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article number 500
article date 11-05-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Louis Sullivan’s Architecture: More than "Form Follows Function," Late 1800’s
by Carl Condit

From the book, Technology and Social Change in America.

* * *

The skyscrapers that dominate the urban landscape are symbols of modern civilization. Like the western steamboat and the “American System” of manufacturing, the skyscraper represents a distinctively American contribution to technology.

In contrast to the alienation of intellectuals like Hawthorne, the engineers and architects who built great bridges and skyscrapers experienced an exultant sense of power as a result of the triumphs of technology. Their sense of power was enhanced by a profound transformation in technology in the latter nineteenth century.

Technology broke with centuries-old craft traditions and found new foundations in science, which greatly increased the power of technology and accelerated the tempo of change.

But, unfortunately, technological progress does not automatically lead to human betterment. The skyscrapers contributed to congestion and other urban problems. Some people think they were human disasters.

It is now a matter of common consent that Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) was the first great modern architect, the first to create a new and powerful vocabulary of forms derived from the major cultural determinants of his age.

He was the most imaginative and the most articulate figure among a small group of creative men in Europe and America who, suddenly around 1890, struck out in a new direction with the deliberate intention of breaking once and for all with the traditional architectural forms of the classical and medieval heritage.

In Europe the movement called itself ’Art Nouveau,’ its initiator being the Belgian architect Baron Victor Horta (1861-1947). In the United States it was at first confined largely to Chicago, where the fire of 1871 prepared the way for one of the most exuberant outbursts of creative activity in nineteenth-century architecture.

The leadership of this movement, now known as the Chicago school, was initially in the hands of William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1906), but by 1890 it had passed to Sullivan and his engineering partner, Dankmar Adler (1844-1900).

Within a single decade Adler and Sullivan moved rapidly, if irregularly, from close dependence on past architectural styles to an organic form which derived its character from the industrial and scientific culture which had swept everything before it in the Western world.

By the last decade of the century Sullivan had developed in preliminary terms his organic theory of building art, a system which was later to be presented at length in his major writings, ’Kindergarten Chats’ (1901-1902) and ’The Autobiography of an Idea’ (1922).

The philosophy of architecture offered in these works contains extensive ethical and social elements as well as formal and aesthetic. Since the doctrine has been discussed, analyzed, and interpreted in detail by historians and critics, we need not here inquire into it at length.

Our purpose is to find, if we can, the broad symbolic meaning of Sullivan’s major works, for which it may be useful to summarize some of the fundamental ideas in his system of thought.

Sullivan’s interest in structural engineering—in part, of course, the product of professional necessity—early developed into a wide-ranging enthusiasm for science as a whole. It centered mainly in biology, from which his organic theory in part stemmed, but it included the new physical theories as well. He read Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and Tyndall at length and was well acquainted with the writers who were then developing the seminal theories of building art in the past century, chiefly Ruskin, Morris, and Viollet-le-Duc.

What distinguishes Sullivan’s thought is his profound grasp of the social basis, the responsibility, and the problem of the arts in a technical and industrial society. He felt that he had discovered the rule with no exceptions (to use his own phrase) in the concept “form follows function,” but the key to his philosophy lies in the proper understanding of the word "function."

An organic architecture, he believed, is one which grows naturally or organically out of the social and technical factors among which the architect lives and with which he must work.

These factors embrace not only the technical and utilitarian problems of building but also the aspirations, ideals, and needs, both material and psychological, of mankind. Thus "functionalism" involved for him something much wider and deeper than utilitarian and structural considerations, as important as these are.

To Sullivan the creation of a genuine architectural style was not a matter of historical styles or of dipping into a vocabulary of contemporary forms and details in order to secure a style which the architect might feel to be consonant with the life of this time. The architect must first recognize the importance of true aesthetic expression for the symbolic recreation, the harmonization, and the emotional enrichment of the many practical and intellectual elements of contemporary civilization.

In European and American society at the end of the nineteenth century such an art would begin, by necessity, with the fundamentals: industry, technology, and science.

It is the task of the architect, as Sullivan conceived it, to take the products of techniques, on the one hand, and the logic and order of a scientific technology, on the other, and mold them into a form uniting both in a single aesthetic expression.

An architecture so developed means the humanization through aesthetic statement of the often cold and nonhuman facts of industrial techniques.

The early application of this complex philosophy of the organic to a specific building problem appeared in a document which has become a classic of modern theory, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” first published in ’Lippincott’s Magazine’ in 1896.

