Controversial filigree and haps and mishaps in the life of the doyen of post-structuralist critics, Louis Sullivan
Nobody illustrates the perilous fate of the idealist architect better than Louis Sullivan and few offer such a merry dance in interpretation.
The most precise definition of his personality comes from Kenneth Frampton: ‘metropolitan demiurge and Celtic mystic’; the most laconic via Leonardo Benevelo: ‘a little man in an impeccable brown suit’. But elsewhere is a wealth of adjectives: egotistical, remote, temperamental, abrupt, condescending, self-destructive, obstinate, outspoken, dandyish, drunk and (possibly) gay.
He was the pioneering ‘Lieber Meister’ for Frank Lloyd Wright, and a tragic hero who suffered a penniless death at 68 under a single light bulb in a shabby rooming house in 1924. It’s a story straight out of John Dos Passos: the life of an American hero, a life without a second act.
Wright deceived Sullivan by moonlighting while his employee, and then took his most useful ideas and privatised them. He’d had a drunken, despairing Sullivan thrown out of his club asking for change, but he lionised him in death. Sullivan was a handy predecessor but a fundamentally different kind of idealist, perhaps in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and certainly Walt Whitman (who Sullivan emulated), less selfish than Wright, but more doomed. His inspiration was a social whole, embodying a utopian frontier spirit to sweep away corrupt European taste; his imperative to respond to the New World and illustriously occupy the Jeffersonian grid with buildings in which Edison’s electricity and Otis’s lifts could work their magic.
‘His inspiration embodied a utopian frontier spirit to sweep away corrupt European taste; his imperative to respond to the New World and illustriously occupy the Jeffersonian grid’
The buildings themselves have a profound solidity. If Sullivan inherited any European taste (he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1874), it was something of the spirit of Michelangelo, and the repertoire in the Richardsonian Romanesque; so heavy that he watched his own Chicago Auditorium Building literally sink month by month as he marched into his office within. Here, in partnership with the urbane, under-appreciated Dankmar Adler (who provided the engineering technique), they escaped load-bearing masonry to produce such frame-built classics as the Wainwright Building in St Louis (1891) and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894).
That his monumentality is matched by unbridled filigree has made him the doyen of post-structuralist critics, who wonder at the dressy elements. For Sullivan, his architecture was not costume, but closer to trees and flowers. His writing certainly runs with metaphors from nature.
His books, to which he devoted his later years, notably Kindergarten Chats and The Autobiography of an Idea are offputting but strangely mesmeric/turgid bordering on the insufferable and reveal a man morbidly sensitive to the culture that stood in his way. Especially in Europe the self-serving preachy tone meant difficulty in publication. It is ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered’ which provides the landmark manifesto: solid base on two floors, middle section of many floors, and attic storey with cornice for services, still relevant today, at least among more conservative architects. It is a robust formula, and Sullivan carved it up accentuating first the vertical, and latterly the horizontal. Szarkowski’s photographs of Sullivan’s oeuvre in the 1950s, in the cityscape of Guys and Dolls, give us something of his dramatic contribution. By then cluttered with vulgar (now vintage) advertising, these pictures strongly demonstrate Sullivan’s unique sense of purpose.
1872 MIT at the age of 16
1873 Apprentice to Frank Furness
1874 Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Wainwright Building, St Louis (1891)
Guaranty Building, Buffalo (1895)
Carson, Pirie, Scott, & Co Department Store, Chicago (1904)
‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ (1896)
‘It is the pervading law of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function’
Sullivan was bedevilled by financial crises, and undone by the very ‘hustle’ and ‘salesmanship’ he abhorred. He had been let go by Frank Furness in the depression of 1873, and his partnership with Adler dissolved with the financial panic that followed 20 years later. In 1899, after six years struggling on his own, Sullivan married Mary Azona Hattabaugh. This further precipitated disaster. They bought a second home in Mississippi, but separated in 1909, days after Sullivan had auctioned off most of the household goods to pay debts and support her fledgling acting career. The same year he was passed over for the design of Mr Selfridge’s flagship London store despite having designed Selfridge’s Chicago base: the astonishingly modern (if you ignore the lace skirt) Carson, Pirie, Scott, & Co (originally Schlesinger & Mayer) building of 1904. He drew few commissions from then on. His loyal draughtsman George Elmslie also left in 1909. A year later he had to sell the Mississippi home and was divorced in 1916. They had no children.
Sullivan originally said he liked his buildings ‘in the nude’, so sporting so much in the way of ‘cabbagey’ (Pevsner) or even geometric ornamentation may seem a contradiction. Recasting the question has brought a new linguistic intricacy to criticism, but to paraphrase Terry Eagleton, these days the emphasis tends to be the erotic body rather than the pissed and penniless one.
Jennifer Bloomer finds Sullivan’s decoration analogous to the brocade or even the plaiting of pubic hair. By enjoying her argument we might penetrate the recesses of Sullivan’s mind, a mind that, if you like, didn’t know it was, and even if it was, couldn’t have been open about it. Indeed Sullivan and his buildings were given to exquisite trimming, and he seems to consistently elaborate more literal interpretation. Noting the rings around the entrance of the Transportation Building for the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), we shouldn’t be surprised at Bloomer’s interest. Meanwhile Clare Cardinal-Pett has evocatively rolled around in full-size Elmslie details (presumably drawn while Sullivan was drowning his sorrows in the bar) that she found in one of his eight small later banks.
Both images are still controversial; he was considered a gentleman by clients and builders even in this sad late period, as shown in Szarkowski’s exquisite volume of photographs and homely interviews published in 1956. However, it may give rose-tinted memories, as Sullivan had died 30 years earlier and been respectably awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1944.
The detective game of influence continues. We have Wright, but also Berlage and Loos (Bloomer makes an amusing connection with his Chicago Tribune Tower) and Scully cites the Wainwright Building as a source for Rossi. But they all ditch the filigree. James Stevens Curl assures us of the dislocation between American ideas and European ones. ‘Form follows function’ may be carved in his tombstone, but we Europeans misinterpreted it. We should understand his functionalism as more ‘spirit into being’, but adopted the catchy phrase more superficially as buildings defined by use. Contrarily, Sullivan, with months to live, complained to Neutra that he was perhaps only an influence in Sweden and Germany, but these seem surface affiliations since he also complained that Loos was a ‘no good’ and derided almost all but good honest folk.
Whatever Sullivan’s decline, the late banks are fabulous. They are essentially secular churches, with the bank vaults as altarpieces; a tribute to toil on the land and the thankful harvest, and to probity and thrift. Sullivan purposely over-specified the vaults. The banks themselves were consistently over budget, but the locals saw the benefits. Sullivan referred to them as jewel boxes; an apt epitaph given his credit history.
He was a great architect with little faith in the establishment, even wondering if ‘the discovery of America had proven to be a blessing or a curse to the world of mankind’. He made many intemperate public statements that alienated him from his colleagues, but such were the makings of a hero.
Emily Forgot · See more work on her website