PRINT October 1977

Louis Sullivan’s Ornament

WHEN THE AUDITORIUM BUILDING OPENED in Chicago on December 9, 1889, Louis H. Sullivan, at the age of 34, had already become a master of his art and a popular success. The Auditorium Building provided Chicago with an architectural masterpiece—a fully realized plexus of form, expressive structure and ornament. It fused into a dynamic whole the sense of abstract form latent in the work of H.H. Richardson, the facts and techniques of an emerging technological era, and the sentiments of an age of romance, rhetoric and representation. Sullivan’s genius in 1889 was his ability to provide this synthesis. Yet despite his resolution of the conflict between structural expression and representative style, and of the split between ornament and pure form, his achievement was a singular one, unwanted either by his contemporaries or by the new men of 20th-century architecture.

The 20th century particularly rejected ornament as a part of architecture, or the art of adorning as proper to the making of buildings. Even Sullivan, speaking of the new era, realized that the “intellectual trend of the hour is toward simplification.” Certainly Sullivan’s law of form—that form stands in relation to functional activity—was used by the new men of the new century to simplify architecture, but they were steadfast in their rejection of ornament.

Yet it is hardly the responsibility of form to function that gives Sullivan’s work its provocative power or that gives modern architecture its theoretical foundation. Sullivan’s philosophy of form as revealed in his ornament is his real achievement, and it is the principle behind his ornament that gives modern architecture its internal-to-external dynamic. Without the theory of plastic spatial development from within to without, modern architects simply could not have made their buildings.

Even the modernist capacity to design buildings without recourse to academic models has its origin in Sullivan’s grasp of ornamental design. Frank Lloyd Wright, speaking of this, admitted that his first goal was to

. . . put into building practice the implications of the great philosophy to which the lyric poet (Sullivan) dedicated himself in this sensuous efflorescence so peculiarly and absolutely his own.1

Wright’s sense of spatial plasticity emerged from his own apprenticeship with Sullivan, drawing ornament in the Adler and Sullivan office high above the auditorium. The principles of Sullivan’s ornament—organic growth, internal spatial energy releasing itself, plastic continuity of form and rhythmic development of the inside—these were considered by Wright as the “prophecy” of the modern era. Le Corbusier used similar principles in his theory of internal development (the plan as the generator) with invisible regulating rhythms. Paradoxically, the architects of the 20th century used ornamental principles—organic growth, internal energy, plastic continuity and rhythmic development—to replace adornment with the “grammar” of form, space and construction. Representation, in other words, was replaced by abstraction. The building became merely itself, but, in itself, an ornament. Neither foliate nor geometric nor constructional ornaments were permitted to intrude upon the abstract formal or spatial codes individually established by each designer. Architecture, removed from its signifying function, became a collection of private plastic languages, retrieved only at mid-century by the acceptance of modern architecture as a commodity (the ultimate ornament?). Although we cannot turn back to the era of terra-cotta and cast iron, a re-examination of Louis Sullivan’s ornament may help us to deal with our current architectural dilemma involving the many failures of modernist doctrines—including the rejection of ornament.

In 1924 Sullivan wrote, in A System of Architectural Ornament,

Nothing is really inorganic to the creative will of man. His spiritual power masters the inorganic and causes it to live in forms which his imagination brings forth from the lifeless, the amorphous. He thus transmutes into the image of his passion that which of itself has no such power.2

Ornament, the art of adorning, provides us with a language with which to conduct the oldest human dialogue—the dialogue with the world of nature. Ornament, meaning “something that lends grace or beauty”—and the “act of adorning” itself—is a manipulation of a natural substance in the interest of putting our human stamp upon it. In so doing, a part of the natural world is brought (by working individuals) within the human community.

Central to our dealings with nature is the making of tools, and, with them, the building of places for the conduct of our affairs protected from the disadvantages of the natural world itself. Then, in turn, we invest these architectural transformations of the natural world with the power of communicative representation. Tools, shelter and place all become elements of artistic representation at once, and that representation stands midway between object and language. We invest our tools and spaces with a sense of mental order by conceptualizing them in our minds; we render them into our world by altering them with our hands.

