Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Sullivan against the world

From AR June 1949: Wherever the practice of architecture to-day rises to the dignity of an idea in harmony with place and time, the origin of that practice is Louis H. Sullivan

On June 8 Frank Lloyd Wright celebrates his eightieth birthday. He is at last not without official honour in his own country, having just been awarded the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects. He is demonstrating his apparent immunity from old age by continuing to design as energetically as ever and by producing a new book Genius and the Mobocracy, which will be published this month by Duell, Sloane and Pearce. Below the REVIEW prints one chapter from it in advance. The chapter is called ‘Truth Against the World’ and is a tribute to Louis Sullivan. “Not having so much to be humble about,” says Frank Lloyd Wright, “I have tried – with honest arrogance – to describe the tragedy, triumph, and significance of the great man who invariably signed himself Louis H. Sullivan; to tell you why I, though never his disciple – nor that of any man – called him ‘lieber-meister’. His own beautiful drawings… are better testimony than any I could offer in words. He had been dating the drawings (some wrongly but who really knows?) and as he put the collection of a hundred or more into my hands he said with a questioning look – I can see his glance as I write – ‘Frank, you will be writing about these some day?’

‘Yes, lieber-meister, I will’.

And I remember that, in his weakness, he seemed relieved and pleased. These drawings were the dearest treasure of his heart and this book is the true story of a personal experience now necessary to put on the record, no more for his sake than for my own, because the historical view of each where the other is concerned is getting so badly out of focus that only I can right it. I meant to write not as the disciple I never was, nor the pupil he never wanted, but write as the capable workman who understood (that is to say, loved) the man he served – a man who loved him in return. From me should come appreciation of the master’s work as the master himself saw his own work and as I saw him”.

Form follows function

Form follows function? Well… this simple fact basic to ecologist, physicist, biologist, and almost any other ‘ist’ except the artist, has by way of discipleship to derivatives, devotees, and exploiters been razed to the level of mere dogma. The latest effects of the already trite cliché appeared as novel at the Museum of Modern Art about 1932. As this phrase was then used, we had but the latest camouflage of the old shop-worn formula, ‘Art for art’s sake’. But, as said in the foreword to which this afterword is corollary, the old dogma – streamlined now – got into circulation over a hurdle of names: ‘cubist’, ‘futurist’, ‘purist’, and finally ‘internationalist’. No doubt, more names are coming. Out of the European cubo-purist or puro-cubist the modernists profess to have come into the architecture called modern – soon dubbed ‘internationalist’. They were thrown in with me. Or vice versa? All, originally, were minor European mirror-sects leading into or out of one bauhaus until finally, having a cart but no horse, the new slogan ‘form follows function’ was picked up here to be used for a horse over there. Three-dimensional ideology was thus, soon by other painter-sects, degraded to sectarianism in the obvious patterns of the ever-useful stencil. Instead of the new depth, another two-dimensional affair had arrived, actually no more architecture than a painter’s stencil would be. But it became another aestheticism when discovered by the provincial ‘art elite’ in our country. Call this elite the favoured academic arbiters of our industrialism; of our upper haves-and-holders tending naturally, then as now, toward fascism. This elite immediately saw the stencil as the latest style and easy to use for prefabricated teaching. As promptly, the universities (advance guardians of the aesthetic and mental phases of our mass-produced imitation of a culture) imported more of it, professionalized its adoption by putting it into armchairs, and adapted its too easy (easy because superficial) advantages. Easy to learn, a cliché (or stencil) is quite as easy to forget. But nevertheless because individuality – innate sensibility – was sufficiently left out of the affair to make further academic conscription of youth quite safe (perhaps therefore), it was a great educational convenience. So, its nature not yet fully comprehended, collegiate mass consumption of a definitely undemocratic pattern was begun in our universities and museums. It is going on there yet.