Scattered throughout ’The Autobiography of an Idea,’ which is Sullivan’s final testament, are many sentences of an epigrammatic character that summarize his thought; for example, “As the people are within, so the buildings are without,” or again, “It is the task of the architect to build, to express the life of his own people.”

The realization of this program in actual commissions reached its mature form in the four largest and most impressive buildings which Adler and Sullivan designed. The first is the Auditorium Building, now Roosevelt University in Chicago, designed in 1886-1887 and opened in 1889.

Auditorium Building, Chicago, Illinois.

The design of this great building, with its huge masonry bearing walls, was much influenced by Richardson (1838-86) and the Romanesque-like forms which he handled so brilliantly. But it marks a transition toward the open and dynamic wall forms that were soon to become the distinguishing feature of Sullivan’s work.

In the year following the completion of the Auditorium he struck out in a new direction to produce one of the most remarkable exhibitions of sheer architectural originality in his own or any age, the steel-framed Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890-91). A few years later the formal character of this structure was refined and enriched in the Guaranty, later Prudential, Building in Buffalo (1894-95).

In the last of his large commissions, before the poverty and neglect of his later years, he turned in still another direction and produced a radically different kind of expression in the Carson Pine Scott Store in Chicago, built in three parts over the years from 1899 to 1906, although designed as early as 1896.

Behind these steel-framed buildings lay a long preparation in the history of iron construction. The use of iron as a structural material goes back to classical antiquity, but it did not appear wholly emancipated from masonry until the construction of Darby and Pritchard’s cast iron arch over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale, England, in 1775-79.

The first building with interior columns and beams of iron was William Strutt’s Calico Mill at Derby (1793). It was thirty-five years before iron members appeared in American buildings and 1850 before complete iron construction was established, largely through the work of the New York inventors and builders Daniel Badger and James Bogardus.

The remainder of the century saw steady progress in the techniques of cast and wrought iron and later steel framing, reaching its culmination in the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago, in which all the essential features of the modern commercial building were given a practical demonstration.

Thus, by 1890, the technical means of a new building art were available to Sullivan. It remained for him to transmute the structural solutions to these unprecedented functional requirements into a symbolic art. His organic philosophy had already come to exist at least in an inchoate form, but so broad an approach to architectural design could not lead directly to a specific kind of formal expression.

The key to the process of transmutation may be found, I think, in those passages of Sullivan’s writings in which he gives voice to his feelings about particular architectural and structural achievements of his age.

We have already mentioned his debt to Richardson. There is a chapter in Kindergarten Chats—Number VI, “The Oasis—in which he acknowledges this debt, and it is the first of various passages that lead us to an understanding of Sullivan’s inner purpose.

He describes for us, in ironic and impressionistic metaphors, his strong emotional reaction to Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago (1885-87) and to what it stands for.

"Let us pause, my son, at this oasis in our desert. Let us rest awhile beneath its cool and satisfying calm, and drink a little at this wayside spring . . ."

"You mean, I suppose, that here is a good piece of architecture for me to look at—and I quite agree with you."

"No; I mean here is a ’man’ for you to look at. A man that walks on two legs instead of four, has active muscles, heart, lungs, and other viscera; a man that lives and breathes, that has red blood; a real man, a manly man; a virile force—broad, vigorous and with a whelm of energy—an entire male.

"I mean that stone and mortar, here, spring into life, and are no more material and sordid things, but, as it were, become the very diapason of a mind rich-stored with harmony . . .

"Four square and brown, it stands, in physical fact, a monument to trade, to the organized commercial spirit, to the power and progress of the age, to the strength and resource of individuality and force of character; spiritually, it stands as the index of a mind, large enough, courageous enough to cope with these things, master them, absorb them and give them forth again, impressed with the stamp of large and forceful personality;

"Artistically, it stands as the creation of one who knows well how to choose his words, who has somewhat to say and says it—and says it as the outpouring of a copious, direct, large and simple mind."

Marshal Field Store, Chicago Illinois, left a powerful impression of Louis Sullivan.

It is clear that Sullivan was profoundly moved by Richardson’s building, but even a fine work of architecture did not arouse in him the powerful emotions that were evoked by the great achievements of the bridge engineers in the nineteenth century. There are several illuminating passages in ’The Autobiography,’ among the most remarkable in the book, in which he tries to analyze his emotional and philosophic response to these monuments of pure structural form.

