Dismembering the Sullivan Legend

Louis Sullivan and modern architecture

Illinois Issues

October 1986

Architect Louis Sullivan has been both under-appreciated and oversold, in Chicago in particular. Sullivan also figures centrally in another article I did for Illinois Issues, Saving History from the Wrecking Ball.

 

Reviewed: Louis Sullivan and the Polemics of Modern Architecture: The Present against the Past by David S. Andrew, University of Illinois Press, 1985

It is proof of David Andrew's complaint against Louis Sullivan that the late architect is remembered best not for something he built but for something he said. In his book, Louis Sullivan and the Polemics of Modern Architecture: The Present against the Past, Andrew insists that the famous dictum, "Form follows function," is typical of Sullivan in that it suggests more than it says. Andrew offers an exhaustive analysis of Sullivan's thought as expressed in his designs and his writings and the impact each had on the evolution of modern architecture since the turn of the century. Neither biography nor explication nor critique, Polemics is a little of all three, appropriately cast in the form of a polemic which is both relentless and comprehensive.

Not content merely to dismember the Sullivan legend, Andrew (a professor of art history at the University of New Hampshire) buries the pieces as well. In seven largely self-sustained essays, he discusses Sullivan's career as writer, theoretician, historian, modernist, and apologist. He reminds us that while Sullivan's influence on subsequent building styles was modest (disciples such as Frank Lloyd Wright honored him but never imitated him), his influence on the way we talk about architecture was profound.

And wrongheaded. Andrew argues that Sullivan showed "a disdain and condescension toward history." He embraced change without understanding it, and in the process confused it with progress. In this he was a fairly typical American of his era; the difference was that Sullivan, the first great architect to spend as much time at the typewriter as at the drawing board, provided a key intellectual rationale for his trade.

It is difficult to convey the nature of Sullivan's thought in a few excerpts. His major work, Autobiography of an Idea, is neither an autobiography nor about an idea, but dozens of ideas. Like most of the building ornament for which he is justly renowned, Sullivan's ideas were convoluted, fantastic, idiosyncratic, and superficial, a half-cooked stew of Darwin, Schopenhauer and Islam. Andrew portrays him as an ignorant romantic imbued with what is described as a "childlike technological optimism" who extolled both nature and the technology that was used to suppress it. The line separating prophets from cranks, Andrew says in effect, is a pretty fine one.

Sullivan chose to see in new building forms such as the commercial skyscraper a democratic iconography, but others weren't convinced. (Lewis Mumford is one of the critics who saw clearly that commerce, not culture, made the skyscraper inevitable.) Far from the "democratic poetry" that Sullivan insisted they were, Andrews describes the buildings that transformed cities like Chicago as "manifestations of big money" and servants of "institutionalized cupidity."

The fact that Sullivan's own buildings never obeyed his own laws of design seemed not to have dimmed his reputation as a seer. Andrew's critique is informed, literate and calm, but occasionally he betrays the exasperation of the bright students in a room full of dolts. "The function auditorium did not generate the form auditorium," he writes of Sullivan's most famous work on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, "The form is office building."

The Sullivan we see here, in short, is scarcely recognizable as the venerated if flawed master depicted in such biographies as Robert Twombly's recent Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (Elizabeth Sifton Books/Viking, New York, 1986). Sullivan partisans will be irritated by Andrew's lack of generosity toward his subject, and indeed Andrew may hold Sullivan responsible for too many of the failures of modernism.

Even so, Polemics ought to be read by any serious student of U.S. architecture as well as by Sullivanites. (The former may wish to take Andrew in small doses; the essays, "The High Building Question" and "Sullivan as Modern Architect," are especially recommended.) Andrew has written a book that is determinedly provocative, difficult and dogged. Like most medicines it leaves a bitter taste. But those who dare it are likely to emerge from the cure with a keener head and a clearer eye. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated