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 the foundation of practical needs the skyscraper could or should be translated into a “proud and soaring thing.” This was giving the skyscraper a spiritual function to perform: whereas, in actuality, height in skyscrapers meant either a desire for centralized administration, a desire to increase ground rents, a desire for advertisement, or all three of these together.
More recently, in his debunking reassessment, Louis Sullivan and the Polemics of Modern Architecture, David S. Andrew moralizingly maintains that Ellis Wainwright, the ne’er-do-well St. Louis brewer for whom Adler and Sullivan designed two of their most memorable works, the Wainwright Building of 1890–1891 and the Wainwright Tomb of 1892–1893, was thereby granted “a distinction to which he was not fully entitled. His tarnished public career would hardly seem to justify the memorial he received.” But did Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici deserve Michelangelo’s chapel, or Nicolas Fouquet his château of Vaux-le-Vicômte by Louis Le Vau?
Sullivan’s architecture, like all architecture, was powerless to ennoble what was less than admirable in the lives of its patrons, nor was that his intention. But he fell short of the ambitious goal he did set for himself: to establish a genuinely American architecture based on his very personal models. He was thwarted decisively while still at his creative apogee, as were several other exponents of the new free styles that flourished in America and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles Rennie Mackintosh, incomparable master of the British Arts and Crafts movement and idol of the Vienna Secession, died as diminished in substance as Sullivan, who like him became addicted to alcohol and spent the last two decades of his life pathetically underemployed. Bernard Maybeck, the maverick genius of the Bay Area Style, wound up as a designer for other architects, while Josef Hoffmann, founder of the Wiener Werkstätte and now a major cult figure, saw his career in Vienna dry up thirty years before his death.
But it would be wrong to regard Louis Sullivan’s fate as the sign of tragic failure. As Mumford wrote after the architect’s death in 1924, “Sullivan…led the way into the promised land, only to perish in solitude before the caravan could catch up with him.” So it seemed in the first decade of Modernism’s dominion; now it would appear that the caravan has passed us by. But Sullivan’s fierce determination to cultivate an architecture that would nurture self-reliance, encourage populist tendencies, and confirm his transcendental view of nature and the relation of the man-made object to it, commands a respect that can remain undiminished even in light of changing attitudes toward his work.
Regarded in some circles today as one of the most culpable founders of Modernism, Sullivan has received much attention lately for two particular aspects of his practice: his pioneering accomplishments, both tangible and theoretical, in the genesis of the most iconic American structural form, the skyscraper; and his synthesis of a singularly inventive order of architectural ornament (based for the most part on native American botanical motifs) as original as the edifices it was designed to enrich.
Sullivan’s seminal 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” is now regarded as the Urtext of high-rise architecture. It has become a touchstone to those looking for a sound set of principles for how to move beyond the irreducible Miesian glass box, as well as a reproach to the stylistic excesses that have given many recent American skyscrapers an appearance far more bizarre and debased than Sullivan even at his most despondent would have thought possible.
His formula, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons, has not been surpassed: he recommended a tripartite organization of base, shaft, and crown taken directly from the classical tradition (which should be noted by critics such as David S. Andrew who see Sullivan as wholly anticlassical) and yet it is as traditional as the idea that a drama have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sullivan also prescribed a strong vertical emphasis in the exterior articulation of the skyscraper; though Mumford would take exception, pointing out that the steel-cage construction of the new tall building expressed the horizontal as much as the vertical, it became clearer as skyscrapers grew higher that a pronounced sense of visual uplift was required to prevent those megastructures from weighing down the cityscape around them. Most important, however, was Sullivan’s understanding of the necessity for undifferentiated, easily convertible office space throughout all the stories of the shaft: it was that which drew clients to him, and though a number of his contemporaries seized upon that concept, too, none clothed it more artfully than he.
Thus his approach to applied decoration as a means of elucidating a building’s functional nature is again being studied by designers mindful of Sullivan’s desire to supersede the classical vocabulary and to supplant the acanthus and palmettes of the Mediterranean ancients with patterns somewhat more relevant to the modern American experience. But those revived points of reference have been enough to embroil Sullivan in controversy once more, and the several new books on his architecture are far from totally admiring, even though their very number, their simultaneous appearance, and the tenor of their arguments regarding his historical status are indication enough of his continuing importance.