The first records a childhood experience in which he saw a chain suspension bridge over the Merrimack River (possibly Finley’s Bridge of 1810, near Newburyport, Massachusetts). The description is loaded with the most extreme expressions of feeling.

"Mechanically he ascended a hill . . . musing, as he went, upon the great river Merrimac . . . Meanwhile something large, something dark was approaching unperceived; something ominous, something sinister that silently aroused him to a sense of its presence . . . The dark thing came ever nearer, nearer in the stillness, became broader, looming, and then it changed itself into full view—an enormous terrifying mass that overhung the broad river from bank to bank.

"He saw great iron chains hanging in the air. How could iron chains hang in the air? He thought of Julia’s fairy tales and what giants did.

"And then he saw a long flat thing under the chains; and this thing too seemed to float in the air; and then he saw two great stone towers taller than the trees. Could these be giants? . . ." {A page follows in which Sullivan records how he ran frightened to his father to tell him that the giants would eat him.}

"So [his father) explained that the roadway of the bridge was just like any other road, only it was held up over the river by the big iron chains; that the big iron chains did not float in the air but were held up by the stone towers over the top of which they passed and were anchored firmly into the ground at each end beyond the towers; that the road-bed was hung to the chains so it would not fall into the river . . ."

"On their way to rejoin Mama, the child turned backward to gaze in awe and love upon the great suspension bridge. There, again, it hung in the air—beautiful in power. The sweep of the chains so lovely, the roadway barely touching the banks.

"And to think it was made by men! How great must men be, how wonderful; how powerful, that they could make such a bridge; and again he worshipped the worker."

In later years, on his way to becoming an established architect in partnership with one of the great building engineers of his time, Sullivan came to understand how these miracles were accomplished. Then he was prepared to pay his fullest tribute to the bridge engineers and to record it again in his ’Autobiography.’

"About this time two great engineering works were under way. One, the triple arch bridge to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis, Capt. Eades [sic), chief engineer; the other, the great cantilever bridge which was to cross the chasm of the Kentucky River, C. Shaler Smith, chief engineer, destined for the use of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.

"In these two growing structures Louis’s soul became immersed. In them he lived. Were they not his bridges? Surely they were his bridges. In the pages of the ’Railway Gazette’ he saw them born, he watched them grow. Week by week he grew with them.

"Here was Romance, here again was man, the great adventurer, daring to think, daring to have faith, daring to do. Here again was to be set forth to view man in his power to create beneficently.

"Here were two ideas differing in kind. Each was emerging from a brain, each was to find realization. One bridge was to cross a great river, to form the portal of a great city, to be sensational and architectonic. The other was to take form in the wilderness, and abide there; a work of science without concession.

"Louis followed every detail of design, every measurement; every operation as the two works progressed from the sinking of the caissons in the bed of the Mississippi, and the start in the wild of the initial cantilevers from the face of the cliff. He followed each, with the intensity of personal identification, to the finale of each.

Eads Bridge, St. Louis, Missouri under construction.

"Every difficulty he encountered he felt to be his own; every expedient, every device, he shared in. The chief engineers became his heroes; they loomed above other men. The positive quality of their minds agreed with the aggressive quality of his own.

"In childhood his idols had been the ’big’ strong men who ’did’ things. Later on he had begun to feel the greater power of men who could ’think’ things; later the expansive power of men who could ’imagine’ things;

"And at last he began to recognize as dominant the will of the Creative Dreamer: he who possessed the power of vision needed to harness imagination, to harness the intellect, to make science do his will, to make the emotions serve him—for without emotion—nothing."

There is a distinct strain of romanticism in this passionate devotion to the builder, perhaps even a Nietzschean quality in the worship of creative power. For Sullivan came to see in science and technology the triumphant assertion of man’s will expressing itself in a wholly new way.

As he himself put it, “Louis saw power everywhere; and as he grew on through his boyhood, and through the passage to manhood, and to manhood itself, he began to see the powers of nature and the powers of man coalesce in his vision into an IDEA ’of power.’ Then and only then he became aware that this idea was a ’new idea,’—a complete reversal and inversion of the commonly accepted intellectual and theological concept of the nature of man.”

Thus Sullivan conceived of a bridge as the personal testament of a man, a testament expressing a unification of the highest energies and skills of the age.

