Louis Henry Sullivan : architect biography

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Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan

Louis Henry Sullivan

The Chicago Auditorium was completed in detail in February 1890. Its enormous success transformed the nature of Adler & Sullivan 's practice, bringing in larger commissions from further a˛eld. One new project that year provided Louis Henry Sullivan with the opportunity to tackle a problem that would consume his interest for the rest ofthe decade. Its solution ensured his place in history.

The problem was the high-rise office building, the skyscraper, as it came to be called in the 1890s. The challenge for Louis Henry Sullivan was not so much structural, for most of the load-bearing and mechanical obstacles to great height had already been solved, as it was the aesthetics of structure. Louis Henry Sullivan was convinced that this historically new building type required a new design treatment, not one based on analogies to other kinds ofbuildings or one rooted in history, as most architects believed. Louis Henry Sullivan saw the skyscraper as a symbol of U.S. business that was the basis of the national culture, and therefore as an opportunity to create a long-anticipated indigenous architectural style. So when Adler and Louis Henry Sullivan received a commission in 1890 from St. Louis brewer and real estate promoter Ellis Wainwright for what came to be a 10-story rental structure, Louis Henry Sullivan made the most of it.

His solution to the skyscraper problem did not come easily. Frank Lloyd Wright, his principal assistant at the time, remembered how Louis Henry Sullivan struggled over the facade composition, leaving the office for long walks, throwing away sketch after sketch, until ˛nally Louis Henry Sullivan burst into WrighŁs room and threw a drawing on the table. "I was perfectly aware of what had happened," Wright recalled. 'This was Louis Henry Sullivan 's greatest moment-his greatest effort. The 'skyscrapeŁ . . . as an entity with . . . beauty all its own, was born".

Louis Henry Sullivan outlined his skyscraper theory six years later in his most famous essay, 'The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered". By carefully analyzing the program requirements, Louis Henry Sullivan decided that skyscrapers had three major clusters of functions, each of which should be expressed separately. The first was public-seen on the one-or two-story base-consisting of entering and leaving, meeting and greeting, waiting, shopping, and locating the entrance from the outside. The second set offunctions was private: various kinds of office work. And the third was architectural: the housing of mechanical equipment and storage in an attic that could also serve as an aesthetic device for terminating the facade in a decisive way.

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Louis Henry Sullivan - at vitruvio.ch

Louis Henry Sullivan had in fact designed the Wainwright Building according to his as yet unwritten theory, with a two-story base treated in an expansive, sumptuous way with an easily identified entrance flanked by broad display windows; a shaft ofseven identically articulated ˛oors to indicate the similar nature of work in the various offices; and a richly decorated attic suggesting a crisp termination, and that the functions there were ofyet a third and different order.

All this was but one aspect of Louis Sullivan 's thinking. It was necessary to differentiate the three principal functions, to be sure, but it was equally important to unite them harmoniously at the same time, because Louis Henry Sullivan believed, as Louis Henry Sullivan had written earlier, that every building should reveal "a single, germinal impulse or idea, which shall permeate the mass and its every detail," so that "there shall effuse from the completed structure a single sentiment . . .". What was the skyscraper's single sentiment? Or, as Louis Henry Sullivan asked himself in his 1896 essay: "What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?" Louis Henry Sullivan answered in some of his most direct but most memorable prose. "It is lofty. ... It must be tall, every inch of it tall. ... It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation . . . from bottom to top . . . without a single dissenting line". So Louis Henry Sullivan recessed the horizontals, projected forward the structural columns and nonstructural mullions, and took the corner piers all the way from sidewalk to cornice. His "system of vertical construction" was now complete.

But in his 1896 essay Louis Henry Sullivan had one more point to make, the most important point of all. Working from the particular to the general, Louis Henry Sullivan advanced his "final, comprehensive formula" for the solution of the skyscraper problem, indeed, of all architectural problems. All things in nature had shapes, forms, and outward appearances "that tell us what they are, that distinguishes them . . . from each other," Louis Henry Sullivan asserted. "Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life," and when analyzed reveal that "the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things." Life seeks form in response to needs, the life and the form being "absolutely one and inseparable." "Where function does not change," Louis Henry Sullivan insisted, "form does not change," so it was "the pervading law of all things . . .that form ever follows function. That," Louis Henry Sullivan emphasized, "is the law". With the Wainwright Building and the assertion of "form follows function," Louis Sullivan 's place in architectural history was assured.

