Birthday of Louis Sullivan

Opposite the monolithic, gratelike glass and steel facades of mid-century office blocks in Buffalo, New York, sits a squat ochre building. Although from a distance this tower appears very similar to the millions of cheap, featureless, flat-pack brick mill-style structures found in towns across the country, there are details- the elegant proportions, the rows of arched and circular windows at the top, the way the layering of mullions and transoms changes the facade’s appearance from certain angles- that suggest this building is something different. This suggestion is thoroughly confirmed upon closer approach when stunning textures and patterns unfurl themselves from the terracotta surfaces. Intricate carvings like petrified lace cover every inch of stone on the building, every face of the arched portals at its foot. It is clear that this structure is older than the glass blocks across the street- in fact, it predates almost all other skyscrapers. It is the Guaranty Building, and it was built in 1896 by the hugely influential architect Louis Sullivan, who was born 170 years ago yesterday.

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The Guaranty Building and a detail

Born in Boston, Sullivan briefly studied at MIT before being employed by architect and engineer William le Baron Jenney, generally considered the inventor of the skyscraper. After working for Jenney for a few years, Sullivan went back to school, this time at France’s esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He returned to Chicago and, in partnership with engineer Dankmar Adler, designed and built his breakout work, the Auditorium Building. For a short time the tallest building in Chicago, its height, classical composition of base, shaft, and capital, and interior decoration garnered acclaim for Sullivan and won him commissions for a number of high rises. Sullivan was busy throughout the 1890s, his works including the aforementioned Guaranty Building, the Wainwright and Union Trust Buildings in St. Louis, and the Bayard-Condict Building in New York.

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An old postcard showing the Auditorium Building

The structure of Sullivan’s buildings, the mettle that allowed them to reach unprecedented heights, was much the same as that which was used by his mentor le Baron Jenney. Where once sheer masonry walls supported the entire weight of a building, steel skeletons were now used. Lighter and more flexible than load-bearing walls, these frames also allowed more window area and greater ease of manufacture. Of course, the structure as a whole was still incredibly heavy and required strong foundations. While partnered with Adler, Sullivan employed reinforced concrete raft foundations to support some of his Chicago buildings. This type of foundation, which when built correctly evenly distributes a load across a wide area, was necessary because the buildings were built on clay too soft for traditional anchoring piles. Then unorthodox, raft foundations are now a staple of tall building construction in certain conditions.

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Sullivan’s neo-Gothic Bayard-Condict Building

Though his use of steel structures was relatively pioneering, Sullivan was by no means their inventor; where his legacy really lies is in the architecture of skyscrapers. While le Baron Jenney’s designs were for the most part purely structural affairs, machinelike containers with little more than incidental ornamentation, Sullivan advocated a revolution in skyscraper design in which their unique, innate qualities were combined with contemporary Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau sensibilities to create a new American style. In his famous essay The Tall Building Artistically Considered, he espouses the need to express height through design: “loftiness is to the artist-nature (the tower’s) thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it”. As a result of this philosophy, Sullivan incorporated prominent vertical features into all of his designs. Later in the same essay, Sullivan describes some of his stylistic choices, like intricate organic decoration, but entreats architects to use whatever styles they choose as long as the building as a whole is coherent rather than a “miscellany” of architectural styles and industrial facades.

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Le Barron Jeney’s plain Leiter Building, top, compared to Sullivan’s stylized and richly decorated Wainright Building

Too often remembered only in the context of his most famous student, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan deserves credit for popularizing the skyscraper as an architectural work and thus transforming cities at the turn of the twentieth century. Though his highly decorative style, beautiful as it was, did not survive the 1910s, he left a legacy with one simple phrase, also from The Tall Building Artistically Considered: “Form ever follows function”. Whatever the architectural style, Sullivan argued, the “outward expression, design, or whatever we may choose, of the tall office building should in the very nature of things follow the functions of the building”. This mantra has been adopted by a century’s worth of architects of all schools, from the most minimalist of modernists to the most outlandish of deconstructivists. Few other architects can claim such a wide-reaching impact.

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Third and fourth images in public domain

Fifth image from Wikimedia Commons, by Zol87

Sixth image from Wikimedia Commons, by J. Crocker

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