What distinguishes these achievements is not only the technical virtuosity that men like Eads and Smith commanded, but the integration of many streams of technical and scientific progress in the nineteenth century. For it was the age that saw the transformation of building from an empirical and pragmatic technique into an exact science.

Since Sullivan chose the St. Louis and Dixville bridges as his examples, we may use them as representatives of the transformation that made possible their design and construction. Eads Bridge (1868-74) is the earlier of the two, and so we may begin with an analysis which reveals how such structures brought to focus the various scientific and technical currents.

The general staff of Eads Bridge consisted of James B. Eads as chief engineer, Charles Pfeiffer and Henry Flad as principal assistants, and William Chauvenet, Chancellor of Washington University, as mathematical consultant.

The choice of Eads, who had never built a bridge before, as head of the St. Louis project rested in large part on his intimate knowledge of the river. For the builder who proposed to found his piers on the rock far below its bed, it was a formidable obstacle indeed.

The pilots could read its surface with remarkable skill for the hidden snags and bars that once menaced them, but only Eads knew at first hand its fluid, shifting, treacherous bed. By means of the diving bell which he had invented, he was able to investigate the bottom directly, and he had seen its depth change from 20 to 100 feet at obstacles in the bed as the result of the scouring action of currents.

For the first time the topographic and geological surveys of the bridge site could be carried on to a certain extent under water.

With the design of his bridge substantially completed and sufficient capital available, Eads began clearing the site and constructing caissons in the summer of 1867, but difficulties with his iron and steel contractor soon required a suspension of operations.

Eads had already decided to substitute steel for the traditional cast iron in the arches and thus became the first to introduce the stronger metal into American building techniques. The Carnegie-Kloman Company at first found it impossible to roll pieces with the physical properties that Eads demanded. The earlier cast steel samples had already failed in the testing machines.

At this point Eads insisted on the costly and hitherto unused chrome-steel, an innovation which was to have wide implications for structural and mechanical engineering. Equally important was the application of the methods of experimental science to the investigation of the physical properties of the metal.

Eads Bridge is the first major structure in the United States in which testing machines, which had been developed over the previous thirty years in Europe, played a vital role in the successful completion of the bridge.

The initial problem solved, construction was resumed in 1868. Eads began with the east, or Illinois, pier, where the maximum depth of bedrock offered the most serious challenge.

The pneumatic caisson was a necessity, and thus Eads became the first to introduce its use in the United States, anticipating Roebling by a year. The pneumatic caisson had been used in Europe since 1849, when Lewis Cubitt and John Wright developed it for the construction of the piers of a span at Rochester, England.

"Method of Sinking Foundations for the Piers of the St. Louis Bridge."

Eads built a cylindrical iron-shod caisson of massive timbers heavily reinforced with iron bands. Its diameter was 75 feet, the working chamber 8 feet deep. Within this huge enclosure the masonry pier was built up, the weight of the masonry forcing the cutting edge into the river bed.

The Eads caisson extended continuously up to the water surface, successive rings being added as it sank lower. The caisson for the Illinois pier reached bedrock at 123 feet below water level at the time of construction. Five months of excavation and pumping were required to uncover the foundation rock.

Since the top stratum of the bedrock rises steadily from the east to the west bank, the caissons for the center and west piers had to be sunk to a progressively smaller depth, reaching a minimum of 86 feet at the St. Louis pier. The river piers and the masonry arches of the west approach were completed in 1873.

The construction of the steel arches and the wrought iron superstructure was a relatively simple matter after the dangerous work on the piers and required only about one-fifth of the time.

In this part of the project Eads introduced another of his important innovations. The tubular arches were erected without falsework by the method of cantilevering them out from the piers to the center of the span. All arches were built out simultaneously from their piers so that the weights of the various cantilevers would balance each other and on completion the horizontal thrusts of adjacent arches would cancel each other.

With the arches in place, the spandrel posts and the two decks were erected upon them. The bridge was completed and opened to traffic in 1874. The finished structure between abutments is divided into three spans, the one at the center 520 feet long, the two at the sides 502 feet each, the rise for all of them 45 feet.

Eight tubular arches, four for each deck, constitute the primary structure of each span. Wrought-iron spandrel posts and transverse bracing transmit the load of the two decks to the arches. The upper one carries a roadway, the lower a double-track railroad line.

The arches of Eads Bridge are the hingeless or fixed-end type and hence are statically indeterminate structures. It is possible that Chauvenet was familiar with the recent work of French theorists in the solution of problems arising from arches of this kind, and certainly he knew of the many carefully designed wrought iron arches which had been built by French engineers before 1865.