Between 1890 and 1895 Adler & Sullivan designed some 13 high-rise projects, only 5 of which were built: the Wainwright and the Union Trust Building (1892) in St. Louis, the Schiller Building (1891) and the Stock Exchange (1893) in Chicago, and the Guaranty Building (1894-1895) in Buffalo. But together with "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," they established Louis Henry Sullivan as the premier theorist of skyscraper design with a pioneering style of national importance.

One of the most significant unbuilt skyscraper projects was the 36-story Odd Fellows or Fraternity Temple Building (1891) for Chicago featuring a system of setbacks. Had it been built, the Temple would have been the tallest edifice in the nation. Its impressive scale-450 ft in height occupying an entire 177 x 210 ft block-dramatized certain social problems of which Louis Henry Sullivan was intensely aware, principally those of air and light for tenants and neighbors and of street congestion. In the December 1891 issue of The Graphic, a Chicago pictorial review, Louis Henry Sullivan proposed an innovative solution. The idea was that above a specified limit-twice the width, or 132 ft on a typical 66-ft thoroughfare, for example-building area should be reduced to 50% of the lot. At twice the limit it should be halved again to 25% and so on indefinitely. To prevent the city from becoming a maze of walled canyons, Louis Henry Sullivan would apply the formula to frontage as well as area, and for comer lots with one narrow and one wide street suggested the distance before setback be the sum of the two. Louis Henry Sullivan had already incorporated the principle vertically and horizontally in his 1891 Schiller Building, possibly the first true setback high-rise in the United States. And 25 years later in 1916, New York City's zoning law, which became a model for the nation, incorporated a variation on the theme by dividing central Manhattan into districts with setbacks beginning from one and one-quarter to twice the width of the streets.

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By 1895 Louis Sullivan 's reputation had crossed the Atlantic. His "Golden Doorway" on the Transportation Building (1891) at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was awarded a medal the next year by the Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which exhibited models of his work. The Russian School of Applied Arts in Moscow also asked Louis Henry Sullivan to loan examples of his designs. His skyscrapers, by now even more refined and coherent than the Wainwright Building, were applauded by critics at home, as were his other buildings-tombs, synagogues, hotels, and opera houses conspicuous among them. Much in demand as a speaker and essayist, Louis Henry Sullivan was elected to the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects in 1894 and in 1895 to the Board's Executive Committee. A good measure of his standing was Montgomery Schuyler's conclusion in an 1895 issue of The Architectural Record that Louis Henry Sullivan "is of the first rank among his contemporaries throughout the world".

Under the surface, however, things had already begun to sour. The economic depression beginning in 1893-the worst in U.S. history to that point-had a devastating effect on architecture. In 1894, Adler & Sullivan received only six new commissions, less than half as many a year as from 1890 to 1893, and four of those were not constructed. With a wife and three children to support, 51-year-old Dankmar Adler terminated the partnership on July 11, 1895, to become architectural consultant and supervising sales manager for the Crane Elevator Company at the enviable salary of $25,000 a year. Although Louis Henry Sullivan soon realized Louis Henry Sullivan was unsuited to the work, returning to architecture just after the new year, Adler would not resume the partnership, believing that Louis Henry Sullivan had slighted him by claiming sole authorship of the Guaranty Building. For his part, Louis Henry Sullivan could not forgive Adler's disloyalty by leaving a 12-year association for what Louis Henry Sullivan took to be selfish reasons. There was no going back for the two proud men. Louis Henry Sullivan carried on alone in the old firm office atop the Auditorium Building Tower while Adler rented a suite several flights down. Although they collaborated briefly on a portion of a Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store project in 1898, their relationship remained strained. Dankmar Adler died suddenly from a stroke on April 16, 1900, at the age of 55.

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