PRINT February 1987


IT HAPPENS THAT THE offices of Artforum in New York are on the top floor of the Bayard Building, which was, according to Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis H. Sullivan’s favorite example of his own work. Thus might the magazine be said to rest, fortuitously, at the very pinnacle of the early history of Modern architecture. Until only a few years ago, occupying these premises would not have made anyone feel that they were in a privileged position. On the contrary, the triumph of Modernism in the form of the International Style made Louis Sullivan’s work look like the last hurrah of an earlier era, a bit of esoterica from the past. But the arrival of Post-Modernism has brought with it a taste for what architect/polemicist Robert Venturi called “the decorated shed.” (The shed’s stripped-down version is, of course, what Modernists like Mies van der Rohe built.) Since Sullivan was the designer par excellence of decorated sheds, his star has now risen again, as is shown by the exhibition “Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament,” curated by Wim de Wit at the Chicago Historical Society.

Chicago is the place to see Sullivan’s work. This is where he practiced and where the largest number of his important projects survives. It made sense for a reassessment of this architect to originate here before going on to New York, to Saint Louis (whose art museum cosponsored the show), and finally to Washington, D.C. Together with its elaborate catalogue, the exhibition makes a large claim for Sullivan— namely, that he was a seminal figure who managed to contain, within a single career, possibilities it would take his profession another century to work through. On the one hand, he was the first architect to grasp the potential of structural steel for creating tall buildings. Thus was he a harbinger of Modernism. At the same time, he also sheathed these structures in terra-cotta ornamented with the most eclectic and idiosyncratic of designs. Thus was he a forerunner of the Post-Modernists, too. Having seen whole the promise that one kind of architecture had, he couldn’t wait for history to explore its implications. He raced ahead to another kind. He jumped to conclusions that the 20th century, more laboriously, would draw from his own premises later. Only now are we catching up with him and beginning to appreciate his achievement. His was a career that seemed to overturn the basic law of nature we were taught in our first life-science class in high school. In his work ontogeny doesn’t recapitulate phylogeny. It anticipates it.

A biological and slightly strained metaphor like this, with undertones of Social Darwinism, seems the right way to describe Sullivan’s career. He himself saw life in such terms. “His starting point,” according to the catalogue’s summary of an essay he wrote shortly before he died, “was the husk of the seed being broken to send out the first tiny leaves.” This vision of the struggle for life contains a first principle that Sullivan literally wrote in stone. The seedpod appears not only as a simile in his voluminous pronouncements on architecture, but as a motif in the decoration with which he inscribed the facades of his buildings.

The pod from which his own greatest work sprang was the Auditorium Building, which he and his partner, Dankmar Adler, were commissioned to do in Chicago in 1886. The exterior is of massive blocks of rusticated stone expressing nothing but the brute strength that the structure of such a large building must have. The interior of the building’s lobbies and theater is covered with decorations molded into the surfaces of flat panels and graceful arches. In 1890, in the Wainwright Building, Saint Louis, the design that Sullivan himself called his major breakthrough, he turned the Auditorium Building inside out. What before he had put in the interior he now did outside, as if a bud had burst into blossom. He exploited the capacity of steel piers for slenderness combined with strength to create the impression of an exterior as lithe and soaring as the interior of the Auditorium Building theater; then he reinforced that impression by facing the structure in ornament whose sinuous lines are as muscular as those of the building itself.

Since it is only part art form, the rest being a science dependent on math, architecture tends to reduce itself to formulas. The whole modem epoch has at times been reduced to just a few words. For instance, “form follows function.” Or, “less is more.” And most recently, “less is a bore.” These sayings do have a kind of aptness. How true to the spirit of Post-Modernism it is that the last statement, by Venturi, is only a snide misquotation, a parody, of the statement before it, which was Mies van der Rohe’s. Thus does the third aphorism take off from the second in much the same way that the new building style does from those that preceded it. The second follows more directly still from the first. In fact, the first is so essential a formulation of the philosophy of Modernism that people are sometimes surprised to learn that it was said not by Mies or some other Bauhaus member, but by Sullivan. It’s clear that the apparently irreconcilable schools of modern architecture are in fact woven together in history as inextricably as the vines on one of Sullivan’s friezes. Making us realize that this is so, whether that is among the exhibition’s goals or not, is nonetheless one of its most powerful effects.

The new importance that Sullivan’s career has assumed can be seen not only from this show, with its catalogue containing four dense, rewarding essays, but from the publication this year of a new biography of the architect by Robert Twombly.1 Sullivan is a compelling figure, as he emerges from each of these studies, because he seems to have held within his one personality much of the contradiction and confusion we feel in the modern history of his field. The most satisfying account of him is that given in the catalogue by architectural historian William Jordy, for nobody else, including Twombly, has as profound a sense of his subject as a human being. But nothing that anyone says can pique our curiosity about Sullivan or make us feel that we are coming to know him quite the way the experience of the exhibition itself does.