Conceptualization and adornment are therefore the basis of artistic transformation—that communication system that symbolizes the change from “raw to cooked,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss puts it. The simple adornment of self, object, or place—making art out of fact—stands together with abstract conceptualizing at the root of architecture.

As Sullivan proposes:

At the moment the tree in the forest starts and quivers at the first stroke of the axe, at the moment the first blow is struck in the rock that has slumbered through the ages, at that moment the human element makes its entrance into that absorbing drama we call architecture . . . building materials do not come into their places in a structure, of their initiative, or by accident.3

In his view, ornamentation provides us with the very means of denying our beastliness. We men and women are masters of artifice, and we alone. Ornament is that first manifestation of human activity that “aspires an object into language.” Through ornament an object becomes humanized and stands above the natural domain ruled by blind force and power. Ornamenting a place or object is a primary expression of possession; through ornament we make space into the image of ourselves. That Sullivan based his own ornamental forms on nature evidences his awareness of this dialectic: natural materials are submitted to culture as architecture, then the architecture is naturalized by ornament. In this view, then, the conceptual and ornamental transformations are symbolically complementary.

According to Gottfried Semper, the evolution of architectural ornament proceeded from primal origins according to the principle of progressive “clothing.” That is, structural members were executed in permanent materials; primitive or temporary structures were ornamentally “dressed up.” Sullivan also expresses a similar feeling:

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.4

This raiment, overlaid on Sullivan’s “natural” structural elements—pier, lintel and arch—would provide the basis of a new architecture, complete in all particulars. Sullivan believed strongly in the power of ornament as a symbol and vehicle of transformation, for he considered that even “the development of bland blocks through a series of manipulations . . . would illustrate man’s initial control over materials and their destiny.”5

Architectural adornment or ornament, like cooking—that most basic transformation of nature—is a way of being in and representing the world simultaneously, a world that in Sullivan’s words “procreates man’s own personality, that fits him, that he might feel at home with himself,” a world of natural objects transformed by the hand of man. This is why Sullivan defined the architect’s task in a manner that reveals his belief in man’s transforming power: the architect as the agent who brings nature into community. Thus it is the architect’s task to

vitalize building materials, to animate them collectively with a thought, a state of feeling, to charge them with a subjective significance and value, to make them a visible part of the social fabric, to infuse into them the true life of the people, to impart to them the best that is in the people . . .6

Compare Lévi-Strauss, in Structural Anthropology (1967):

In Caduveo thought, as we saw, the design is the face or rather it creates it. It is the design which confers on the face its social existence, its human dignity, its spiritual significance . . . since the designs vary in style and pattern according to caste, they express differences in status within a complex society. This means that they have a sociological function.7

Although the use of ornament to bring building into the world of men explains its existence, it cannot in itself explain the original character of Sullivan’s designs. As both Sullivan and Lévi-Strauss indicate, ornament (as well as other factors) becomes a language of social structures, social experience and even social contradictions. It signifies the status and position of the building, which is itself a representation of the importance of its “owners” and users. Here the manipulation of the image, or in architecture the adding of ornamental beauty to a structure, may increase its relative desirability and value. For buildings are models of ourselves and our society, communicating through form and organizational system the character of that society.

Sullivan was an unusual man in many respects. He wrote poetically and idealistically of his architecture, but also wrote (in 1906) of a new science, the ultimate science, the science of man—sociology. He believed that sociology and architecture would together manifest the great democracy he saw budding in the United States. He saw America as the leader in a new democratic world where the nobility of the common man was manifest in self-determination and self-discipline. He foresaw a society that would not be superficial or materialistic, but artistic and spiritual. Architecture, a mirror of man but also a model for society, would reflect this new spirit. Sullivan wanted architecture to be more than a commodity for “art lovers” and people of wealth and taste. He called for a new art that was not merely “an instrument of private pleasure, but a system of communication operating throughout the group” (as Lévi-Strauss puts it nowadays).8 Sullivan severely criticized anything that smacked of authoritarianism, including the tyranny of the acceptable historical styles. He saw his time as the end of an old feudal era and the dawn of a new age unique in its potential for freedom. Architecture had to respond to the possibilities of this moment.

