Sullivan on the classical


The Parthenon, circa 1998. (Photo by David Brussat)

About halfway through his Autobiography of an Idea, Louis Sullivan begins to discuss architecture. He is at MIT, circa 1872. He writes in the third person. Here he receives the received wisdom on classicism:

Louis had gone at his studies faithfully enough. He learned not only to draw but to draw very well. He traced the “Five Orders of Architecture” in a manner quite resembling copper plate, and he learned about diameters, modules, minutes, entablatures, columns, pediments and so forth and so forth, with the associated minute measurements and copious vocabulary, all of which items he supposed at the time were intended to be received in unquestioning faith, as eternal verities. And he was told that these “Orders” were “Classic,” which implied an arrival at the goal of the Platonic perfection of idea.

But Louis was not given to that kind of faith. His faith every lay in the oft-seen creative power and glory of man. His faith lay indeed in freedom. The song of Spring was the song in his heart. These rigid “Orders” seemed to say, “The book is closed; Art shall die.” Then it occurred to him, why five orders? Why not one? Each of the five plainly tells a different story. Which of them shall be sacrosanct? And if one be sacrosanct the remaining four become invalid. Now it would appear by the testimony of the world of scholarship and learning that the Greek is sacrosanct; and of all the Greek the Parthenon is super-sacrosanct. Therefore there was and has been in all time but the unique Parthenon; all else is invalid. Art is dead. …

This line of reasoning amused Louis quaintly. It seemed to him romantic; much like a fairy tale. And this is all that he gathered from the “Orders” – that they really were fairy tales of the long ago, now by the learned made rigid, mechanical and inane in the books he was pursuing, wherein they were stultified, for lack of common sense and human feeling. Hence he spent much time in the library, looking at pictures of buildings of the past that did not have pediments and columns. He found quite a few and became acquainted with “styles” and learned that styles were not considered sacrosanct, but merely human. That there was a difference in the intellectual and therefore the social scale, between a style and an order.

Granted, this is a student’s reflections on the teachings of his professors, or perhaps the disappointed older man reflecting on the long-ago teachings of his professors. I do not quarrel but merely note that the teachings of architecture professors and the response of student architects has not changed so very much over the years. Teachers exaggerate what is sacrosanct and students rebel against it. What could be more natural? And yet only in the past half a century has this natural evolution of what is taught as it travels down from professor to student to practice been interrupted. The new teaching of modernist principles makes the old teaching of classical principles seem downright libertine.

For, as Sullivan himself discovered in his research into non-canonical buildings, much diversion from the canon was permitted and accomplished for centuries in the real world of building. Today, and for more than half a century, divergence from modernist “canon” or rather “dogma” has been fought by the architectural establishment with a much more rigorous defensive apparatus. The schools teach nothing but modernism, the journals publish nothing but modernism, the firms design nothing but modernism, the professional organizations promote nothing but modernism. Deviation is possible but much more difficult than of old, where, say, the longstanding battle between neo-Gothic and neo-Classical demonstrated only that the broad liberality of a profession in which you could largely design what you wanted has grown much more conservative.

That the public remains largely disappointed with the result, yet the profession still does not brook challenge, is a sad commentary indeed on a cultish, even a totalitarian mindset in the today’s establishment. Today, a Louis Sullivan emerging from school into practice would be considered not a “precursor of modernism” let alone an adherent of it but a revolutionary force against it.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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