Louis Sullivan was without a doubt one of the most influential figures in American architecture. He can be credited with lying the foundation of today’s modern skyscrapers. In addition, he has produced some of the most magnificent ornaments seen in 19th and 20th century, which adorned his buildings.
On September 3, 1856, Louis Henri Sullivan was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His came from an Irish father and a French mother. Louis led a sheltered childhood as result of the civil war, and spent a good deal of time on his grandparents’ farm outside of the city. It is here that Sullivan developed an intense concept of nature, which would be apparent in his later work. By the age of twelve, Louis decided to pursue a career in architecture. Moses Wilson, one of Sullivan’s high school teachers, introduced him to the disciplines of silence, attention, and alertness, which are necessary components of the abilities to observe, reflect, and discriminate. These would serve to help him in his career pursuits. Asa Gray, a botanist from Harvard who lectured at his school, caught his interest in the morphology of plants. At the age of sixteen, he was admitted two years early to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Sullivan’s first employment came as a draftsman for the architectural firm Furness and Hewitt in Philadelphia, which he felt was best suited to his tastes. An economic panic resulted in his layoff from the firm and his relocation to Chicago. It was here that he went to work for Major William LeBaron Jenney. It was not long before Louis had acquainted himself with numerous other architects in the city; the most important of whom would turn out to be John Edelman.
The summer of 1874 had Sullivan traveling overseas to the Ecole des Beaur Arts in Paris. After passing rigorous admissions tests, he studied geometric form from Monsieur Clopet. Next, Louis toured Italy to study its fine works of art.
Sullivan returned to Chicago in 1875, where he worked several draftsman positions over the next five years. After this period, John Edelman introduced him to Dankmar Adler. The two formed a partnership in 1881 that would last fourteen years. Sullivan handled the design of their architecture, while Adler oversaw the engineering and acoustic areas of the firm. Louis had two main protegees over the course of his career. Frank Lloyd Wright was his chief draftsman until 1893, when George Grant Elmslie took over the position until 1909. Infact, Elmslie had an influential hand in Sullivan’s work during the last years of the operation. After the turn of the century however, Sullivan became destitute with few commissions. Prior to his death in 1924, he wrote A System of Architectural Ornament. In the book, he illustrates “natural world” theme apparent in his work.
In a relatively short amount of time, Sullivan achieved many strides in American architecture. His works were based on the Romantic Movement of the time, and his most common building ornaments depicted flowers. He constructed diverse types of structures including residences, office buildings, banks, warehouses, factories, theaters, libraries, and an auditorium. Louis was always one to incorporate the latest technological advances into his work. He was the first to utilize steel framework in his construction of the Insurance Building of Chicago in 1884. It was this structure that paved the way for modern-day skyscrapers. He was also one of the first to utilize the electric elevator, and incorporate it seamlessly into his masonry.
Sullivan did not just design great buildings he influenced history. Sullivan was one of the first architects to build “skyscrapers”. When people look at our major city’s now that is all they see from a distance. Louis stayed away from past styles of architecture that he considered unessential. Sullivan created what is called “functional architecture”. In functional architecture a building is not just made with its artistic purpose in mind and it is not made with only its purpose in my mind, but the form of the building on the outside reflects what the building is used for on the inside. Although it seems the natural thing to do, not many architects incorporated nature into their work until Sullivan. The buildings he designed were both representatives of tradition and change at the same time. His belief that architecture is simply an extension of life, a natural function, comes from his life experience. Sullivan designed buildings that made sense to him; that is, their “form follows function.” He also had tremendous respect for the natural world; and that was also incorporated into his buildings. He clearly understood the importance of an aesthetically pleasing structure as well as a functional one. Since Sullivan died his formula has become the touchstone for his profession. Almost every major city today has skyscrapers; therefore Louis Sullivan has influenced almost every major city.
Today, the majority of Sullivan’s buildings have faced demolition. However, an effort was taken on by the Southern Illinois University to collect and preserve the various ornaments on his buildings prior to their destruction. These samples of his work can be observed at the college museum. However, there still are structures of Sullivan’s standing today. The rural banks that he constructed in Ohio between 1907 and 1920 have been considered by many to be his best remaining work.
Louis Sullivan: A Visionary (1978)