The magnitude of such a task dictated a return to basic principles. Old forms and traditional ornament had to be rejected. And principles, whether architectural or social, always meant “Nature” to Sullivan—that “Grand Old Dame”:

America is the only land in the whole earth wherein a dream like this may be realized; for here alone tradition is without shackles, and the soul of man free to grow, to mature, to seek its own. But for this we might turn again to Nature, and harkening to her melodious voice learn, as children learn, the accent of its rhythmic cadences.9

Sullivan was, of course, most free to dream in his own ornament. The natural order could be caught and transfixed in stone, terra-cotta or cast iron, codifying his vision of a perfection that would soon be possible for mankind in society.

Yet Sullivan’s dream of a participatory democracy of free men was more spiritual than pragmatic. Although he wrote a book called Democracy, a Man-Search (1908), he was aristocratic in bearing, aloof and introspective. He married briefly and had no children. His treatment of the young student in Kindergarten Chats is somewhat priggish and overbearing. He criticized his professional peers unmercifully and, except for John Wellborn Root and H.H. Richardson, despised them all. He considered New York architecture to be pompous and flatulent; Chicago’s, brutish and vapid. Yet he did not attempt to change the society he looked down on (or at least askance at) and in which he did not participate, except as an artist. He fell into the trap of seeing social transformation merely as the invention of new concepts and ideal images. By the way, he also found himself without a client. The commercial office buildings of the Loop that we now consider precursors of modernism were not considered “architecture” by the public or the profession or even by Sullivan; what was considered architecture was eclectic rather than modern and authentic.10 He was caught between democratic “building” and aristocratic, reactionary “architecture.”

He was left, then, without any real option. Refusing to accept either the actual results of democratic building or aristocratic pretension, he retreated to an ideal dream world. There in the ornament we can find a kind of story in stone, a myth which sidesteps the need to come to grips with reality. This ornament follows certain principles: it must derive from natural form, since ornament drawn from previous construction models would be inauthentic in such a new era of new men; it must be original, signifying the new democratic man in full command of his expressive powers; its patterns must express the free and vital society represented, or at least projected, in Sullivan’s dream. And so the ornament came to symbolize Sullivan’s inaccessible social paradise, of the self and mankind rapturously locked together, that perfect society of the spirit in which he wanted humanity to dwell. Thus the interlocking mandala forms that shimmer over the Guaranty building fix in the very mud of the earth (terra-cotta) a glorious and vibrant oneness. Opposing themes of growth and decay, aspiration and rest, of vertical and horizontal, resolve in the ornament—a picture of “an unobservable reality in an observable phenomenon.” This is a myth of the psychic and social unity of mankind, Sullivan’s least real, but most powerful, story.

There is yet another level of meaning to Sullivan’s ornament. Ornament is the ultimate model of the creative act and the creative act is the ultimate model of man’s powers. Wright, who called imagination “man’s divinity” and who worked in Sullivan’s office for several years, celebrated Sullivan’s ornament passionately: “Ah, that supreme erotic adventure of the mind that was his fascinating ornament.” Wright also described working with Sullivan as follows: “Sullivan would say, ‘Bring it alive, man! Make it live! . . .’ He would sit down at my board for a moment, take the HB pencil from my hand, and sure enough, there it would be. Alive! ‘Take care of the terminals, Wright. The rest will take care of itself.’”11

Sullivan saw nature not simply as (natural) form, but as an idea to be given (artistic) form. In nature he saw the “will to power, the seed germ,” a view of identity reaching fruition—like “leaves of grass”—inspiring men and women to use their natural instincts as their guide. The will of nature could be summoned up by man’s powers in the manipulation of form. The classic Gray’s Botany was his basic source, and roses were his hobby. He saw the source of all creative power in nature, even bringing the young student of Kindergarten Chats to an awareness of his innate but undeveloped poetic potential in the midst of a summer storm, a primitive symbol of the “male attributes, particularly those qualities which a father ought to pass on to his son.”12

Sullivan believed that natural logic, not book logic; instinct, not intellect; the feelings of the heart, not the maneuverings of the mind, would give art “a power, a vitality, a creative beauty.” With such a belief in man’s instinctive creativity, Sullivan detested imitation. Real creativity could only be achieved by identification with the cosmic forces of infinite serenity (of which even nature itself is but a symbol). Man’s outer sympathies and spirit had to merge with the “internal creature impulse of origin divine.”