As a matter of course, to be an expedient is in the nature of what the stencil is. So in our country the stencil was soon regarded by ‘higher education’ – itself one – as ideal. It was seen to be sufficiently ‘depersonalized’ (to use their word for deindividualized) to be regarded as ‘safe’; that is to say, not sufficiently alive to be dangerous to handle or hard to teach. Nor is it yet clear to academic authority that the slogan, ‘form follows function’, thus made available to negation by abnegation, was originally derived from a home-made affirmation of renunciation which subsequently returned to us from abroad a deformed, and so probably dangerous, import.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s again say that ‘form does follow function’. Well… so does the sun rise tomorrow morning; so every bright has its dark, just as night is but a shadow cast by the sun. In all physical Nature form follows function! That is the simple fact. But too many misty cults for prestidigitators of fine-art ‘movements’ are already fashioned of similar simples – without due reference to their spiritual significance in Nature – for it to be ethical to let these too numerous stencilites, so recently and readily made, get away with another at expense to organic architecture.

louis-sullivan-circa-1895-wikimedia-commons

Louis sullivan circa 1895

Louis Sullivan circa 1895

Louis H. Sullivan would have been first to gleefully kick these self-styled functioneers – with their ‘A house is a machine for living’ (but only if a human heart is a suction pump) – from his doorstep. In so far as his doorstep was mine I did it myself when they appeared with their dead-sea fruit, ‘the whited sepulchre’ (call it the flat-bosomed façade), at the Museum of Modern Art about 1932. But the affair was then far behind-hand. So far behind, indeed, that where useful negation was implied it was definitely recorded by myself in so many words in the Architectural Record of February 1906 and in the many buildings which I had, by that time, designed and built. How did this fact also escape detection by ‘the authorities’ – our own proprietary museums and learned educationists – when in 1910 it went so widely abroad as to be actually international to-day? Except by the circumstances peculiar to the posterior concept of culture as habitual from abroad it cannot be explained. Let us then blame the lack of vision and wisdom in the circumstances on the cross-eyed view, or jargon, and receive the return of the prodigal with a welcome proper to the wayward.

For any wanton sect to understand Louis H. Sullivan at all is to know that not then was he, nor ever would he be, for any such. His greatness for all lies in that at heart and in deed he was the great, human lyric poet whose creation out of himself of the poetic efflorescence of Louis H. Sullivan – great individual – was unique. Of course, he is best seen where happiest – seen in what he loved best: the primal plastic. Clay.

Although seeming at times a nature-ism (his danger), the idea is there: of the thing not on it; and therefore Sullivanian self-expression contained the elements and prophesied organic architecture. To look down upon such efflorescence as mere ‘ornament’ is disgraceful ignorance. We do so because we have only known ornament as self-indulgent excrescence ignorantly applied to some surface as a mere prettification. But, with the master, ‘ornament’ was, like music, a matter of the soul – ‘of’ the nature of man – inevitable to him: (natural) as leaves on trees or any fruit announced by the blossoms on the stems that carry both. It was this man that Louis H. Sullivan was and felt himself to be, that he expected me to write about some day: a far greater man than the functionalist he has been wishfully and wilfully made to appear.

‘It is not yet clear to academic authority that the slogan ‘form follows function’ was originally derived from a home-made affirmation of renunciation which subsequently returned to us from abroad a deformed, and so probably dangerous, import

Actually ignorant of the proper depth of the word Nature as a term of the spirit, so-called internationalists dedicated the bare box to the machine god regardless and threw him in with it. These flat boxes on stilts – to further emphasize contrast to Nature (and ignorance of her quality) – were painted white to further mark aloofness not only to Nature but to man. This factish, leftish derivation of the old dictum, ‘Art is art precisely in that it is not Nature’, by wrongly interpreting the word Nature, utterly betrayed the master’s poetic sense. The third dimension which Sullivanian ornament prophesied never entered with the worshippers of ‘next-to-nothing’ into their shrine, the whited sepulchre. When they do refer to ‘Nature’, they deny truth by fact.

