Louis Sullivan: An Original American Architect

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

What differentiates the icons of architecture from the hundreds of other talented practitioners that we never hear about? Sometimes it’s the first out with a new idea, and sometimes it’s others’ ideas in a whole new way. The revolutionary and brilliant Chicago architect Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924) has stood the test of time, and is still considered the “spiritual” father of modern American architecture, evidenced by recent films that enthusiastically extol his oeuvre, his rapid rise to fame, tragic decline, and the ultimate triumph of his creative spirit.

The Right Place at the Right Time

America, and especially Chicago, was a riotous outburst of the industrial revolution after the Civil War, inventing elevators, business machines, stronger steel, new building materials, and creating jobs, drawing people into cities. Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 was a catalyst in making that city a pioneer in the great “Struggle with Gravity.” Chicago was already our fastest growing city at the time, with claims to have the “biggest” of everything, so the biggest buildings in the world were being built here too.

With this heady mix of change, architects and urban planners were defining what it meant to act as a profession in these fields. Both Sullivan and his rival, Daniel Burnham apprenticed briefly in William LeBaron Jenney’s Chicago architecture firm when the first steel structures were designed.

Burnham partnered with John Root from 1873 to 1891, applying the preferred “old-world”-style eclecticism to office buildings. After Root’s death in 1891, Burnham grew his solo practice, directed building the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, designed many large buildings and urban plans, and promoted his anthem, “Make no little plans.” Burnham’s office became a model of efficiency, but allowed clients to dictate style. The 1893 Fair continued to exert a “Classical White City” influence over architecture for many decades.

Ironically, Adolf Loos attended the fair while visiting from Austria, leading him to write condemning articles against copious ornamentation, equating it to a “crime.” In 1928, Loos was disgraced by a pedophilia scandal in Vienna, and convicted.

In contrast, Sullivan partnered with architect Dankmar Adler from 1981 to 1895, which included apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright from 1887 to 1893 (even starting the Bayard Building in NYC circa 1894). They designed rhapsodies in brick, steel, and terra cotta in an original American style that was an “emotional expression” of buildings. In response to the cold, cloudy weather in the Windy City, Sullivan developed a sun-catching bay “Chicago window” for his tall office buildings that came to be part of the “Chicago School” of architecture. Sullivan’s search for an organic architecture is encapsulated in his famous dictum, “Form always follows function.”

On his own after 1895, Sullivan’s personality, restlessness, and erratic moods, made it difficult to gain clientele. He briefly married in 1898, but died broke and disheartened soon after finishing his autobiography, published with the help of his former apprentice F. L. Wright (some say these architects inspired Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead).

The tall building debate goes on; some argue that extremely tall buildings ignore human scale and are “Babel-like” and intimidating, while others derisively call them “Cathedrals of commerce.” (e.g. Woolworth, 1913) But when done right, our skyscrapers can still exalt, inspire, and exhilarate us, while performing their important and worthwhile functions.

Brian J. Pape is an architectural consultant in private practice, serves as Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and, as WestView News’s Architectural Editor, is a regular contributor of writing and photography. He is an officer of EnJOY Life!, a health consultancy firm.

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