Sullivan, Louis Henry
SULLIVAN, LOUIS HENRY
Louis Henry Sullivan (1856–1924) inspired design and construction ideas for the most significant twentieth century American buildings, and for that he was called the "Father of Modern Architecture." He was the inventor, and often the builder, of the uniquely American "skyscraper," the tall buildings that created the great skylines of U.S. cities like New York and Chicago. His philosophy of building was also his philosophy of art. Sullivan designed the model for workplaces used by many modern businesses. He created the tall, densely-built downtown areas of the twentieth century U.S. metropolis; he created the visual reality of a kind of architecture in which design form followed the demands of functionality.
Louis Sullivan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in September 1856, the only child of Patrick and Adrienne Sullivan. His father prospered in Boston as the owner/teacher of a music and dance academy. One of Sullivan's biographers suggested that at a young age Sullivan learned from his father the importance of gracefulness and symmetry, qualities that would later influence his thinking about architectural forms.
Sullivan attended public schools in Boston. In his autobiography, he praised a high school teacher, Moses Woolson, whom he greatly admired, saying that the instructor had instilled in him "good methods of thinking, studying, and good work habits." Sullivan claimed to have relied upon such principles throughout his life.
At age 16 Sullivan passed the entrance examination at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and entered the school in 1872. He studied architecture under the guidance of William Robert Ware. Sullivan was dissatisfied with MIT, however, and left after just one year. He cited his dislike of the school's strict focus on classical and academic architecture.
After leaving school Sullivan traveled throughout the country, briefly joining his parents in Chicago, Illinois. In the aftermath of the Chicago Fire of 1873, Sullivan saw the possibility of rebuilding the city with a modern and uniquely American vision. To learn his craft he left for Paris, France, to study at one of the great schools of architecture, the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Sullivan studied long and hard in Paris, but the 18-hour days he spent studying were mentally exhausting. While in Europe, Sullivan also spent time traveling, specifically in Italy, where he saw first-hand the best of European architecture.
Returning to Chicago after just a year in Europe, Sullivan worked in an architect's office as a draftsman and soon developed a reputation for quick and skillful design. He rose in the ranks of Chicago's architects and displayed his great enthusiasm for building new kinds of American-style buildings in Chicago.
Sullivan's true architectural career started in 1880, when he began designing his own buildings to help rebuild Chicago. He started by concentrating on modern engineering techniques and advancements. His buildings were elegant and simple looking, with a focus on great height and safety. He also sought to accommodate the needs of twentieth century businessmen by creating buildings with highly concentrated office space.
Sullivan was a pioneer in designing the steel-framed skyscraper, which allowed him to create tall, structurally stable buildings. Through such building projects, Sullivan was able to articulate his main architectural idea: "form follows function." He voiced this in his 1924 autobiographical vision of architecture, The Autobiography of an Idea.
Sullivan worked hard to eliminate all traces of Greek and Roman architectural patchwork previously attached to the design of most American buildings. He was perhaps the first architect in the United States to develop a unique American style of architecture.
As Sullivan's architecture grew legendary, his personal life began splintering, and he devolved into an emotionally disturbed person. His behavior became erratic, he sought isolation, and at age 45, ill health forced him to work on only a series of small buildings and banks. Yet he continued as an architect, sharing his trade with others in the field. Most of Sullivan's innovative ideas were carried forth by his student, and later friend, Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959), whose own brilliant work would add new dimensions to architecture.
Though Sullivan's work had thoroughly penetrated the currents of modern twentieth century architecture, he died destitute and nearly alone. Frank Lloyd Wright visited his friend Louis Sullivan just three days before Sullivan's death, at the age of 68, in 1924.
The development of large, busy, complex urban centers of the early twentieth century was made possible by Sullivan's unique engineering innovations. His structures—safe yet often hundreds of floors high— combined functionality with beauty. Sullivan's impact on several major U.S. cities influenced much of the architectural design in the decades that followed.
See also: Frank Lloyd Wright
Kaufman, Mervyn. Father of Skyscrapers: A Biography of Louis Sullivan. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1969.
Menocal, Narciso. Architecture as Nature, the Transcendental Idea of Louis Sullivan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Paul, Sherman. Louis Sullivan, an Architect in American Thought. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Sullivan, Louis. The Autobiography of an Idea. New York: Dover Publishing, Inc., 1956.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. Genius and the Mobocracy. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1949.