'The Tall Building Artistically Considered' - Louis Sullivan

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Wed, 2006-03-01 22:32

Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1890-1891, Louis Sullivan (right)

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, New York, 1894-1985, Louis Sullivan (left)

The tall building grew up on the American prairies with the invention by Otis of the elevator, and by Chicago engineers of the tall steel frame. The artistic problem was how to express this new thing. For years, architects piled storey upon storey, Gothic upon Classical, cornico upon portico. It was Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor Louis Sullivan who realised this would not do.

A building should express its nature. "What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?" he asked. "It is lofty. ... It must be tall, every inch of it tall. ... It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation . . . from bottom to top . . . without a single dissenting line." Said Frank Lloyd Wright some years later:

When buildings first began to be tall, architects were confused – there were no precedents – they didn't know know HOW to make them tall. They would put one two or three storey building on top of another until they had enough. .... I remember Leiber Meister [Sullivan] came in one afternoon and threw something on my table – it was a 'stretch' with the Wainwright Building in St. Louis designed in outline upon it. He said: “Wright, this thing is TALL. What's the matter with a tall building? Well, there it was, TALL!” After that the skyscraper began to flourish – TALL.

With the Wainwright Building, a simple ten-storey speculative block, Sullivan had discovered how to express the tall building, and into the world was born a new thing. With the Guaranty Building four years later (right) he came to maturity in that expression: the verticals expressed, the horizontals recessed, the tripartite division, the efflorescence of ornament -- "just enough to allow the bones to show." From these two, for good or ill, all skyscrapers would derive. And with these buildings and his statement of the underlying principle of architectural design, Sullivan's place in history was complete. Said Sullivan in 'The Tall Building Artistically Considered' : All things in nature had shapes, forms, and outward appearances "that tell us what they are, that distinguishes them . . . from each other." So too it should be in a building. Form, he said, should follow function. And with that, a new thing under the sun was born.

LINKS: Louis Sullivan - What’s the Big Idea? - Peter Cresswell
Master of the skyscraper - David van Zanten

TAGS: History, Architecture

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Me too, Peter. Very

Lanza Morio's picture

Me too, Peter. Very interesting.

Great stuff!

Casey's picture

Love these articles, Peter! Thanks.


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