In my post on Ada Louise Huxtable I mentioned Louis Sullivan, a brilliant, complex but flawed architect who was a leader in the break from Beaux Arts stagnation in the late 19th century. In his later life, when large commissions declined, he took to theoretical thinking, alcohol and writing. One result of this creative decline was the beautiful little book entitled A Systemof Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers. The title is almost as long as the book, but the ornamental illustrations in it are wonderful examples of the creative process of a true genius.
Featuring a book on 2 dimensional ornamentation might seem off topic on this blog, but I have two reasons. First, the illustrations are meant for the creation of 3D bas-relief sculpture; and you will see that he renders the designs to show depth. Second, the designs are excellent examples of elaboration from simple themes; an idea that I will be exploring in my composition posts. If you are interested in the life of Sullivan there are plenty of books and internet sites beginning with Wikipedia.
After he has outlined a personal philosophy in the book, he takes the reader on a tour of his fertile mind. Like a good architect he develops a simple concept through obvious steps to reach a beautiful rationality.
Like all good art, it starts with the real world, and elaborates in both expected and unexpected ways.
The theme is stated, then elaborated, harmonized and complimented like a musical score.
He is breathtaking is his ability to show the different directions a theme can go depending on the emphasis that is taken. He would have been at home with computer generated fractals.
His designs sometimes resemble engineering drawings…
And other times suggest Baroque ornamentation.
At times he reinvents the Art Nouveau which was popular in his time…
At other times it suggests something his contemporary, Antonio Gaudi might have been working on.
In some examples he suggests the application of ornament to actual buildings.
In others he seems to be channeling the illuminated manuscripts lovingly painted by his Irish ancestors at Kells and Iona.
This final design is relatively simple compared to the preceding ones, but it is interesting in that it was reproduced in bronze on Sullivan’s monument at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. The monument is a late addition, since Sullivan died poor and forgotten, 20 years after his advances in high rise design had brought him fame.
Ada Louise Huxtable summarizes his legacy in a 1967 reprint of Sullivan’s book:
His contemporaries thought his ornament saved his off-beat solutions from cold and incomprehensible unfamiliarity. His heirs of the 1930’s rejected it as traditional trimming and preferred to admire the bare upper stories of his buildings.
Today, we return to it with gratitude for its undeniable sensuous beauty, seeing it as the catalyst between structure and expression that made Sullivan’s famous dictum “form follows function” neither the sterile nor the limited doctrine of its later interpreters.
When the Garrick Theater was demolished in the early 1960’s, pieces of its ornament went to museums across the country. Bootlegged bits are prized by private collectors. The story of modern architecture after Sullivan is the search for the way back to the logic, strength, sensitivity, and richness of his early, still unbettered solutions.
In 1990 I had the pleasure of working at 65 Bleecker Street in New York City. I say pleasure because it is better known as Louis Sullivan’s 1899 Bayard Building. It has the spare, structurally honest framework you would expect from the man who wrote “form ever follows function”. But, in addition you are treated to Sullivan’s Celtic exuberance, with swirling leaves, gaping lions and angels under the cornice. Before I left that job I took a memento in the form of the pastel drawing you see above.