Where they build we have no place for a real man to live in unless he be purged of his own individuality. Just as in fascism we have submission of the man to exterior authority, so in this latest conventionalizing of fascist import, growing more and more mechanistic in concept and grasp, we have but a ‘sec’. A dry next­-to-nothing instead of quite something.

But negations are by nature dry. We do have a form of ‘restatement’ of the negation of the Larkin Building, 1906, to use in the new architecture (but not to live with) in this rebottled old formula: ‘Art for art’s sake’; in other words, a revival of the old formula: ‘Art is art precisely in that it is not Nature’. But wholesome rejection of this certificate of divorce from Nature now posing as artistic ‘contrast’ is our present need. Failing to match a given sample the clerk is trained to say, ‘Then, madam, how would you like a contrast’. Concerning these old dictums, we see in them all this childish (not childlike) misuse of the word Nature, the use of the word as mere fact instead of a great truth, and in that misuse lies the basis for every negative sect: the expedient excuse for the architect’s ‘Then, madam, how would you like a contrast?’ The proper use of the word Nature, as the innate character of anything or everything, would not only void such underdone (or overdone) abstraction in the future but be useful as the spiritual cathartic necessary in times so badly underdone or overstuffed as ours.

‘Sullivan’s greatness for all lies in that at heart and in deed he was the great, human lyric poet whose creation out of himself of the poetic efflorescence of Louis H. Sullivan – great individual – was unique

All but a few of these negativities seem to be – or once were – painters making their advent into architecture regardless of the dignity, difficulty, and profound character of the third dimensions of actual experience in structure; therefore – no sure foundation for a new aesthetic in architecture. To bring architecture alive again as the great mother-art, negation has had its place. But its place is no longer creative. The time for affirmation is now. Nor can architecture thrive on the present. If not dated at least a decade ahead, it is born to be and stay behind its time.

Abuses notwithstanding, we must learn to use the word Nature in the proper romantic (or integral) sense of the word. Its proper use becomes indispensable if we would be free ourselves and put the true spiritual use of the word organic into the use of our language.

In this ultra-materialist era our life in Usonia needs the word used in real sense to develop honest culture of our own, or we go dry. Sap fails the graft. To take advantage of our excessive advantages our culture must be based upon decentralization and not on the major and minor axes of any grandomaniac past or modern pig-pile. Our architecture will then be in the reflex; monarchic major and minor axes no longer dominating our lives by way of any revival of any kind of ‘classicism’, we have a chance to become a democracy. But I do not mean that organic reality – a spiritual concept – will ever degenerate to the merely realistic. The distinctions between real and realistic – between sentiment and sentimentality – between truth and fact are as important as those between the curious and the beautiful or between science and art.

To illustrate: a great sculptor, Michael Angelo (painter), ignorant of the depth-dimensions of good construction, visualized and isolated high up in air the great masonry arch we architects call a dome. The painter – as a matter of course – provided no more to take the inevitable thrust of the mighty arched masonry-mass than the plain air over a series of tall slender upended stilts (call them columns) set up around beneath the outer rim of the great arch. The structure had to be bound with a great iron chain at a crucial moment or all would have come to the ground. Inorganic (as might be expected), this gorgeous ‘tour de force’ of the painter was extraordinarily picturesque! And perhaps this rape of the arch by the picture was so extremely successful because, for most of the time before the great Angelo and totally, except for music and painting, for about five hundred years, the ‘Renaissance’ had all but destroyed, in favour of symbolism, any integrity – that is to say, any true inner significance of architecture as sublimated structure.

