The Curve of the Arch: The Story of Louis Sullivan’s Owatonna Bank
Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament
The present state of American architecture, caught between the rejection of an outmoded Modernism and the as yet unconvincing products of an emergent Postmodernism, might well be summed up as follows:
We are at that dramatic moment in-our national life wherein we tremble evenly between decay and evolution, and our architecture, with strange fidelity, reflects this equipoise. That the forces of decadence predominate in quantity there can be no doubt; that the recreative forces now balance them by virtue of quality, and may eventually overpower them, is a matter of conjecture. That the bulk of our architecture is rotten to the core, is a statement which does not admit of one solitary doubt. That there is in our national life, in the genius of our people, a fruitful germ, and that there are a handful who perceive this, is likewise beyond question.
Aside from the faintly archaic quality of its diction and syntax, this passage gives one clue to the fact that it was written not yesterday, but eighty-five years ago, in a time of far greater optimism than our own. For who today truly believes as did its author, Louis Henri Sullivan, that the collective architectural will of a democratic people would not only manifest itself; but would triumph over what he castigated as “the Feudal Idea”?
Throughout his troubled life, Sullivan retained his conviction that architecture is the truthful mirror of a nation’s values. “As you are, so are your buildings,” he wrote. “And, as your buildings, so are you.” Along with his credence in the evolutionary ascent of democracy as the historical destiny of the modern age went his certitude that architecture is able to stimulate those beneficial impulses which he, ardent social philosopher as well as revolutionary architect, sought to promote.
The most productive portion of Sullivan’s creative life—the twenty-five years from the beginning of his partnership with the engineer Dankmar Adler in 1883 to the completion of his National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, in 1908—coincided with the great American epoch of capital formation. No architect was more wary than Sullivan of the effect laissez-faire capitalism would have on the democratic spirit. In the baleful rhythms of an Old Testament prophet, Sullivan warned that “foibles and follies have usurped in your minds the vacant seat of wisdom. Thus, has your Dollar betrayed you, as it must.” Yet no other American architect was so skillful a servant of the governing economic order, dignifying its often untidy activities by elevating its most characteristic structures—offices, banks, and stock exchanges—to the level of high art.
This has not always sat well with critics, especially those who have demanded a concordance between an architect’s theories and his buildings. Lewis Mumford, though on the whole a partisan of Sullivan; had misgivings about the architect’s most influential role when he wrote in The Brown Decades (1931) of Sullivan’s tall office building designs:
More than anything, the mischief lay in the notion that on …