Louis Sullivan: The Life-Enhancing Symbiosis of Music, Language, Architecture, and Ornament

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 63)


Louis Sullivan is generally regarded as the architect who pioneered a compelling form for the new American building type, the tall office building, and who devised an inimitable system of architectural ornament. Sullivan’s contributions to metaphysics and aesthetic education are less well known and have usually been treated primarily as echoes of the thought of Schiller and Whitman. When scholars have noted the transcendentalist aspect of Sullivan’s mind, they then have proceeded to consider those qualities of Sullivan’s architecture and ornament which display a translation of transcendentalist ideas or related Swedenborgian principles into symbolic form.l In contrast to this approach, which is certainly valid within its established parameters, I will focus on the phenomenological aspect of Sullivan’s work to relate the deep aesthetic and spiritual experience which he sought to instill in his audience to those specific qualities of his writings and his visual and plastic art which he developed for that purpose.


Rhythmic Patterning Architectural Form Vital Energy Architectural Historian Life Force 
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  1. 1.
    See Narciso Menocal, Architecture as Nature: The Transcendentalist Idea of Louis Sullivan (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 25; Lauren S. Weingarden, “Naturalized Technology: Louis H. Sullivan’s Whitmanesque Skyscrapers,” The Centennial Review 30 (Fall 1986): 493; and “Louis Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament, in Louis H. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), 15–18, 20.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Claude Bragdon, “Letters from Louis Sullivan,” Architecture 64 (July 1931): 8.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Louis H. Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippincott s 57 (March 1896): 408.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats [1901–1902], ed. Claude Bragdon (Lawrence, Kans.: Scarab Fraternity Press, 1934), 227. Although all page references to the Kindergarten Chats refer to the Bragdon edition, the actual texts themselves correspond to the original published version, as collated and corrected when necessary through consultation with the carbon copy of Sullivan’s typed manuscript and his handwritten manuscript, both conserved in the Avery Library, Columbia University. I use Sullivan’s original publication rather than the second edition both because it is closer in date to the tall office buildings and because I find it closer in spirit to his architecture. As for Bragdon’s edition, it eliminated about 17,000 words, as well as the system of punctuation with its extensive use of dashes and colons that made Sullivan’s text into a transcription of an essentially oral document. As Sullivan himself had explained to Bragdon, “a considerable art of the K. C. is in rhythmic prose — some of it declamatory. I have endeavoured throughout this work to represent, or reproduce to the mind and heart of the reader the spoken word and intonation — not written language. It really should be read aloud, especially the descriptive and exalted passages” (Claude Bragdon, Architecture and Democracy, [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918], 145). Yet Bragdon essentially modernized Sullivan’s writing style when he assembled the fifty-two articles into a book. I am currently establishing a new edition of Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats based on the first printed edition in The Interstate Architect and Builder in conjunction with the carbon copy of the typescript and the manuscript. Because of the rarity of the first printed text, it makes sense to use the page numbers of the Bragdon edition, which are placed in parentheses in the text itself to avoid a cumbersome number of footnotes.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” Essays (New York and London: Merrill and Baker, n.d.), 172–173.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Peter Smith, 1949), 208–209. Commenting on Wagner’s music, Sullivan wrote, “Louis needed no interpreter. It was all plain to him. He saw it all. It was as though addressed to himself alone.” Suzzanne Shulof, in “An Interpretation of Louis Sullivan’s Architectural Ornament Based on His Philosophy of Organic Expression” (Columbia University M. A. Thesis, 1962), 67 n. 42, quotes Halsey C. Ive’s comments in The Dream City [1893] on Sullivan’s Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition: “the architects of the building have called its vari-colored effects `Wagnerian’....” Sullivan’s appreciation of Beethoven still needs elucidation. In his “Notebook” (Avery Library, Columbia University, AA 685.Su5.Su5434), Sullivan