‘Although seeming at times a nature-ism (his danger), the idea is there: of  the thing not on it; and therefore Sullivanian self-expression contained the elements and prophesied organic architecture

How ‘the picture’ has damaged architecture! Such pretentious artificiality as architecture had in Buonarroti’s time has now got to go. Prevalent fashions in exterior symbolism already becoming less relevant came with a rush to fill the gap made as architecture became empty ‘tour de force’. We now see the dome as a symbol of authority all over the world. Cultural decline has gone so far ‘sky-dome’ by the time in which I write, the Capitol at Washington for an instance, that perhaps only some such tour de force could be ‘extraordinarily successful’. The expressions of the exterior mask aided by symbolism, the long period of the rebirths of the rebirth (history calls the rebirth the Renaissance), were in this respect similar to our own period: they were going empty of Nature significance.

Organic quality in things natural to man and the earth supporting him, though likely to be miraculous, are not necessarily ‘mystic’ and should have been less extraordinary in the thought-world of that time: a world then not yet so degenerate. But as thought (organic) was almost as rare in that day as it is in ours, the great Italian painter’s rape of the arch by picture is still sensational. This ponderous anachronism styled (shall we say ‘streamlined’) by Michael Angelo still flourishes as the symbol of authority among us: so many centuries later. But now this masonry symbol is simulated – imitated – by casting iron plates in the image of the original masonry arch and bolting the iron plates securely together. The chain thus crept up to supplant the dome.

Thus – the dome is a heresy. Throw in the pilaster, column-capital, and cornice – all now Western, advertising to the world a total lack of fundamental integrity in architecture all down the line, and you will-see the triumph not only of the artificial symbol of authority but the ascendancy of temporal authority over the principles of democracy. With this new integrity which we call the ‘third dimension’ (call the third ‘depth’) in mind – and – yes – you are on the way to a fourth dimension; headed for dimensions at will. Structural integrity seems even more than ever absent from the so-called modern architecture of our national scene. Is this because the third dimension inevitable to organic structure has so defied the camera eye (or the glass eye of the classicist) that it has also defied, or is derided, by the flat vision of our stencilists? Their sentimental worship of the Greeks would so indicate. Nevertheless the sense of depth which we are here calling the third dimension – a spiritual quality that cannot be forced but must be wooed – marries the building to. human life and weds both to the ground. Architecture in this deeper sense is not formidable but is truly fundamental to democracy. We will find the democratic home to be integral part of the man himself, placed upon his own share of earth, and building there a hearth he can call his own and look himself in the face. To that prophetic expression of himself man must cling for salvation in the heedless voracity of this epidemic, machine-mad, money-power era. No posterior cliché for building that sidesteps to evade or contradict the Nature of man as a noble integral feature of his native and natural environment can flourish to-day if we are to survive as a democratic people. No stencil-ist or any ist – even the artist – has power to realize this primal element of organic character in a building, that character seen as individuality. Negation, when habitual, is so soon lifeless – too soon a standardization leading to utter mediocrity. Stagnation. Stagnate architecture – the mother art – and stagnation will go on into all branches of all the great arts and the great arts are the heart of our civilized life. Then life lies – where? We cannot live on science.

‘The factish, leftish derivation of the old dictum, ‘Art is art precisely in that it is not Nature’, by wrongly interpreting the word Nature, utterly betrayed Sullivan’s poetic sense

Timely building no less than timely man must be courageously affirmative! Affirmation is infinitely more difficult than negation. Affirm the truth that great building must become great art – innate living-feature of man’s environment as bees, trees, or flowers are of his earth; say that a great building must be a great natural: a reality for man – not realistic or a contrast but affirmative as man himself is in true democracy. If the modern man in Usonia is to enjoy culture true to his own time and to this democratic ideal of freedom, our buildings must be groundlings. They may dramatize what and as they please, but only the good ground can give validity to the drama; give it by loving the building. Any cliché hates the ground. So the ground hates the cliché.

Ideas are also manifestations of Nature.

If democracy prevails among nations then, within this ideal of the ideal we call an organic architecture, the culture of each and every country must ‘grow its own’. Democracy, likewise, must be grown. Its culture especially cannot live very long on the prohibition or negation. Neither democracy nor organic architecture can ever be enforced.

