Still, his buildings were fine

Palace_of_Mechanic_Arts,_1893_World_Columbian_Exposition.jpg

World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Reaching the end of Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea, I could only wish that his place in architectural history was judged more by his buildings and less by what he wrote about architecture. Most of the book consists of long-winded passages of rodomontade explicating a far broader philosophy into which “form follows function” was set – a philosophy that exalted the “IDEA” of Man and his Powers. Very vague, to say the least: banal, perhaps – or perhaps incomprehensibly profound. It is above my pay grade to judge.

LSTransportation2

Transportation Building (wikipedia)

There is no denunciation of ornament per se, and the phrase “form ever follows function” appears nowhere. No “ever” is ever placed among the three words in Sullivan’s book. Good! Because the modifier ever would unduly fortify the principle – lifting a relatively unobjectionable idea to the level of practical impossibility. The history of architecture shows no example of function being ignored in the quest for form (except perhaps in the case of some modernist buildings). To assert that form always follows function is to display an unlikely ignorance of how those two major aspects of design always intermingle, with both sharing a simultaneous importance, or with the lead of one traded back and forth between the two in the mind of the architect: form never entirely follows function.

At the end, Sullivan denounced the American Renaissance, in which society embraced neoclassicism in the City Beautiful Movement for about half a century, and specifically the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (whose massive Transportation Building he was allowed to design in the only major nonclassical style), as a “poison” in American architecture:

There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched. … The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. …  Meanwhile, … we have now the abounding freedom of Eclecticism, the winning smile of taste, but no architecture. For Architecture, be it known, is dead.

It is never quite explained why he hated the classical. But he sees the antidote in his “IDEA” of Man and his Powers. “It requires courage,” he opines, “to remain steadfast in faith in the presence of such pollution. Yet it is precisely such courage that marks man in his power as free spirit. … The Great Modern Inversion … is now under way in its world-wide awakening.”

Of course, Sullivan had it totally wrong. He predicts that “out of the very richness and multiplicity of the architectural phenomenon called ‘styles’ there may arise within the architectural mind a perception growing slowly, perhaps suddenly, into clearness, that architecture in its material nature and in its animating essence is a plastic art” (an illimitable variety of valid forms).

Though his timing was impeccable, what we got was not what he describes as the best of architecture but the worst: modern architecture. It represents the antithesis of everything he called for in his book. What we got instead was modernism’s formulaic abhorrence of nature and the natural. What we lost was its spirit of creativity and architecture’s reliance on the power of man at work as opposed to the vapidity of theory. What was ejected by modernism was exactly those very traits – the classical and traditional architecture that had not relied upon formula but had evolved for centuries on the basis of trial and error, with the best practices for merging utility and form handed down from generation to generation. Sullivan had failed to understand that the classical orders, in practice, are not formula but creative inspiration.

Was this sudden purge of classicism the “Great Modern Inversion”? That is, can we assume that ridding architecture of tradition is what he meant by that phrase? It is hard to be sure of anything in The Autobiography of an Idea, but if so, the result was an architecture that embraces the reverse of the spirit of building that Sullivan spent his book and his life seeking.

There can be no doubt that Louis Sullivan is spinning angrily in his grave.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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