The successful attack on problems of indeterminacy was the product of an international effort in which a great many mathematicians had a hand, among them the great English physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The chief figure in the development of methods of stress analysis for fixed and two-hinged arches was Jacques Antoine Bresse, the first edition of whose ’Applied Mechanics’ was published at Paris in 1859.

But for all the mathematical computations of Eads and Chauvenet, they relied to a great extent—as the engineers always did until the last decade of the century—on empirical approximations and gross overbuilding.

Eads calculated that his bridge would be capable of sustaining a total load of 28,972 tons uniformly distributed—about four times the maximum that can be placed upon it—and of withstanding the force of any flood, ice jam, or tornado that the Mississippi Valley could level against it. Now in its ninth decade of active service, the bridge carries a heavy traffic of trucks, busses, automobiles, and the freight trains of the Terminal Railroad of St. Louis.

Sullivan could hardly have chosen a better example to represent the new power of his age. As a work of structural art Eads Bridge remains a classic. In its method of construction and its material, in the testing of full-sized samples of all structural members and connections, in the thoroughness and precision of its technical and formal design, and in the close association of manufacturer and builder, it stands as a superb monument to the building art.

It is, moreover, an architectural as well as an engineering achievement. Eads was careful to reduce his masonry elements to the simplest possible form, depending on the rich texture of the granite facing to provide the dignity and sense of restrained power that he was consciously striving for.

Nowhere does the masonry extend above the line of the parapet to distract attention from the overall profile, the major parts, and their relation to each other. The tight curve of the arches is the primary visual as well as structural element, and Eads knew that the best he could do was to give full expression to the combination of stability and energy implicit in the form.

Eads Bridge, St. Louis: Bridge arches. Tight curve of the arches is the primary visual as well as structural element.

The Dixville Bridge posed an entirely different and somewhat less formidable problem. The solution, moreover, belongs strictly to the nineteenth century, the particular truss form employed having been abandoned before the beginning of the twentieth century.

It was the decision to use the cantilever principle for a large railway bridge, for which there was only the slightest of precedents, that excited Sullivan’s interest. The occasion in this case was the necessity of bridging the Kentucky River at Dixville, Kentucky, for the Cincinnati Southern Railway.

The engineer in charge of the project was L. F. G. Bouscaren (1840-1904), chief engineer of the railroad company and designer of its Ohio River Bridge at Cincinnati, a structure which was built simultaneously with the Dixville Bridge and which contained the longest simple truss span in the world at the time of its erection.

There is no question that Bouscaren deserves as much credit as Charles Shaler Smith for the Dixville project, but Sullivan and the rest of posterity have always honored Smith and forgotten the other half of the team.

The chief problem at Dixville was that of erecting the trusses. The Kentucky River gorge at this point is 1,200 feet wide and 275 feet deep. The river has always been subject to flash floods of disastrous proportions, a maximum rise of 40 feet in one day having already been recorded when the two engineers made their preliminary survey.

The use of falsework under such conditions was out of the question. Smith originally planned to build a continuous Whipple-Murphy deck truss, 1,125 feet long extending over three spans of 375 feet each.

At this point Bouscaren made the proposal that hinges be introduced into the truss at two points, one at each end of the bridge between the shore and the nearest pier. The use of hinges in a continuous beam or truss was first proposed by the German engineer and theorist Karl Culmann in his ’Graphical Statics’ (1866).

The introduction of hinges and the resulting transformation of the parts of the beam on either side of the support into cantilevers has the consequence that the action of the member more nearly conforms to the theoretical curve of stress distribution, or stress trajectory, as it is sometimes called.

The first large cantilever bridge whose design seems clearly to have been influenced by Culmann’s theory was Heinrich Gerber’s bridge over the Main River at Hassfurt, Germany (1867). The structure excited wide interest and was undoubtedly known to Smith and Bouscaren.

Several other factors, however, led to Bouscaren’s decision.

In addition to improvement in the efficiency of the truss action, the engineers were concerned to prevent the excessively high stresses which would have occurred in the continuous truss as a consequence of pier settlement.

Further, the successful construction of Eads Bridge by the method of cantilevering the arches out from the abutments and piers suggested not only a similar mode of construction for continuous trusses but also the possibility of using the cantilever as a permanent structural form.