Surprisingly, there had been no full-scale biography of Sullivan since Hugh Morrison’s Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture was published in 1935. Thus Robert Twombly’s Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work has been eagerly anticipated, not least because Twombly’s previous book, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture, 1 is a shrewd and extremely serviceable survey of the man who called Louis Sullivan his “lieber Meister.” It is difficult, therefore, to believe that this new monograph is from the same hand as the Wright biography. Though Twombly is far more sympathetic to his subject than some other current historians, his valuable insights (and there are a number of them) are so lost in a thicket of irrelevant minutiae that the author has difficulty in engaging the attention even of the specialist; what of the lay reader who wants to learn more about Sullivan’s pathbreaking architecture and his complex personality?
There is no question that the early years of Louis Sullivan, who was born in Boston in 1856, are unusually important in understanding his future direction, if only because Sullivan himself set so much store in those juvenile episodes. Sullivan’s emphasis on his childhood and his abrupt cessation of his life story at the exact moment when his professional circumstances began to unravel in 1893 are only two of the factors that make The Autobiography of an Idea one of the oddest and most fascinating documents of its kind in American literature. As Lewis Mumford poetically phrased it:
Whereas for the ordinary biographer youth is only the prelude to a career, for Mr. Sullivan, one might say, youth was the career and what we call maturity seemed little more than the fading of the vision into the light of common day.
To put it more plainly, Louis Sullivan had a severely arrested personality, and The Autobiography of an Idea can be read as an unconscious case history begging for psychoanalytical interpretation. Twombly follows Sullivan’s lead after a fashion in his lingering scrutiny of the few known facts of the boy’s life until he entered MIT at sixteen, to study architecture. Sullivan knew he wanted to be an architect as early as the age of eleven, and his parents encouraged him, going so far as to allow him to continue his schooling in Boston after they moved to Chicago when he was twelve. But rather than offering conclusive explanations of Sullivan’s very strange family relations, Twombly digresses into all manner of pointless information. He provides a detailed history of the houses occupied and taxes paid by Sullivan’s father, Patrick; the address, year of construction, and number of rooms of one of Sullivan’s several elementary schools; and even locates the place where Sullivan’s teen-age uncle worked.
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.
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.
Those institutions’ new-found cooperative approach in response to farmers’ reactions against entrenched big-city economic interests required a strong new architectural aspect to replace the familiar classical treasury form, and Sullivan provided it. For three of the best of those buildings, Sullivan drew on the arch-within-a-cube motif he employed in his Getty Tomb of 1890 in Chicago (a strongbox of another sort, as many critics have indicated). That simple but effective device imparted a monumental quality to what were very small buildings, grand but decidedly unintimidating. It was an architectural civics lesson for a new era, though it turned out to be a short one.
That brief but fascinating phase in American economic history directly reflected the growing local power of the Progressive movement. Its direct effect on Sullivan’s design of his superb sequence of banks is treated with exceptional sensitivity in “The Banks and the Image of Progressive Banking,” Wim de Wit’s essay in Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament, the catalog accompanying the restrospective exhibition of Sullivan’s work recently at the Chicago Historical Society, of which De Wit is curator.4 This is one of the best-designed architecture books to appear in recent memory (the work of Katy Homans and Mark La Riviere), handsomely illustrated with a fuller selection of historical views of Sullivan’s work than can be found in any other book now in print, and supplemented by a fine new set of color photographs of Sullivan’s most important surviving buildings by the peerless Cervin Robinson.
