- 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
Nonetheless, in virtually every other way, Sullivan had, with the Wainwright and the Guaranty, loosed the bonds inherited from Richardson. He had faced the potential of steel-frame construction and mastered it. He had rejected the stylistic conventions of the past—whether those of the École, Frank Furness, or even Richardson—and he had triumphed where such Chicago colleagues as Jenney and Burnham had hesitated, in giving full artistic expression to a revolutionary technology. It is that achievement that seems to be embodied in the deathless declaration about form following function.
Those few words have caused tremendous problems for many of Sullivan’s chroniclers, particularly those of a doctrinaire modernist persuasion, who have never been quite able to deal with his enduring devotion to ornament. It was the one area in which Sullivan appeared tied to tradition. Although most of the overtly classical details had vanished from his work shortly after the Auditorium, Sullivan maintained the fascination with decoration that he had conceived in Furness’s office. In the Wainwright he filled the panels separating the vertical piers with a richly varied series of floral patterns. In the Guaranty he extended the ornament to the surfaces of the piers themselves. In his 1904 Schlesinger & Mayer department store (later the Carson Pirie Scott) in Chicago, he turned his concern for structural clarity from the vertical to the horizontal, creating a building so spare in its organization that it seemed a preview of modernist developments forty years later (although the site and size of the building seem stronger motives for the shape than any avant-garde aesthetic). But at the entrance he produced a thicket of metal ornament so intricate and delicate that it seemed almost to shudder in the gusts of Chicago’s famous winds. Scholars who have seen a protomodernist in Sullivan have always preferred photographs of the building that emphasize its horizontality and obscure the ornament that the architect felt was so important.
Unlike some of his later critics, Sullivan saw no conflict between his search for structural truth and his devotion to ornament. On the contrary, he believed them inextricable, and said so many times. In fact, his definition of the “function” that “form ever follows” included the demand of the eye for uplifting diversion and of the heart for inspiration. Architecture must serve emotion as fully as the need for shelter and mechanical efficiency. Nor was his system of ornament in any qualitative way inferior to his overall spatial and compositional sense. At its best it was sublimely beautiful. Nevertheless, Sullivan’s ornament seemed increasingly irrelevant to the industrially based architecture that was developing in his own hands. Despite his commitment to nature, the sculptural forms of the buildings themselves were beginning to take over the most powerful visual role, leaving the ornament in an increasingly subservient position.
The dichotomy became clearer as Sullivan was forced to husband his architectural resources. Worsening economic times and growing family demands persuaded Dankmar Adler to leave the partnership in 1895 for work as an executive at an elevator company. His sortie in search of more money failed, but when he decided to return to architecture, Sullivan would not have him. Evidently angered by Adler’s departure, Sullivan thereafter went out of his way to minimize his former partner’s contributions to their work together. The absence of Adler’s sturdy talents became steadily more apparent, and in a poor business climate it contributed to a dramatic falloff in Sullivan’s production. Between 1880 and 1895 the two men had produced more than a hundred buildings together. In his remaining thirty years Sullivan would produce a mere twenty.
Prominent among them was the Bayard Building on New York’s Bleecker Street, completed in 1898. It was Sullivan’s first major commission after Adler’s departure, and despite his renown, it was to be the only building he ever designed for New York City. Crowded by a host of banal commercial buildings, the Bayard —or Condict, as it became known after a later owner—can be hard to appreciate. But even from the cramped perspective of a narrow New York street, its facade’s lightness and elegance are immediately evident to the determined observer. Departing from the rhythm he established in the Wainwright and Guaranty buildings by using piers of equal width, Sullivan in the Condict alternated the major piers with thin ones, linking them at the cornice with arches and oculus windows topped by reliefs of winged maidens. For those who would describe Sullivan as a proto-functionalist, this building is especially hard to accommodate. But coming in the wake of his leaner and better-known office buildings, it can only be seen as a more mature work. And it would seem to indicate that ornament—no matter how much it seemed to conflict with functionality —was becoming more than ever an integral part of his design vocabulary.