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The Master Builder

Twombly’s most novel hypothesis—he has no corroborative proof—is his view that Louis Sullivan was homosexual, although the author does not get around to saying so until page 399. There is some basis for belief that Twombly’s presumption might be correct, though not necessarily in the way he sets forth his brief. In his Autobiography, Sullivan writes with astonishing openness of his revulsion for his father, and the architect’s undiminished vehemence at the age of sixty-five when he composed that memoir could be taken to indicate the presence of an unresolved “Oedipal phase,” which one school of psychoanalytic thought claims is a frequent component in the psychological profile of the “typical” male homosexual.2 There are moreover Sullivan’s recollections of an early attraction to workmen engaged in physical labor; his idolization of a succession of older men; and his special interest in the bodies of his fellow members of the Lotus Place Athletic Club.

Twombly lacks direct evidence of homosexual activity by Sullivan; on the contrary, Chicago legend long had it that he was something of a womanizer, though Twombly shows that there is little to back up that claim, either. But Sullivan writes in the Autobiography of his early crush on a female cousin, he was married for ten years before he and his wife separated and subsequently divorced, and one solace of his grim final period was the mutual affection he shared with a “loyal little henna-haired milliner,” recalled by Wright but otherwise lost in the shadows of history.

Twombly’s sexual theme could be overlooked were it not for his allegation that Sullivan’s “sexuality informed and is visible in his work,” even though he concedes that “it was so repressed he may not have known it himself.” Using extremely simplistic terms Twombly opposes “‘male’ structural forms to ‘female’ ornament,” proposing that “the ‘male’ rationality of a building’s shape provided the occasion for ‘female’ embellishment.” Furthermore, “In his method of designing, inspiration and emotion—the female part of the dichotomy—came first, giving birth to the orderly, logical working out of mass and detail, the male part of the process.”

Apart from the banality of Twombly’s “logical male” versus “emotional female” analogy, it is not even a very new reading of the intriguing tension in many of Sullivan’s schemes between the ornamental and the structural. Mumford, no enthusiast for the lush decorative element’s that, in his Modernist opinion, undermined the integrity of Sullivan’s designs, in 1931 wrote that “Sullivan’s buildings, though often original in conception, began in a subtle way to disintegrate; the masculine and the feminine elements, form and feeling, drew apart.” Twombly unwisely takes that tenuous line of argument several confusing steps further:

Overwhelming ornament did not characterize every late Sullivan building. But it happened often enough to call attention in retrospect to the turn-of-the-century…Schlesinger & Mayer [department store]…when the female-emotional appeared to begin its dominance….

[His wife] Margaret entered Sullivan’s life in 1899…during Schlesinger & Mayer’s designing, just as the trend emerged. If he sensed that the female side of his sensibility, the female component of his nature, was taking over, he may have tried to repress it through boxing, for one thing, a peculiarly male activity he rediscovered shortly before….

Sullivan’s emerging homosexuality, if that is what it was, coincides with his marriage and with his fall from popular favor. It is tempting to link his decline to Margaret, to blame her somehow for his increasing inability to get work. But it is more likely that in the male world of architecture doubts about his masculinity would do him greater damage than anything she may have done. His obvious artistic inclinations could have been used to support rumors of lack of manliness. But if there was talk, it cannot be proven and must be left aside.

Indeed it should: today, several leading members of the architectural profession in the United States are known to be homosexual, but the critic, to say nothing of the general public, would find it impossible to demonstrate from their architectural works alone whether or not they are in fact homosexual. How would Twombly detect the “female-emotional” component in their personalities during a period that (until recently) has largely dispensed with architectural ornament? Will the rise of Postmodernism and its renewed interest in applied decoration encourage him to speculate about their proclivities?

Twombly’s inept handling of this issue is fortunately counterbalanced by his sound evaluations of other, more pertinent, questions surrounding Sullivan’s career (and especially his undoing) as an architect. Chief among them, again because Sullivan places so much emphasis on it in The Autobiography of an Idea, is the architect’s contention that the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with its resplendently magnified Beaux-Arts classical architecture, sounded the death knell of his career. Only three years earlier Sullivan had been at the peak of his powers with the completion of the Chicago Auditorium Building of 1886–1890. The Auditorium was a stupendous accomplishment: a monumental, multi-use, cultural and commercial complex, it combined a technical program of the utmost inventiveness with a decorative scheme of high sophistication. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the United States, and it dramatized, as no other single structure had, the shift in the leadership of American architecture to the Chicago School.

It is true that the comprehensive design of the World’s Fair, for which Sullivan’s rival Daniel Burnham was generally responsible, symbolized the popular acceptance of everything Sullivan fought against in architecture: the servile imitation of historical prototypes; the resort to empty formal rhetoric; the conceptual rigidity imposed by axial, symmetrical planning in which all architectural elements are subordinated to a preconceived layout. In describing the effect the fair had on the building art in America, Sullivan could express himself only in the vocabulary of disease:

From the height of its Columbian Ecstacy, Chicago drooped and subsided with the rest, in a common sickness, the nausea of overstimulation…. Meanwhile the virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and in the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.