David van Zanten’s catalog essay “Sullivan to 1890” would be more accurately entitled “Sullivan and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,” so strongly does he stress the importance of the French Academy where Sullivan studied for about six months in 1874 and 1875. An energetic propagandist for the increased recognition of the Beaux-Arts school of design, which had been drastically discredited by the missionary proponents of Modernism, Van Zanten errs too far in the opposite direction by trying to depict it as Sullivan’s primary font of inspiration. Even allowing for Sullivan’s often evasive accounts of what really mattered to him, one must not forget his “hovering conviction that this Great School, in its perfect flower of technique, lacked the profound animus of a primal inspiration.”5
The catalog also contains Rochelle Elstein’s rather too hasty summary of the critical literature on Sullivan, and William Jordy’s workmanlike, formalist account of Sullivan’s tall buildings. It amplifies Jordy’s solid previous offerings on the subject, but one wishes that he had placed more emphasis on his exceptionally interesting though very brief characterization of Sullivan’s constituency rather than expounding at such great length on the morphology of the skyscrapers. As Jordy describes the men who sought out Sullivan:
These individualistic businessmen, somewhat provincial, but perhaps cultured in some degree, appear to have been roughly the same type who patronized Wright, except that many of Wright’s clients had gone through the chastening, and possibly civilizing, experience of the wide-spread Arts and Crafts interlude, as eventually so did Sullivan’s patrons for his late banks. The clients for Sullivan’s office buildings seem rather to have represented the end-phase of the most ambitious and venturesome Victorian clients who sought a certain conspicuousness in what they commissioned. Sullivan’s rhetorical design would have been just right for them. Showy, popular, extraordinary, modern, high-flown in sentiment: these qualities in his design would seem to have struck a responsive chord in his business patrons.
One hopes that in future publications Jordy will expand on this all-important component of Sullivan’s significance, which would be far more instructive than a descriptive stylistic analysis in the manner of Henry-Russell Hitchcock.
Much briefer than Millett’s monograph on the Owatonna bank, De Wit’s treatment is also far more penetrating, for although Millett’s anecdotal approach makes for pleasant reading, he neglects to place this building in the larger setting of the economic and political conditions that shaped it. As De Wit portrays the Sullivan banks, they were architecture in the service of financial reform and social change. He explains how
bankers realized that they had the power to influence economic and political life, but that they could not do so without the favor of their clients. In the first two decades of this century the realization would be transformed into a new concept of the banker’s role in society, and as a consequence, of the service he should give to his clients. The bank building was going to play an important part in achieving the image of the bank as an institution that is essential to everyone’s well-being.
Attention to such issues is central to an understanding of Sullivan’s motivations, for he always felt himself to be an agent in the process of political, and through it cultural, evolution. Therefore it is particularly disturbing to encounter Millett’s dismissive observation that “Sullivan’s rhapsodic vision of American democracy was simply warmed-over Whitman.”
It is easy to become impatient with Sullivan the theorist, for he could be self-indulgent, murky, and repetitive. Compared to the woozy philosophical musings of Louis Kahn, however, Sullivan seems a Montaigne of objective clarity. He sometimes edged toward the crackpot in the relentlessness of his passionate obsessions, most notably his insistence on the “organic” nature of architecture. His analogies to biology and botany have a certain metaphoric value, but in the end seem contradictory to the clearly inorganic character of man-made objects. But one might just as well write off William Blake as a simple lunatic, and ignore his theories of art. For coruscating intuitions are strewn along the circuitous paths of Blake’s dazzlingly disordered mind, and so it is with Sullivan.
Far more painstaking in his critique of Sullivan’s thought is David S. Andrew, whose revisionist book must be added to the growing collection of Postmodernist tracts, though his case is far more subtly developed than most. His premise is that Sullivan’s prominence in modern architectural history is largely unmerited, because his “questionable polemic of architecture was the product of his disdain for and condescension toward history.” With forensic thoroughness Andrew scrutinizes Sullivan’s extensive theories of history and architecture. Sullivan intertwined the two to a degree that seems outlandish today, but his dialectic was in keeping with his syncretic blend of the idealistic and the utilitarian, drawing on such diverse sources as the American Transcendentalists, Herbert Spencer, Darwin, and Nietzsche. Andrew’s skepticism here serves him well, and his careful progress through Sullivan’s rambling writings offers some balancing perspectives.
