranteed that regular grid spacings could be maintained, thus avoiding visual conflicts between systems. Next, the elements that made up the surfaces, both vertically and horizontally, were related to the basic planning module. Each element of the building has a direct relation to the planning grid and to every other element.


Rookery Building Lobby Remodelling 1905. Frank Lloyd Wright. This ornament, designed at the same time as Unity Temple, shows Wright’s continued abstraction of Sullivan’s surface ornament through reduction of naturalistic forms. The light fixture is interesting in relation to the plan of Unity Temple

The exteriors of the IIT buildings are a logical extension of the planning system. The armature of regulating lines projects to the exterior face of the structures. Each building could be thought of as a fragment of a system that could continue endlessly. At every module line there appears a stanchion to catch the partitions as they hit the exterior wall. A steel spandrel at floor level receives the slab. These elements form a grid on the façade that is a direct expression of the modular planning grid. This frame is filled with either brick or glass, depending on the use immediately behind the pane. At the corner, however, the column appears contradicting the apparent structural quality of the steel grid covering the entire façade. This subtle device reveals the steel, brick and glass façade to be a skin stretched over the skeletal structure. Similarly the steel stanchions stop short of the ground, ensuring their non-structural expression and protecting them from weathering. The steel grid is a metaphor for the structure being It is an ornamental device of the utmost sophistication. The fire code requires a protective cover for the steel frame in a building of this type, so direct expression of the steel frame is impossible. Fireproofing makes the frame appear quite heavy. Mies expressed the steel structural frame and controlled the proportioning of the members through the reiteration of its materials and forms in the skin of the building.

The expression of construction has displaced Nature as the source for ornamental form What began with Wright, as a remedy for Sullivan’s disregard for materials has been transformed into the total architectural expression. The asymmetry and freedom of arrangement found in the Barcelona Pavilion has been replaced in these buildings by static cubic spaces. The grid has emerged as the controlling element; again the scale has been expanded, dominating all aspects of the architecture. The organic link to the ground plane has been broken completely and the buildings emerge as blocks sitting on a gridded plane.


The Old Chicago Stock Exchange 1894 (Demolished) (Main entrance and trading room rebuilt at Chicago Art Institute, 1977). The photograph is of the reconstructed main entrance which is terracotta

The natural element has been totally removed from architecture, pushed beyond the limits of the building precinct. The last remnants of the ‘efflorescence’ of Louis Sullivan exists in the ivy vines, planted by Mies, which periodically devour the pristine volumes. The classroom buildings at IIT establish the system for the final phase in the abstraction and transformation of ornament in Chicago. This is found in the ‘Great Hall’ scheme of Mies’s later work. The Convention Hall project for Chicago of 1953-1954 is an ornamental tour de force equal to Wright’s Unity Temple. It has the same geometric perfection except the structure itself performs the dual tasks performed by structure and applied ornament at Unity Temple. Microcosm and macrocosm now completely merge in ever-diminishing grids, with the expulsion of Nature at every scale. The mind of the surveyor has finally prevailed with the triumph of the mechanical mode. The possibility of further abstraction seems impossible and somehow perverse. Architecture in Chicago has reached the end of a historical process of development that began with Sullivan’s ornament. Perhaps (as prophesied by Louis Sullivan in 1892) ornament offers the key to a new flowering of architectural expression. ‘I should say that it would be greatly for the aesthetic good if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thoughts might concentrate acutely upon the production of building well formed and comely in the nude. We should thus perforce eschew many undesirable things, and learn by contrast how effective it is to think in a natural, vigorous and wholesome way. This step taken, we might safely inquire to what extent, a decorative application of ornament would enhance the beauty of our structures-what new charm it would give them.’7


1. Louis Sullivan, Ornament in Architecture, The Engineering Magazine, August 1892. Reprinted in Kindergarten Chats and other Writing (New York, George Wittenburn Inc, 147) p187
2. Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (London): Day and Son 1856, p156
3. Louis Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, p1899
4. Ibid, 189
5. Frank Lloyd Wright, Genius and the Mobocracy, p74
6. Owen Jones, Grammar of Ornament, p5
7. Louis Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, p187

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