The Architect of the City
Louis Sullivan, the author of the modernist skyline, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
This publishing feat—a catalogue raisonné of the work of the architects Dankmar Adler (1844–1900) and Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), including architectural plans, 256 essays, and 815 photographs—originated in 1952; a book contract was signed in 1956; publication was scheduled for the fall of 1957. But things became complicated, for reasons that make this book a chronicle of mean and bedraggled defeat, and of honor belatedly conferred.
Sullivan is now venerated as the father of architectural modernism: he coined the maxim “Form ever follows function”—which lost its second word when it became the modernist battle cry. He arguably invented and indisputably defined the aesthetic and purpose of the skyscraper. Along with his protégé and one-time chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, he is universally hailed as the greatest architect to emerge from Chicago, the city that has produced America’s greatest architecture. But after a period of dazzling triumph—the years in which he and his tactful, painstaking partner, Adler, designed and built such masterpieces as Chicago’s Auditorium Building, the Schiller and Stock Exchange Buildings, Buffalo’s Guaranty Building, and St. Louis’s Wainwright Building—the partnership dissolved, the Second City’s industrial and commercial titans stopped commissioning the sort of bold and ambitious work that defined the Chicago School of architecture, and Sullivan fell into obscurity. True, although the metropolis rejected him, he won a series of commissions in prairie towns for his “jewel box” banks, at once handsome and sprightly. But even such modest projects were rare, and Sullivan spent his final years living in obscurity in a seedy Chicago hotel.
For the half century after his death, his buildings fared little better. Often forgotten, usually neglected, not infrequently demolished, many were difficult to track down, and photographing them for this project often involved a race with the wrecking ball. These endeavors fell largely to the primary co- author, the architectural photographer Richard Nickel, whose work spanned decades, delayed as it was by inevitable funding problems as well as his efforts to salvage interiors and ornamental elements before Sullivan’s buildings were torn down. Nickel retrieved and documented the now celebrated trading room of Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building for installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is among the museum’s most visited and beloved exhibits. He was continuing his photographic documentation of the Stock Exchange Building as it was being systematically demolished when, in 1972, a part of the building collapsed on him and he was killed. Nickel’s 15,000 photographic negatives were preserved by a foundation, and the project was kept going in fits and starts largely owing to the efforts of the architect John Vinci (the designer of, among other works, the restrained, stylish Arts Club of Chicago), who has written the most-developed essays in this book.
The photos of buildings, those still standing and those later destroyed, reveal that the seductive power of Sullivan’s work lies largely in the tension between form and function—some might say in the tension between the buildings’ masculine and feminine elements—and in the ways Sullivan balanced the severe, massive elegance of his facades with the rhythmic grace of his exuberant, often whimsical ornament. See, for instance, the intricate cast-iron frames that wrap around and provide a delicate counterpoint to the elongated functionalist simplicity of the Carson Pirie Scott & Company Building, or the balance between the fortress-like Auditorium Building’s soaring, highly decorated interior and its exterior walls of solid masonry, which achieve their aesthetic effect through mass and texture and the proportioning of large, simple elements.
Perceptively arranged, the black-and-white and color photographs juxtapose fine-grained close-ups of Sullivan’s exquisite ornamentation with sweeping shots of the edifices within the cityscape. Although the book contains work by a host of photographers, Nickel’s photographs are of course preponderant. They’re both arresting and angry, and in their depictions of decrepit urban cores and of Sullivan’s soot-stained masterpieces festooned with anachronistically garish lighted signs and cheapjack advertisements, they illuminate their time and place as much as they do Sullivan’s work.
Sullivan’s surviving buildings are dilapidated no more. In fact, in many ways they’ve probably never looked better, considering that when they were built they helped form what Lewis Mumford called “a brutal network of industrial necessities, railroads, grain elevators, grain-elevator bridges, stockyards, business offices.” Gussied up, they’re now essential elements in the “architectural heritage” embraced by post-industrial Chicago’s developers and tourist industry—all of which is very nice, if too late for Nickel. To say nothing of Sullivan.