Dismembering the Sullivan Legend
Louis Sullivan and modern architecture
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. ●