Louis Sullivan Reconsidered: Mentor, Not the Father, of the Skyscraper

Louis Sullivan Reconsidered: Mentor, Not the Father, of the Skyscraper

To me the two most fascinating bits about architect Louis Sullivan are that he died a penniless drunk, and that admirer Richard Nickel was killed in 1972 when Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange building collapsed on him while salvaging its ornaments. However, to many Sullivan is known as the Father of the Skyscraper while in recent years his birthday is celebrated as Skyscraper Day.

I’m bringing this up because the other day I found a little ebook on Amazon called Birth of the Skyscraper: Louis Sullivan Describes the Heart and Soul of the Tall Building modestly priced at $2.99. Off course I found out there was a catch after I had purchased it. The bulk is a reprint of Sullivan’s famous 1896 article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (which can be downloaded here for free), along with a few paragraphs of Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea. Half of the book are recommendations for other Kindle Books by the same publisher so I do feel a bit jibbed. Anyway, I decided to re-read The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered to see what I would get out of it this time.

First, some of Sullivan’s lines make interesting quotes. Here he is predicting why some of the social housing schemes in the 1960’s failed. 

With no “eyes on the street” among these housing towers, there was no community to see to security.

The quote below beats any definitionof the skyscraper in most dictionaries out there. 

It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line, that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

Something condo designers of today could take note of: tall is all about place and space.

It demands of us, What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty.

Building up towards the famous form follows function line.

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.

Sullivan is known for the phrase form follows function but the exact quote is: form ever follows function and this is the law. The ‘law’ refers to the idea that in nature, design serves a useful purpose, finery not included. He continues by vertically dissecting the skyscraper (cellar, base, shaft and attic) and argues that these parts are to be designed according to their role within the vertical structure. Basically it’s a plea for design which puts the visual emphasis on function and structure instead of ornament.

The expression of the interior structure on the exterior façade is key to understanding modern architecture.

The latter explains why Sullivan is also referred to as the Father of Modernism. This is also the gist of the last line in the article:

…it may be proclaimed that we are on the high-road to a natural and satisfying art, an architecture that will soon become a fine art in the true, the best sense of the word, an art that will live because it will be of the people, for the people, and by the people.

The word skyscraper was coined during the 1880’s when Sullivan was a prolific architect in Chicago. But Sullivan was much more of an artist then he was an engineer (like his partner Dankmar Adler) or an organizer (like his colleague Daniel Burnham). He didn’t structurally invent them, not is he personally known for any of the many innovations that made commercial tall buildings possible.

Sullivan also didn’t aesthetically envision skyscrapers as he wrote the article four years after Chicago’s Masonic Temple was completed, which some consider to be the first tall office building that has the classic looks of a skyscraper.

The article was written three years after the Chicago World’s Fair, which established the popularity of the more eclectic architecture of the gilded age, and at a time where New York had already welcomed its first 100-meter-tall building. In this regard, the article wasn’t written at a time during which the skyscraper was is its infancy, but was already growing up. According to Sullivan, into the wrong direction though. The skyscraper was already there, Sullivan merely suggested an expression that was fitting for one, while introducing modern architecture in the process. He simply pointed out the merits of the skyscraper and urged them to act accordingly, or better put: urged his colleagues to design skyscrapers that look like actual skyscrapers, and not decorated boxes designed in gone-by styles.

All this considered Louis Sullivan should rather be referred to as the Mentor of the Skyscraper instead of the father.

One final consideration I have, which is that Sullivan published his famous paper in the March 1896 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, which was more focussed on literature and science then about architecture. It makes you wonder why Sullivan chose this platform.

Well, I got two or three cents of thought out of rereading the $2.99 reprint, which I guess is not bad after all.

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