All things have a genesis. The birth of children, marriages, homes, and products all begin with a seed in the form of an idea. That idea is then nourished until it transforms into spoken word, and finally action. And so that is the story of the birth of the modern architecture movement in America.
Many people think the genesis of modern architecture was the Bauhaus, modernism, postmodernism, or—more recently—parametricism movements. However, modern architecture dates back to the late 1800s. And for all the credit that Gropius, Nakashima, and Lloyd Wright receive, they owe much to one man—Louis Henry Sullivan.
Louis Henry Sullivan (1856–1924) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to immigrant parents. Sullivan’s Boston education led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he was admitted to the seven-year-old school of architecture at MIT, which was the first to open in the United States. However, Sullivan did not last long at MIT. After a year, he quit school and found his way to William Le Baron Jenney's architectural office. Astute readers will recognize Jenney as one of the Chicago School founders, and also the igniter of the movement that produced the skyscraper. This was a movement that Sullivan would later find his way to and add his acumen to the movement’s success.
Sullivan worked at the Jenney’s firm for about a year before sailing to Europe to attend École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. However, Sullivan proved to be a restive student. He returned to Chicago the following year, in 1875. Four years later, Sullivan joined Dankmar Adler’s firm and two years later became a partner.
Together, Sullivan and Adler designed over 100 buildings—several of which were incredibly influential to the design world. These included the Auditorium in Chicago, IL, Wainwright in St. Louis, MO, and the Guaranty in Buffalo, NY. Furthermore. Sullivan received international attention at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 with the Transportation Building.
The Transportation Building was unique because it had brightly colored and ornate arches with a gold door at the center. This made it stand out against the typically Classical architecture styles at the fair. Though it was not very favorably received at the World’s Fair, he did receive the attention of André Bouilhet, who later exhibited Sullivan’s work in Paris, Finland, and Russia.
The World’s Fair in 1893 also marked another important event in Sullivan’s life. It is the year that Frank Lloyd Wright ended his seven-year apprenticeship with Sullivan. Though the two parted on unfriendly terms, Wright’s work was greatly influenced by Sullivan’s ideals.
Sullivan’s impact on the modern design world, however, is best displayed in his 1896 essay titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” From this essay comes one of the most recognized axioms from the modern architecture and design movements, “form follows function.” As Sullivan wrote,
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream as its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for the ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.
Form follows function would serve as the seed for the creations of designers like Eames, Gropius, Nakashima, Le Corbusier, and many others to come. Though this phrase is often debated and interpreted to different extremes, there is little doubt that it has influenced many great designers of various modern movements.
Despite the grandeur of Sullivan’s skyscrapers and influential writings in the earlier part of his career, the last part of his life would be nothing short of ordinary. The decline began shortly before his 1896 essay was published when Adler parted from Sullivan. This, coupled with a declining economy, began to cripple Sullivan. Commissions soon dried up. By the end of Sullivan’s life, he was completely supported by friends and living in a small apartment in Chicago. After he died in 1924, he was buried in the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago next to his parents.
Though the latter part of Sullivan’s life may have been lack-luster, his lasting influence is nothing short of incredible. In the end, Sullivan is responsible for giving the world some of the first skyscrapers and the seed that would later grow and inspire endless designers. The breadth of Sullivan’s impact through his idea that form follows function has yet to be measured. Truly, only time will tell how those three simple words impacted both architecture and the world at large.
Louis Henry Sullivan’s Greatest Contributions
Auditorium, Chicago, IL, 1889
Wainwright, St. Louis, MO, 1891
Guaranty, Buffalo, NY, 1895.
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