By adopting Bouscaren’s suggestion the designers turned the bridge into a combination of types which were, in succession from shore to shore, a semi-floating span fixed at the abutment and hinged at the free end, a 75-foot cantilever, a simple truss acting as anchor span to the cantilevers, and so on in reverse order to the opposite shore.

The material of the structure throughout was wrought iron. There was, as we noted, little precedent for a bridge of this kind, and Smith and Bouscaren staked their reputations on it. They saw it through to successful completion, but the increasing weight of traffic required that it be replaced in 1911 by a steel bridge built on the same masonry.

Sullivan’s intuitive grasp of the meaning of these bridges was perfectly sound. The union of science and technology which made them possible was the creation of men who possessed a rare combination of faculties: they were men who could imagine and think things and who, when they translated the products of imagination into physical fact, did so on a heroic scale.

It was difficult not to be impressed, however little one understood the methods of their achievement. Sullivan was profoundly moved, and he knew that he would have to create a building art which could give voice to these powerful feelings and thus evoke them in others.

The Auditorium Building marks the initial step, although what is visible both inside and out at first seems to have little to do with the great achievements of the Age of Iron. Perhaps it is the fact of the building itself, rather than what it says in detail, that heralds a new epoch in architectural form.

The exterior walls, as magnificent as they are in their architectonic power, are masonry bearing elements disposed in the long-familiar system of stout piers and arcades.

Chicago Auditorium Theatre.

Inside this uniform block, however, is the most extraordinary diversity of internal volumes that one can house in a single structure.
- The huge theatre, seating 4,000 people, is surrounded by a block of offices on the west and south and by a hotel on the east.
- Offices, hotel rooms, lobbies, small dining rooms, and other utilitarian facilities are carried on a complete system of framing composed of cast-iron columns and wrought-iron beams.

The great vault of the theatre is hung from a series of parallel elliptical trusses which are suspended in turn from horizontal trusses immediately under the roof. The same construction, on a smaller scale, supports the vault of the main dining room. Above the theatre at one end still another type of truss is used to support the ceiling of the rehearsal room.

The vaulted enclosures are in no way like the traditional barrel vaults of Roman and medieval building. They are great wide-span cylinders of elliptical or segmental sections which were derived from the huge train-sheds of the nineteenth-century railway station and thus constitute a metamorphosis of a quasi-monumental utilitarian form into one element of an aesthetic complex.

The system of truss framing in the Auditorium grew out of the inventions of the bridge engineers. Under the once brilliant colors and intricate interweaving patterns of Sullivan’s ornament, none of this construction is visible, yet the light screens with their plastic detail, and the multiplicity of shapes and volumes could not have been created without the structural means that Adler employed.

As a matter of fact, the Auditorium embraces every basic structural technique available to the nineteenth-century builder.

The three purely commercial buildings—the Wainwright, the Prudential, and the Carson store—rest on the more advanced structural technique of complete steel framing without masonry bearing members of any kind other than the concrete column footings, but because of the uniformity and relative simplicity of their interior spaces they are much less complex in their construction than the Auditorium.

Yet it was precisely here that Sullivan saw his opportunity: now he could take full advantage of the steel frame in the treatment of the elevations, the obvious parts of the building that everyone had to see.

What he was trying to articulate in the three buildings was not simply structure and utility, which the bridge engineers had done in their wholly empirical forms, but rather his complex psychological response to the structural techniques that the engineers employed so boldly.

The idea underlying the Wainwright and Prudential buildings is clearly summed up in the celebrated passage of the ’Autobiography’ on the skyscraper:

"The lofty steel frame makes a powerful appeal to the architectural imagination where there is any . . . The appeal and the inspiration lie, of course, in the element of loftiness, in the suggestion of slenderness and aspiration, the soaring quality of a thing rising from the earth as a unitary utterance, Dionysian in beauty.”

The formal character of the Prudential Building (which is a larger and more refined counterpart of the Wainwright and thus may be taken to represent the essential quality of both buildings) is an organic outgrowth of its utilitarian functionalism, but it is in no way confined by it.

Above an open base, designed chiefly for purposes of display, rises a uniform succession of office floors, identical in function and hence appearance, topped by an attic floor which carries heating returns and elevator machinery and whose external treatment provides a transition to the flat slab that terminates the upward motion of the whole block.

Elevator shafts, plumbing, and mechanical utilities are concentrated in an inner core.