Sullivan’s ornament stands as testimony to these beliefs. It is truly original. While having some aspect of Gothic floral figures or a trace of Islamic geometrics, it is not in any way imitative of either. As Wright says:

Here was a sentient individual who evoked the goddess whole civilizations strove in vain for centuries to win [in which] achievement we may see the time coming when every man may have that precious quality called style . . .13

His ornament’s themes, particularly the natural foliation and the mandala, show the depth of Sullivan’s insights into the “spirit of creation.” The ancient mandala is spoken of by Faust as “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation.” Jung saw it as the archetypal image signifying the “wholeness of the self,” or in psychic terms, the divinity incarnate in man. Even the mythic unity, in the mandala, of female and male attributes is something that Sullivan speaks of extensively in his writing: “You have not thought deeply enough to know that the heart in you is the woman in man,” he instructs his student.

Sullivan’s reconstructions of natural foliation enabled later modern architects to see in pure geometry the regulating rhythms of nature and the mathematical spirit underlying form. But in these vegetal images Sullivan had also celebrated the biological basis of the world, restoring the building to the natural world in a new way:

So the materials of a building are but the elements of earth removed from the matrix of nature, and reorganized and reshaped by force; by force mechanical, muscular, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual. If these elements are to be robbed of divinity, let them at least become truly human.14

In this statement we see a simple love of the material world and of mankind, of life lived within a cosmic creativity where the mandala is but a kind of map. Through the manipulation of form, through the passion of creation itself, Sullivan believed we could enter that ethereal realm of spirit. In nature’s secrets could be found the “companion of man’s inmost thought.”

Today, we reject, as did those immediately before us, the validity of ornament. Buildings are no longer ornamentally differentiated from each other as social symbols. Buildings no longer model the cosmos either. Man and nature, man and man, and man and cosmos no longer rely on the built world to provide meaning. The built world is merely a collection of individual objects, each unique, self-contained, sterile. No wonder we have trouble calling these results architecture.

Sullivan, like Rodin, closed his era and opened another. His ornament differed from that of the past in that it was personal, constituting his style, not a style. As such, it differed from that of his contemporaries; it also differed from that of the next generation in that it was representational and not abstract, necessary and not what Adolf Loos called ornamental “crime.” It relied on geometry, but it was not geometrical. It followed nature without imitating it. It provided the clue for the next step of architectural development while it closed 5,000 years of ornamental tradition. Sullivan’s dream of a participatory democratic world, realized in stone made human, challenges the confidential absolutism of rationalist/modernist architecture to communicate meaning. In this half of the 20th century, ornament will at last have to be that of Wright’s “every man.”

Michael Mostoller is an architect and associate professor of architecture at Columbia University.



1. Frank Lloyd Wright, Genius and the Mobocracy, New York, 1971, p. 75.

2. Louis H. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament, New York, 1967 (original edition published by the American Institute of Architects, New York, 1924).

3. Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, New York, 1947, p. 31.

4. Louis H Sullivan, “Ornament in Architecture,” The Engineering Magazine, August 1892.

5. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament, plate 1.

6. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, p. 140

7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Garden City, 1967, p. 253.

8. C. Charbornier, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, London, 1969, p. 62.

9. Sullivan, “Ornament in Architecture.”

10. See Rowe, “The Chicago Frame,” Architectural Design, December 1970.

11. Wright, p. 71.

12. K.O.L. Burridge, “Lévi-Strauss and Myth,” The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism, ed. Edmund Leach, New York, 1968.

13. Wright, p. 75.

14. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, p. 32.