- Historic Sites
The Rise Of The Skyscraper And The Fall Of Louis Sullivan
He showed the way to the future and then was stranded there, at odds even with his own aesthetic sensibility
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
He meant the “function” that “form ever follows” to include the eye’s demand for uplifting diversion and the heart’s for inspiration.
The site for the Auditorium, which was begun in 1886 and completed in 1889, covered a half-block on Michigan Avenue, an area roughly the size of Richardson’s site for the Marshall Field Wholesale Store. From the start it was to include, as the name proclaimed, an auditorium, but also space for offices, a hotel, and a restaurant. The early schemes included a tower with a mansard roof and a frosting of the sort of Queen Anne and Romanesque ornament the firm had used before. But as Sullivan came to appreciate the underlying simplicity of Richardson’s form—and as the client pushed for economies—he gradually peeled away the trimmings, leaving a sturdy tenstory block from which sprang a seven-story tower. The organization of the facade elements owed much to Richardson: The bottom floor was pierced by squat arches trimmed in rusticated stone, the middle stories were linked by four-story pilasters culminating in arches, and the top three stories were articulated by smaller windows grouped in pairs and threes. The tower loomed above them in neoRenaissance fashion, providing spectacular views of the city. It also contained new offices for the firm of Adler & Sullivan.
At first glance the Auditorium might be taken merely as a work of compositional homage to Richardson, but the overall effect is entirely different. Sullivan’s treatment had little of Richardson’s boldness, relying more on surface embellishment than mass to convey its impact. The building’s comparatively lighter facade—a mere surface over a metal frame—betrayed a desire to break free and rise higher.
With the availability of the steel frame—to which Jenney, Burnham, and others were already devoting much attention—Sullivan could make good on the challenge Richardson had chosen to avoid. And with the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, completed in 1891, he launched American architecture on a course toward aesthetic and technological dominance for decades to come. In the Wainwright, Sullivan (who later declared that the basic scheme for the building had been worked out “literally in three minutes”) dispensed with the neoclassical details (although not the baseshaft-capital organization) on which he had relied so heavily in the Auditorium and instead allowed the new building’s structure to express itself unconcealed on the facade.
Or almost unconcealed. In his 1896 essay Sullivan declared that the frame must be “the true basis of the artistic development of the exterior,” but in fact the vertical elements that gave the Wainwright its feeling of skyward thrust were only partially expressions of the underlying steel cage. There were twice as many piers as there were structural columns behind them, leading some later critics to attack the architect for “faking” his facade. In this they renewed an argument that had raged with peculiarly American intensity through the Greek and Gothic Revival periods: What was “honest” architecture? Of course, had Sullivan been more literal-minded in his use of piers, his building would have lost much of its visual impact, and in that sense the architect was certainly striving for effect over fact. On the other hand, the essential quality of the overall design is the expression of the vertical properties of the frame, and by embracing that fact, Sullivan could be seen as being absolutely true to function.
The argument bears on the question of what building deserves the title of the first true skyscraper. If the inclusion of a passenger elevator is considered the sole criterion, then Hunt’s Tribune Building probably takes the prize. If the standard is the use of a fireproofed metal-cage structure, the winner must be Jenney for his Home Insurance Building. But what has come to be known as the skyscraper has always had more to do with the sense of height than with the facts of construction, and if the spirit of the building is the issue, then the Wainwright is the clear champion. Whether or not it was a “pure” expression of structural form, it was a summation of all the other requirements; most important, in it the architect marshaled all these devices to convey the feeling of height.
Sullivan refined that feeling in his guaranty (later Prudential) Building in Buffalo, completed in 1895. Here, over a clearly articulated base, he attenuated the piers (but still used twice as many as were necessary to express the vertical steel members), finished them neatly at the top with arches, and provided a sort of architectural “full stop” above each with a small circular window. The midsection, which has a lean Renaissance lightness, was topped by a heavy cornice that restrains the building’s dramatic upward thrust from appearing to go on indefinitely. Bold achievement that it was, the Guaranty also documented one of the major unresolved issues facing contemporary architects of tall buildings. Sullivan could not devise an effective transition between the base and the midsection. He left the one to sit on the other in almost disembodied fashion.