Sustaining all roof, floor, wall, and wind loads is an interior steel frame covered with fireproof tile sheathing.

All this constitutes the empirical answer to utilitarian necessity.

Beyond the empirical form, however, are the wholly aesthetic elements that transform structure into symbolic art. The great bay-wide windows of the base are carefully designed not only to reveal structure but to separate it clearly from all subsidiary elements and thus to give forceful utterance to its potentially dramatic quality.

The columns which stand out so clearly are the forerunners of Le Corbusier’s ’pilotis’ now so common in contemporary building that they have become a cliché.

Prudential Building, Buffalo New York.

Above the open base appears the single most striking feature, the pronounced upward vertical movement achieved by the closely ranked pier-like bands of which every other one clothes the true structural column, the alternate piers being purely formal additions without bearing function.

The basic theme of this light screen is movement, the dynamic transcendence of space and gravitational thrust, qualities Sullivan long before felt in the "floating” chains and roadway of the Merrimack suspension bridge. In a broader sense the theme suggests the underlying energy of a world of process, of evolutionary growth in living things, or the dynamic of the electric field in physics.

The bridge, like the building, is not seen by Sullivan as a static thing but as something which leaps over its natural obstacle and thus becomes a living assertion of man’s skill operating through his simultaneous dependence upon and command over nature. Again Sullivan’s intuition led him into the right path, for this is exactly how the bridge behaves.

We can sense this directly in the suspension bridge with its wire cables and suspenders: it seems alive, constantly quivering under its changing load.

Although we can neither see it nor feel it, exactly the same thing is occurring in the dense and massive members of the big railroad truss as the internal stress continuously adjusts itself to the moving weight that it sustains. It took a century and a half of painstaking scientific inquiry to discover this hidden and vital activity.

The rich and intricate ornament that covers the two office buildings, an ornament created by Sullivan which died with him, offers a much more difficult problem of interpretation. It is so subjective that it is scarcely possible to find objective experiences that might have led to the feelings out of which it grew.

In its complex, somewhat abstract naturalism, it appears to symbolize the biologically organic. While Sullivan sometimes allowed his ornament to flow in uncontrolled and undifferentiated profusion over much of the surface, he was generally careful to observe the limits of architectural ornamentation.

By spreading it in low relief over whole elevations, and by confining a particular pattern to the surface of a certain kind of structural member—column, or spandrel beam—he was able to distinguish in a striking way the separate structural surfaces.

Thus his ornament enhances the major elements of the structure and further heightens the vivid sense of movement. It also seems to suggest the diversity underlying the unitary organic statement.

Ornamentation on Prudential Building, Buffalo New York.

In the Carson Pirie Scott Store Sullivan turned to an entirely different kind of expression, one derived from the dominant mode of the work of the Chicago school. Where he used the close vertical pattern in the older buildings, in the department store he opened the main elevations into great cellular screens which exactly express the neutral steel cage behind them.

The form was dictated initially by the requirement for maximum natural light in the store, but again, in many subtle ways, he translated the practical functionalism into art.

If the theme of the Wainwright and the Prudential is movement, that of the Carson store is power. Here the elaborate interplay of tension and compression, of thrust and counter-thrust in the bridge truss is given a heightened and dramatic statement by means so delicate as almost to escape notice—the careful calculation of the depth of the window reveals and the breadth of the terra-cotta envelope on the columns and spandrels, the narrow band of ornament that enframes the window, the even narrower band that extends continuously along each sill and lintel line to give the whole façade a tense, subdued horizontality.

The base in its sheath of ornament is an exact reversal of that of the office buildings. In the Carson store it is a weightless screen, glass and opaque covering (cast iron) forming one unbroken plane, making the cellular wall above literally seem to float free of the earth below it.

In the last analysis Sullivan’s civic architecture is a celebration of technique, as is most of the contemporary architecture of which he was the foremost pioneer. But Sullivan had carried the expression far beyond the rather sterile geometry that characterizes most building today.

If his work seems limited beside the vastly richer symbolism of medieval and baroque architecture, we may at least say that he was responding to the one coherent order that was discernible in the contradictory currents of nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture.

In the absence of a cosmos in which man was conceived to be the central figure, the scientific technology on which building increasingly depended became the one sure basis of architectural and civic art.

It is Sullivan’s achievement to have understood how this basis could be transmuted into an effective and valid artistic statement.

Carson Pirie Scott building, Chicago.
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