made a list of his readings for 1875, which includes as the entry for February 11 (fol. 190), La Vie de Beethoven. A letter of December 7, 1911, from Carl K. Bennett, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, which Sullivan had designed in 1906–1908, links Sullivan to the great composer: “I have likened your work to that of the great musicians or poets, and have thought of ourselves as though we possessed of the symphonies of Beethoven” (quoted in Robert R. Warn, “Part II. Louis H. Sullivan, ... an air of finality,”’ The Prairie School Review 10, no. 4 (1973): 6. As an accomplished chorister and conductor, Bennett had undoubtedly spoken with Sullivan about music over the course of their developing professional and personal relationships. Had they discussed Beethoven as well and in what ways? On Sullivan’s relationship with Bennett, see Robert R. Warn, “Part I. Bennett and Sullivan, Client and Creator,” The Prairie School Review 10, no. 3 (1973): 5–15, as well as the sequel cited above, and Lauren S. Weingarden, Louis H. Sullivan: The Banks (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 48–49.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Salomon Hegnauer, “The Rhetorical Figure of Systrophe, in Brian Vickers, ed., Rhetoric Revalued: Papers from the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 19 (Binghampton, N. Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1982), 179–186.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Jean Mouton, Le Style de Marcel Proust (Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1968), 147–172 (ch. 5 “L’Enumération”); Anthony Hecht, “A Note on the Relations of Poetry and Prose,” talk given at the Second National Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Boston, August 26, 1996.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    In the same vein, consider also: “The well trained mind never tires, — can never tire. For, with proper nourishment, with proper discipline, with proper and natural openness to impressions, in other words, with proper receptivity, there pours into it steadily and uninterruptedly a vitalizing stream from the great well-spring of Nature’s boundless energy, which causes it to grow, to unfold, to organize, to build up and expand, to increase ever steadily in power and subtlety, in clarity of vision, in soundness of judgment, in integrity of purpose, until the power to absorb and the power to utter have reached their glorious culmination in unison, and the greater the task the greater the power and the joy in the doing” (235).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    The relationship between Lucretius and both Sullivan’s prose style and his philosophy has yet to be elucidated. The parallels are striking. Was there a direct influence or did Sullivan imbibe his Lucretian language and rhythms via the influence of Whitman, whom he is known to have admired? One can juxtapose nearly any passage from John Mason Good’s popular verse translation of De rerum natura with Sullivan’s writings about nature to see the parallels. One might begin by comparing Lucretius’ opening invocation to Venus to the opening hymn to spring in Sullivan’s “Essay on Inspiration.” In Good’s rendition, Lucretius’ poem reads as a hymn to life, to the vitality of life and more generally to the vitality found throughout the world both animate and inanimate. Virtually any selection of lines from Lucretius’ poem would provide a sensation of a vitalistic movement that “Streams forth for ever, void of dull repose” (IV. 233), a movement so similar to Sullivan’s own concern with “upbuilding” and “unfolding”: Come, then and mark how seeds primordial form Created things, and how, when formed, dissolve: Their force, their action, whence, and power to move, Pass, and repass, through all th’immense of space: Benign attend, while thus the muse explains (II. 63–67). But one same nature flows from heat and air, And mystic vapour, and the power unnamed That rears the incipient stimulus, and first Darts sentient motion through the quivering frame. Far from all vision this profoundly lurks, Through the whole system’s utmost depth diffused, And lives as soul of e’en the soul itself. As with each limb the general spirit blends, Though ne’er discerned, so subtle and so few Its primal seeds — so, through the spirit, spreads This form ineffable, this mystic power, Soul of the soul, and lord of mortal man (III. 279–290). Although first published in 1805, Good’s translation was still deemed “by far the best extant” (xxi) by the Rev. John Selby Watson, who appended it to his prose transation of Lucretius on the Nature of Things (London: George Bell and Sons, 1898), a volume in Bohn’s Classical Library. LIGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippincott’s 57 (March 1896): 408.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
  13. 13.
    Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea, 313–314. This passage reiterates Sullivan’s earlier expression of this sentiment: “We must now heed the imperative voice of emotion. It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing...” (“The Tall Office Building,” 406).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Louis H. Sullivan, letter of November 8, 1903, to Claude Bragdon, as reproduced in Bragdon, “Letters from Louis Sullivan,” Architecture 64 (July 1931): 9.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    The author developed this idea further in “Louis Sullivan’s Tall Office Building Reconsidered, read at the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, Los Angeles, April 17, 1998.”Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Scholars disagree about who designed the ornament for the exterior of the Guaranty. Reasoning on the basis of connoisseurship rather than with documentary evidence, Paul Edward Sprague argues, “Although Sullivan personally designed the terminating flourishes at the topmost corners of the Guaranty Building, his hand is not evident in the decorations directly below him. The large number of angular shapes and star-like motifs in these areas argues for a different designer, namely Elmslie” (“The Architectural Ornament of Louis Sullivan and His Chief Draftsmen” [Princeton University PhD. Dissertation, 1968], 127). Here Sprague is following David Gebhard’s argument published earlier in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 19 (May 1960): 63. In contrast, Suzanne Shulof, who also adduces arguments to support her case from James Marston Fitch, challenges Gebhard’s conclusions: “It cannot be said with certainty that Elmslie was the originator of the `imaginative patterns and forms’ of the exterior of the Guaranty Building” (“An Interpretation of Louis Sullivan’s Architectural Ornament Based on His Philosophy of Organic Expression” [Columbia University M. A. Thesis, 1962], 14, 67 nn. 37, 39). In any case, whether this exterior ornament originated as an initial idea or was fully developed by Sullivan or whether it comes from Elmslie’s hand, it is fully consistent with the artistic goals of Sullivan’s building. La modénature was the subject of a brief essay by that title which Le Corbusier published in Almanche d’architecture moderne (1926), 116–118. Remarking on how unaccustomed architects were with this term and how it was unknown to Louis Bonnier, Architecte en Chef des Services d’Architecture de la Ville de Paris, Le Corbusier explained: “Monsieur Bonnier le mot est dans le dictionnaire. Mais plus que cela, la chose est dans l’architecture. C’est le moment aigu de l’architecture; c’est lorsque les traits du visage prennent leur qualité par le profil qui du haut en bas va déterminer l’ombre et la lumière, c’est à dire ce que l’oeil voit et par conséquent ce qui va, pour beaucoup, nous donner l’émotion architecturale” (Monsieur Bonnier, the word is in the dictionary. But more than that, the thing is in architecture. It is the defining moment for architecture. It is when the traits of a face take on their distinctive qualities through the profile that from above to below is going to determine the light and shadow, that is to say, what the eye will see and consequently that which, even more, is going to give us the architectural emotion). La modénature, explained Le Corbusier, is not limited to the modeling of architectural moldings. Rather it pertains to the entire profile of a building’s walls. Repeating an aphorism expressed in his earlier study of la modénature of the Greek Doric order, especially as found at the Parthenon, published in L’Esprit Nouveau and then reprinted in Vers une Architecture (1923), Le Corbusier explained, “La modénature est la pierre de touche de l’architecte... La modénature est une pure création de l’esprit.” (La modénature is the architect’s touchstone... La modénature is a pure creation of the spirit [his ellipses]). As Le Corbusier reminded his readers , “Le mot est dans toutes les pages d’Auguste Choisy, ... auteur du plus digne ouvrage qui fût sur l’architecture” (The word is on every page of Auguste Choisy, ... author of the most worthy book on architecture ever written). The entire Chicago School needs to be studied from the perspective of the importance of modeling. One scholar who has written perceptively on this subject is William H. Jordy, who in American Buildings and Their Architects: Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Century (1972; Garden City: Doubleday/Anchor, 1976), 47–50, 63, has broached this theme when discussing, for example, Burnham and Root’s Monadnock Building, Holabird and Roche’s Gage Buildings, and Sullivan’s Wainwright, where he observed about the rolled moldings, “They sharply bound the face of the piers; they visually stiffen them the better to accelerate the sense of rise” (109, see also 125 on the Trust and Savings Building project). Nor should the importance of la modénature be limited to the Chicago school but it should rather, for the modern era, reach back at least to Labrouste and extend forward at least to Olbrich and Wagner. For a consideration of the modeling of the facade of Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, see David Van Zanten, Design Paris: The Architecture of Duban, Labrouste, Duc, and Vaudoyer (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 93, 96. For suggestive illustrations that point to the central importance of la modénature in the design of Olbrich’s Secession Building and Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank, both in Vienna, see ?.kos Moravânsky, “The Aesthetics of the Mask,” in Harry Francis Mallgrave, ed., Otto Wagner: Reflections on the Raiment of Modernity (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and the University of Chicago Press, 1993), 214–215 (Fig. 5), and Ian Latham, Joseph Maria Olbrich (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 31 (top left).Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Ralph N. Wornum, Analysis of Ornament. The Characteristics of Styles: An Introduction to the Study of the History of Ornamental Art (London: Champman and Hall, 1860, 2nd ed.), 8.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    For example, although Montgomery Schuyler criticized the detailing of Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Building by advocating, among other changes, “a more vigorous modelling of the main cornice,” he does not seem to have entertained a notion of modelling as an actual aesthetic category (“Glimpses of Western Architecture: Chicago” [1891] in American Architecture and Other Writings, eds. William H. Jordy and Ralph Coe [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961], I, 260). Similarly and at a later date, Hugh Morrison would praise the modeling of the tower of the Schiller Building without using any specific terminology: “The chief motive in the design is the seventeen-story tower, which is positively expressed in the lower stories by the strong relief of the vertical piers carried upward throughout its whole height “without a single dissenting line”’ (Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture [New York: W. W. Norton and the Museum of Modern Art, 1935], 158).Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    Henry-Russell Hitchcock, The Architecture of H. H. Richardson and His Times (1936; 1961 rev. ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966, 1981 5th printing), 277: “The design [of the Marshall Field Wholesale Store] is so elementary that any attempt to copy it was bound to be inferior. Sullivan’s first attempt, in the Auditorium Building begun two years later, magnificent though that is, is a case in point.” Hitchcock has nothing further to say here about Sullivan’s building, nor does he note Sullivan’s modeling of the facade’s surface in his discussion of the building in Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1958; New York, Penguin, 1977 4th ed., 1978 printing), 339–340.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    James F. O’Gorman, Three American Architects: Richardson, Sullivan, Wright,1865–1915 (Chicago; University of Chicago Press), 85.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    Writing about the Schiller, David Van Zanten has observed, “Here is a magisterial orchestration of volumetric shapes, but not of the arbitrary sort that so often characterized the French student designs as well as Sullivan’s Pueblo project. Instead Sullivan uses a single form, the segmented barrel vault, determined by the sight lines and acoustics of the space, simply and powerfully elaborated” (“Sullivan to 1890,” Wim de Wit, ed., Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament [Saint Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1986], 47–48).Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    For a brief overview of this outlook, which includes not only Ruskin’s thought but also the importance of this concept in the popular writings of Viollet-le-Duc, James Fergusson, and Camillo Sitte, as well as the reevaluation of the nature of Greek architecture at the Athenian Acropolis by architects and classical scholars from several nations, see Richard A. Etlin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: The Romantic Legacy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), ch. 2. For a brief discussion of the emphasis placed by Ruskin on “the expression of vital energy” and on the “lamp of life” within the context of the architecture of Furness, Richardson, and Sullivan, see Lauren S. Weingarden, “Naturalized Nationalism: A Ruskinian Discourse on the Search for an American Style of Architecture,” Winterthur Portfolio 24 (Spring 1989), 51–52 and note 15. Elsewhere Weingarden has written about the echeloning effect of the piers at the Schiller Building, created by “the sequence of planar recessions [which] continues unbroken as the piers gracefully wrap around half-circle arches” as presenting a “metaphor for the organic life cycle” (“Louis H. Sullivan’s Search for an American Style,” in Pauline Saliga, ed., Fragments of Chicago’s Past [Chicago: the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990], 122).Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    On Sullivan’s admiration of Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store and his efforts to emulate its achievements in his own manner, see Kindergarten Chats, 15–18 (“The Oasis”), and de Wit, ed., Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament, 36–37, 67–74.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    Christopher Dresser, The Art of Decorative Design (London: Day and Son, 1862), 98, 100, and Principles of Decorative Design (1873; London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin and Co., 4th ed, n.d.), 17.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    As might be expected, different scholars have emphasized different aspects of this book. In Architecture as Nature, 25, Menocal has given a Swedenborgian reading of Sullivan’s system of ornament presented there with emphasis on the balance achieved through organic and geometric forms, the former understood as the “feminine-emotional,” the latter as “masculine-rational.” In “Naturalized Technology,” 493, Weingarden also emphasizes Sullivan’s pairing of the organic as subjective with the inorganic as objective. Weingarden develops this symbolic reading more fully in “Louis Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament, 15–18, 20.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), 137 (Plate 9, “Interlude: The Doctrine of Paralellism”). I follow the capitalization of “Life” as found in the manuscript.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    Louis H. Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (New York: American Institute of Architects, 1924), Plate 5.Google Scholar
  28. 29.
    Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), 139, manuscript for Plate 10. This text was omitted from the published version.Google Scholar
  29. 30.
    Louis H. Sullivan to Carl K. Bennett, as quoted in John Vinci, The Art Institute of Chicago: The Stock Exchange Trading Room (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1977), 36.Google Scholar
  30. 31.
    Menocal, Architecture as Nature, 132; Lauren S. Weingarden, “The Colors of Nature: Louis Sullivan’s Architectural Polychromy and Nineteenth-Century Color Theory,” Winterthur Portfolio 20 (Winter 1985), 250, 255, 259. Sullivan himself described the coloring, narrative, and symbolism of the two side murals in the auditorium of the Auditorium Building as representative of spring and autumn, “Plastic and Color Decoration of the Auditorium,” in Robert Twombly, ed., Louis Sullivan: The Public Papers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 75–76.Google Scholar
  31. 32.
    Although Weingarden, in “The Colors of Nature,” discusses Wagnerism primarily in terms of the Gesamtkunstwerk and synaesthesia, she ends this study with a highly suggestive quotation from Jules Laforgue’s assessment of Impressionist painting, which she applies as well “to the aesthetic experience Sullivan cultivated in his polychromatic architecture: `No longer an isolated melody, the whole thing is a symphony which is living and changing like the ”forest-voices“ of Wagner, all struggling to become the great voice of the forest — like the Unconscious, the law of the world”’ (260). Throughout this article, Weingarden cites instances of Sullivan using color and light, both natural and artificial, to effectuate “a subtly shifting dematerialization of the two-dimensional surface” (248), a process that Weingarden traces back to the Auditorium Building (248, 252, 254–255, 257).Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Louis H. Sullivan, “Artistic Brick,” in Twombly, ed., The Public Papers, 204.Google Scholar
  33. 34.
    Ibid., 202–203.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    Louis H. Sullivan, “Lighting the People’s Savings Bank, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: An Example of American Twentieth Century Ideas of Architecture and Illumination” (1912), in ibid., 206.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (New York: Poseidon/Simon and Schuster, 1987), 204.Google Scholar
  36. 37.
    For a different discussion of the relationship of Sullivan’s banks to Impressionist music, see Menocal, Architecture as Nature, 128–129.Google Scholar
  37. 38.
    On this subject, see Richard A. Etlin, “Aesthetics and the Spatial Sense of Self,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (Winter 1998): 1–19. Several of the principal Einfühlung texts are translated in Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds. and trans., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics,1873–1893 (Santa Monica: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).Google Scholar
  38. 39.
    For other treatments of Sullivan’s interest in “sympathy” and its relationship to the Einfühlung school, see Vincent Scully, “Louis Sullivan’s Architectural Ornament: A Brief Note Concerning Humanist Design in the Age of Force,” Perspecta no. 5 (1959): 74–75; Menocal, Architecture as Nature,64; Weingarden, “Louis Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament,” in Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), 13–14.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MarylandUSA

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