Instead of the trite fact of the dogma, ‘form follows function’, in order to be truly significant of the master’s thought let us learn the dramatic truth that ‘form and function are one’, recognizing what the phrase means when we use it. It means that a building can only be functional when integral with environment and so formed in the nature of materials according to purpose and method as to be a living entity true each in all to all: no small order. But, thus believing, we will gradually learn to express and expand the thought of the great lyric poet – that was Louis H. Sullivan. His end is not yet. By deference and implication we will then go far to prevent a slogan, already a decadent dogma, from disastrous encroachment upon our native gifts.

The ground reiteration

So, wherever the practice of architecture to-day rises to the dignity of an idea in harmony with place and time, independent of ism, ist, or ite, the origin of that practice is middle-West to our courageous national experiment in freedom and stems from one, Louis H. Sullivan – beginning about 1889.

Since fascist-tainted propaganda for a style suited to authority began in our museums and universities some twenty years ago, I have foreseen ultimate issue between architecture thus made useful to academic authority, easy to teach, and architecture natural to our needs as a democratic people – to be inspired but not taught – and so of slow growth. To lighten the mystery of this unintelligible world we need architecture communicative of an ideal flowing from individual to individual, not as formalism but in the reflex as innate individuality. Only so inspired to become fit abode for the soul of man, will our buildings ever rise above the shed, a bogus palace, the flat bosomed façade, or some monument authority builds to honour authority – and this nation learn to build as a free democracy.

All ‘ites’ and ‘isms’, especially individualisms, invalidate individuality. Without exception they are making and can only make façades suited to dictatorial power. We have seen in the provincial imitations of imported point, line, and plane nothing organic, but a modernism: degeneracy grasping for salvation by the kind of machine worship that brings man himself to the level of machines. Nature herself covets and cherishes variety and dreads reiteration unqualified. She goes to great lengths to achieve infinite variety. There is something sinister for the living in the beating of the drum. Unrelieved, it is the song of death.

‘Instead of the trite fact of the dogma, “form follows function”, in order to be truly significant of Sullivan’s thought let us learn the dramatic truth that “form and function are one”’

Although the building may be a piece of property, by now our modern society should be so far developed as to realize that an architect’s work is the noblest of all utilities and should be of the very texture, substance, and spirit of our own culture. Though his art is most basic and profound of all the great arts, at the same time architecture is the great art least understood in modern times. Not until democracy really learns to build unconcerned with a style – a style is reiteration – but build inspired by the Nature of style itself will our culture develop architecture or even men able to comprehend it. The camera-eye of science is too flat. The fact is not the truth.

Therefore, because this affair of the third dimension is less objective than subjective – thickness seen as depth being a matter as difficult in words as a fourth dimension would be in our present mathematics – this belated book may not be easy to read. When our culture is our own it will contain the vocabulary necessary to that architecture freshly conceived – disciplined from within by principle.

This book is a graph, it is true – neither biograph nor autobiograph but a combination of both. There on its pages is the work-life of a great master and the pencil in his hand – myself. You will find no concern with architecture in two dimensions fashioned like some brass hat for the head to supplant a natural head of hair, but architecture in the depth-dimension that is completely integral: of and natural to the nature of the circumstance. Organic architecture is therefore the growth in space of an idea – a state of mind proceeding by the natural science of structure in the use of materials to the splendid, appropriate art of form: form true to purpose. Furthermore it is the art of building wherein aesthetic and construction not only approve but prove each other. In organic sense such building is an entity of the human spirit as that of any tree or flower is of the ground. A natural, human circumstance – possible only to the complete architect. There will never be too many of him. He is master of the elements: earth, air, fire, light, and water. Space, motion, and gravitation are his palette: the sun his brush. His concern is the heart of humanity. He, of all men, must see into the life of things; know their honour.