- 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
It was as if the Puritan suspicion of beauty and the conflicting lure of the romantic had taken up residence in the same soul, with disastrous effect.
That direction was confirmed by a series of small banks Sullivan designed for Midwestern cities in the first years of the new century. To be sure, these were not the commissions of his choice. The combination of an ailing economy, the loss of Adler’s business and engineering skills, and an almost selfdestructive insistence on getting his own way despite his clients’ wishes had reduced the great man to accepting almost any work that came along.
The banks could not have been simpler in form. All were essentially squat rectangular boxes. But their exterior embellishment took Sullivan’s fascination with ornament to new heights. Indeed, the decoration in some cases threatened to overwhelm the underlying architecture, particularly in the banks in Grinnell, Iowa, and Sidney, Ohio, where the eruptions of terra-cotta foliage and pure geometry might as well have been freestanding panels. (They evoke simultaneously the “false fronts” of Western frontier towns and the sort of signage that the architect Robert Venturi would describe decades later in his discussions of the “decorated shed.”)
But these late works, for all their jewel-like intensity, had limited influence beyond the shrinking circle of Sullivan’s loyalists. The World’s Columbian Exposition had left many of its visitors with visions of a new American architecture not of structurally authoritative office buildings and banks that looked like “strong-boxes,” as Sullivan described his own buildings, but of neo-Gothic office towers and banks that looked like Roman temples. The “White City” so dazzled the audience for architecture that those practitioners willing to embrace its message—Charles McKim, Cass Gilbert, and the changeable Daniel Burnham—became arbiters of taste for nearly half a century.
Sullivan, of course, would have none of it. Although the innovative Transportation Building he and Adler designed for the fair attracted international attention, the American public was clearly more interested in the instant “authenticity” of backward-looking architectural fantasies, and Sullivan grew increasingly embittered by the eagerness of his colleagues to provide them. He mocked the most powerful practitioners of the day—McKim, George Post, and Burnham—and they, not surprisingly, shut him out of the New York commissions.
Sullivan railed at the architectural establishment as it expressed itself through the American Institute of Architects and grew ever more vitriolic in his criticism of what he saw as aesthetic backsliding. In a speech to young architects at the Chicago Architectural Club on May 30, 1899, he declared, “You will realize, in due time … that a fraudulent and surreptitious use of historical documents, however clearly plagiarized, however neatly re-packed, however shrewdly intrigued, will constitute and will be held to be a betrayal of trust.” And in June 1900 he described the current architecture of steel frames hidden under classical cloaks to a meeting of the Architectural League of America as “the offspring of an illegitimate commerce with the mongrel types of the past.”
Although Sullivan concentrated his attacks on the architectural establishment, he might almost be seen as trying to sublimate a frustration with his own artistic being. While his skyscrapers pointed directly toward an aesthetic defined by materials and technology, his poetic side could not abandon the pull toward nature and its expression in ornament. It is as if the original suspicion of beauty harbored by the Puritan founders and the conflicting lure of the romantic had taken up residence in the same soul—with an almost inevitably disastrous effect. Without dipping deeply into psychology, one might characterize Sullivan’s dualistic impulses as a sort of artistic schizophrenia. The almost evangelical fervor with which he condemned his colleagues might be seen also as an expression of the frustration he evidently felt at his inability to resolve the conflicting demands of the elemental and the decorative.