The thesis being pursued—that ornament was transcendent, even over structure, as an element of Sullivan’s architecture—lends itself to a show in a museum. What usually compromises architectural exhibitions is that you can’t bring entire buildings into galleries, and models or photographs, no matter how expertly done, aren’t adequate substitutes.2 But architectural detail of the sort on which this show is based can be put on display. Here, grillwork, etched glass, stencils, panels of terra-cotta and chunks of masonry from demolished buildings, even an elevator from the old Chicago Stock Exchange have all been assembled in the gallery for us to judge firsthand. From these shards and artifacts the whole building begins to be comprehended as it never could from photographs alone. We can sense tremendous tension between its power taken altogether and the delicacy of the ornament on it—between the elemental shape and the endless fretwork, the Nietzschean energy and the Islamic meticulousness. And when we examine closely the ornament by itself, we find an equally desperate struggle within. The microcosm matches the macrocosm in its ferocity. Sullivan’s vines, leaves, tendrils, flowers, and pods are not, as Jordy points out, an Art Nouveau vision of sensuous, uninhibited nature. These forms are all imprisoned in rigid geometrical spaces. At times they look as if they’re writhing under the confinement. One fragment that’s included in the exhibition could be a relic from the crown of thorns. A book written some years ago by Leo Marx attempted to explain the development of American civilization in terms of, as his title put it, “the machine in the garden.” Sullivan’s vision was of the garden hopelessly trapped inside the machine. No wonder the one imagery that runs through everybody’s writing on Sullivan is of an uncontainable force straining to burst a resistant surface. This is Sullivan’s own metaphor of the seedpod. Organic growth pushes its way through solid stone. When he hits upon the idea of the Wainwright Building, the feeling is, in Sullivan’s own word, “volcanic.”

It would be easy to see sexual references in this material. Twombly yields to the temptation by discussing for a few pages the possibility that Sullivan was a repressed homosexual, then drops the issue. Sullivan, who thought of himself as a rugged individualist, was a man very much in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, or at least of that era. He admired Walt Whitman for, probably, all the wrong reasons—because of Whitman’s swagger rather than his tenderness. His childless marriage did end in divorce, but by then he had numerous other problems that included excessive drinking, implacable arrogance, near bankruptcy, and the end of his important commissions. The impression with which I come away is of a peculiar kind of American genius like his contemporary D. W. Griffith. Griffith also had the ego of a biblical prophet. He too invented a whole new art form single-handed, and died in poverty and obscurity. Like Sullivan, he was a creator of colossal extravaganzas.

A show as lavish as this one takes it for granted that the rehabilitation of Sullivan’s work will have popular appeal. If so, the attraction may be that it seems to fit nicely into the current nostalgia, which is for a past that had larger possibilities, a gilded age when we got to have our cake and eat it too. An architect who managed to be both a paragon of Modernists and a florid ornamentalist obviously did that. Those who come only to soak up the opulence and message of success are going to feel a bit let down, however, when they get to the show’s closing section. For the last two decades of his life, almost the only commissions Sullivan could get for commercial buildings were from small-town bankers. The more advanced capitalism of a big city like Chicago had outgrown his brand of republican exuberance. Only out on the prairie, where Progressivism was still in full flower, were they idealistic enough to buy Sullivan’s energy and obsession. It’s appropriately ironic how these little banks seem to be foreshadowed in scale and appearance by only two earlier commissions, a pair of tombs he designed in the early 1890s, one of them for the wife of his Saint Louis patron Ellis Wainwright.

The truth is that the national economy was already passing by the kind of dream of prosperity on which these little towns were banking. Above the exorbitant eagle that surmounts the facade of the last bank commission Sullivan got, a single word is carved in stone: “Forward.” At this point in his life the architect was being turned out of one office suite and residence hotel after another because he couldn’t pay his rent. Columbus, Wisconsin, in which the bank was built, didn’t move forward from that point either. This is why such banks are there yet, dotting the Midwestern landscape. They are the only Sullivan buildings left that still command their surroundings, for nothing new has been built near them, or at least nothing that could dwarf them, since they themselves went up.

If these buildings are indeed the crypts in which Sullivan’s reputation was buried, then the local fellow to whom the writing of his epitaph should be left is Garrison Keillor. Still, there is something truly wonderful about these last, forlorn buildings. Here is an architecture that deserves to have been photographed by Eugène Atget. The diminished proportions are precisely where the power lies—in the brooding sturdiness and the crazed decoration. These buildings are the ultimate husks from which Sullivan tried to escape by sheer excess alone. There’s irresistible poignancy in the way his own decline left behind this series of monuments to the decline of rural America soon to come.

By the time we get to the banks in the show’s closing section, we have come a long way. The historical case that this exhibition would make for Sullivan is found mostly in the opening section. That’s where he’s seen as a premature Post-Modernist because of his ability to pick and choose among elements of the traditional architectural styles he studied at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts and after. It’s not the look of his ornamentation, but the eclecticism with which he designed it that makes him a culture hero for today. As the show progresses, however, the claims that both Modernists and Post-Modernists have upon him seem to dwindle. It was the philosophy represented by his own ornament, rather than any pros or cons it might have represented in an esthetic debate, that truly absorbed him. The steel piers that the Modernists extracted from his plans for their own uses were for him just a way to make a building shoot upward, like a vine seeking the sun. By the show’s closing section, the implicit historical issues have fallen away, and it is Sullivan himself with whom we are left. The man that emerges, particularly from the bank designs, is an architect who was capable of being an artist as well. He was able to create plans that were, finally, as personal and inimitable as the style of a great painter. This is a rare accomplishment in the architecture of any given period. Perhaps, in some respects, it is even a unique one on Sullivan’s part. Or maybe it was just the historical moment that was unique and briefly permitted this genius to flourish.

Colin Westerbeck teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is completing a book on street photography. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament is published by the Chicago Historical Society, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and W. W. Norton & Company of New York and London. It contains essays by David Van Zanten, William Jordy, Wim de Wit, and Rochelle Berger Elstein. Robert Twombly’s biography is Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., Elizabeth Sifton Books. 1986.

2. In Chicago, Saint Louis, and New York, one can see Sullivan’s work in situ. Chicago has the Auditorium Building at 430 S. Michigan Avenue, the Carson Pine Scott store at 1 S. State Street, and others. The Wainwright Building is at 7th and Chestnut streets, Saint Louis; the Union Trust Building is at 705 Olive Street, Saint Louis. The Bayard Building is at 65 Bleecker Street, New York.