But there were other, more immediate circumstances attendant on Sullivan’s precipitous slide from the summit of success. Twombly is at his best in presenting those destructive factors impartially, logically, and persuasively. Sullivan’s stunted personal development did not improve with professional attainment: he was demanding, detached, and difficult with colleagues and subordinates alike. Not for nothing did his partner Adler handle dealings with clients, and the very arrangement of their offices atop the Auditorium Building Tower said it all: Adler’s room was next to the reception area while Sullivan’s was in a far corner beyond the consultation room, signifying their respective roles as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside. The collaborators’ split in 1895, precipitated by the depression of 1893 and the subsequent downturn in architectural activity, left Sullivan without his tactful buffer against the outside world.

3.

Avant-garde architects have never been able to depend on the support of the establishment, since the customary patrons of this most conservative and slowly moving art form have historically been resistant to innovation and experiment. Things have improved somewhat since the broadening of architectural patronage that accompanied the rise of the bourgeoisie, but it remains the only medium that normally requires a client. During the modern period, the vanguard architect has usually relied on small residential jobs both to supply a steady income and to serve as “sketches” for ideas that are often later translated to the larger scale of public commissions. Louis Sullivan designed at least 238 projects during his fifty-year career, but only a handful of them were houses; Frank Lloyd Wright completed almost five hundred buildings in his seventy-five-year professional life, most of them residences.

One reason why Sullivan did not build more houses is that he was not particularly good at it, as Narcisco Menocal has effectively demonstrated in his excellent study, Architecture as Nature: The Transcendentalist Idea of Louis Sullivan.3 Nor was Sullivan particularly interested in seeking out that kind of work, preferring the prestige of grander structures in the city. As a result, he was deprived of one cushion against economic exigency when institutional support failed.

It is certain that Sullivan brought much of his trouble on himself. Always opinionated and scornful of established authority, Sullivan cherished a particular contempt for the American Institute of Architects, organized in 1857 to foster the professionalization of architecture in this country. Before then, architecture had been generally regarded as a master craft rather than a profession such as medicine and the law. Within a generation of its founding, however, the AIA had largely succeeded in raising the status of architects. Sullivan, within an even shorter timespan, did something even more remarkable still; he assumed the Parnassian rank of artist. His irrational animus against the AIA caused that group to protect its recently won territory with vigor equal to his attacks. The architectural profession, then as now, was largely an old-boy network, and as Twombly evocatively describes it:

Retaliation could be subtle but effective. Only a few quiet words in the right places would be enough. From the same social class as most clients…AIA members could easily see to it that Sullivan got his just deserts. The more established the clients, the less they would tolerate controversial connections with troublemakers and firebrands.

From time to time Sullivan was able to attract commercial clients as adventurous as those who seek out “advanced” architects for private houses. None was more noteworthy than Carl Kent Bennett, the rural financier who in 1906 asked Sullivan, then at a very low point of his career, to design the National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, now widely considered one of the great American architectural landmarks of its period, all the more so for its remote location away from the cosmopolitan venues of most high-style design.

Larry Millett’s The Curve of the Arch is an engaging, straightforward history of that small but majestic structure, the most demonstrative example of Sullivan’s faith in the populist imperative he felt certain would spawn a new architecture of democracy. He was at least partially right: his followers among the so-called Prairie School spread Sullivan’s egalitarian gospel throughout the heartland with buildings that kept his principles alive even when he was unable to get work himself.

Of course there is a certain irony in the fact that Sullivan was never called upon to design a city hall, a county courthouse, or a state capitol. During the half-century of Sullivan’s career, twenty-eight state capitols were built, but only two of them (New York’s Romanesque-cum-Renaissance concoction and Connecticut’s Victorian Gothic) departed from variations on the classical domed theme set by the United States Capitol in Washington. Smaller seats of local government often followed suit, and it is not surprising that Sullivan didn’t have a chance for such commissions. But he was party to the metamorphosis of the savings and loan industry in the Midwest during the years from 1906 to 1920, when it sought to portray itself as the friend rather than the foe of the farmer. Sullivan built eight banks in small towns in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and they drew on his imaginative talents in a most appropriate way. They permitted him to offer a vital alternative to an existing architectural convention without any sacrifice of the qualities (in this case, security, stability, and probity) that his clients wished to retain; at the same time the banks showed his capacity for rethinking the same problem over and over again with results that were always fresh and often surprising.

  1. 2

    Irving Bieber, ed., et al., Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study (Basic Books, 1962).

  2. 3

    Wisconsin University Press, 1981.

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