Yet there often are discrepancies between the letter and the spirit of architectural law, and it is here that Andrew misses the point of Sullivan’s importance entirely. There have been serious rifts between what some architects have claimed they were doing and what they actually did, but those disjunctions cannot be used to fault their built works if our experience of them is satisfying. Andrew displays amazing naiveté when he notes with shock that “what [Sullivan] was doing was in fact not included within the outlines of his own theory!” Sullivan’s buildings by and large succeeded, even though his philosophy often did not, and they stand as the best evidence of a highly effective architectural intelligence.
Andrew adheres to the currently fashionable line of the Postmodern classicists, who see Modernism as an aberrant interruption in the inexorable continuum of classicism, which they regard as the approved architectural style of Western civilization. He asserts that
an architect, even a “modern” one, who desires to communicate ideas about institutions housed in the buildings he designs is prompted naturally to set forth those ideas in some universally apprehendable—i.e., historically valid—manner.
Never mind that Sullivan’s indisputably “natural” promptings led him to conclusions antithetical to those of classical precedent; Andrew continues with his restrictive approach by reiterating one of the favorite anti-Modernist canards of present-day revisionists:
It is one of the unfortunate oddities of recent times, in fact, that a doctrine of architectural aesthetics conceived for a limited group of human activities (those of commercial intercourse) has come to receive acclaim as the doctrine that should govern the design of buildings housing all kinds of human activity, no matter how unrelated to things mercantile.
Actually, Sullivan was far more adept than most of his Beaux-Arts-trained contemporaries in devising meaningful ways of building to serve the new functions that nineteenth-century architecture had to deal with. It is a welcome development, now that we have passed beyond the puritanical phase of Modernism, to be able to enjoy the best-resolved examples of Beaux-Arts classicism. But need that pleasure preclude an equal ability to appreciate Sullivan as well? For Andrew, however, it does:
The Paris Opera…employs the classical language…grammatically and consistently, as befits a public edifice. The Auditorium, with its bizarre and solecistic effects, is a different creature entirely.
(So as not to escape the point that Andrew favors the Postmodern classicist position that has been gaining ground lately against the “inclusive” Postmodernism first expounded by Robert Venturi and Charles Moore twenty years ago, one should pay heed to his aside condemning “the Robert Venturis of today who make a virtue of necessity in lauding the characterless homogeneity of much of our building.” But it must be Venturi’s broad stylistic range, which in fact embraces Italian Mannerism as well as Las Vegas, that makes Andrew nervous, for there is nothing at all homogeneous either in what Venturi has taken from or what he has given to architecture.)
Sullivan, it seemed, was the one founding father of Modernism likely to be forgiven by the Postmodernists for the sins committed in the name of his credo “form follows function,” if only because of the current admiration for his florid, “unmodern” ornament. But, as it turns out, he seems to cause unease among the rear guard today much as he did a hundred years ago, when he began to present his challenging architectural visions of a new America. Many, perhaps most, of his contemporaries did not like what they saw, because Sullivan’s architecture required a degree of self-examination that few wished to confront.
It might be said that the mainstream architecture of the “American Renaissance” that Sullivan ran counter to is now admired for exactly those qualities prized by its original advocates—its unembarrassed emphasis on material display, its effort to symbolically connect with regimes of imperial power, and its delusive overlay of conventionally informed reference. Carrère and Hastings’ United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Richard Morris Hunt’s Marble House and The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and his Administration Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition gave form to a far different America than the one dreamed of by Sullivan. His life-giving contribution to architecture is again being resisted for the same reasons it was spurned at the high noon of the first Gilded Age. Still, Sullivan will survive as an authentic hero of American culture for as long as the progressive tendencies for which he fought continue to have their champions.
January 29, 1987
Wiley-Interscience, 1979. ↩
Irving Bieber, ed., et al., Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study (Basic Books, 1962). ↩
Wisconsin University Press, 1981. ↩
“Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament,” Chicago Historical Society, September 4, 1986–January 1, 1987; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, March 24, 1987–June 28, 1987; The Saint Louis Art Museum, August 28, 1987–October 25, 1987; Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., December 1987–Spring 1988. ↩
Louis Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (Peter Smith, 1949), p. 240. ↩