Louis Sullivan was an artist whose medium was building, a poet whose materials were stone, brick, and mortar. His work was intended to convey messages about life in his times, about democracy, business, selected institutions, human relations, nature and the physical world, but above all about the process of creation. -Robert Twombly, biographer
This is one of those books I kept seeing at the Thrift Store until I broke down and spent the 50 cents. I'd assumed the "Idea" was just his famous dictum: Form Follows Function. But I was intrigued by the way he borrowed Henry Adams's use of the third person for an autobiography and one of the times I Googled the book I saw an essay about how that wasn't the central idea, so it seemed worth a read.
Sullivan does, indeed, make that famous case:
For long Louis had lived in a fool's paradise; it was well he so lived in illusion. For had the hideous truth come to him of a sudden, It would have dashed him to pieces like a potter's vessel. So he kept on with his innocent studies, becoming more and more enamoured of the sciences, particularly those dealing with forms of life and the aspects of life's urging, called functions. And amid the immense number and variety of living forms, he noted that invariably the form expressed the function, as, for instance, the oak tree expressed the function oak, the pine tree the function pine, and so on through the amazing series. And, inquiring more deeply, he discovered that in truth it was not simply a matter of form expressing function,
but the vital idea was this : That the function created or organized its form. Discernment of this idea threw a vast light upon all things within the universe, and condensed with astounding impressiveness upon mankind, upon all civilizations, all institutions, every form and aspect of society, every mass-thought and mass-result, every individual thought and individual result. Hence, Louis began to regard all functions in nature as powers, manifestations of the all-power of Life, and thus man's power came into direct relationship with all other powers. The application of the idea to the Architectural art was manifest enough, namely, that the function of a building must predetermine and organize its form. But it was the application to man's thought and deeds; to his inherent powers and the results of the application of these powers, mental, moral, physical, that thrilled Louis to the depths as he realized, that, as one stumbling upon a treasure, he has found that of which he had dreamed in Paris, and had promised himself to discover, a universal law admitting of no exception in any phase or application whatsoever.
The architects of this land and generation are now brought face to face with something new under the sun,-namely, that evolution and integration of social conditions, that special grouping of them, that results in a demand for the erection of tall office buildings. It is not my purpose to discuss the social conditions; I accept them as the fact, and say at once that the design of the tall office building must be recognized and confronted at the outset as a problem to be solved,-a vital problem pressing for a true solution.
Let us state the conditions in the plainest manner. Briefly, they are these: offices are necessary for the transaction of business; the invention and perfection of the high-speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable, development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, economical constructions rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers and rise in value of ground, stimulate an increase in number of stories; these successfully piled one upon another, react on ground values;-and so on, by action and reaction, interaction and inter-reaction. Thus has come about the form of lofty construction called the "modern office building." It has come in answer to a call, for in it a new grouping of social conditions has found a habitation and a name.
Up to this point all in evidence is materialistic, an exhibition of force, of resolution, of brains in the keen sharp sense of the word. It is the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder.
Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?
This is the problem; and we must seek the solution of it in a process analogous to its own evolution,-indeed, a continuation of it,-namely, by proceeding step by step from general to special aspects, from coarser to finer considerations.
It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law. [...]
This view let me now state, for it brings to the solution of the problem a final, comprehensive formula:
All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. [...][...]
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
It is this evolutionary and organic theory of architecture that made him a hero to Tom Wolfe, who set him off against the Modernists who believed/believe that architecture should merely represent an idea of the architect, that form follows ideology.
It was spring on the Columbia University campus, and "Keep Off" signs sprang up on the freshly seeded lawns. The students ignored the warnings -- which were followed by special requests -- and continued tramping across the grass. The issue became rather heated, until finally the buildings-and-grounds officials took the problem to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, at that time president of the university.
Chesterton too touches on the wisdom in his essay, The Drift from Domesticity:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Sullivan, who would cite Marcus Vitruvius Pollio for the proposition, held that structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – solid, useful, beautiful. If he was something like the last great defender of these values that alone would make him worth reading and remembering.
But what then is the "Idea"? Well, that is tied up in his youthful fascination with building, his lifelong love of America, democracy and his misunderstanding of Darwinism, as reflected in the Lamarckian "form follows function." The Idea has to do with the power that Man has to transform the world around him:
About this time two great engineering works were under way. One, the triple arch bridge to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis, Capt Eades, chief engineer; the other, the great cantilever bridge which was to cross the Chasm of the Kentucky River, C Shaler Smith, chief engineer, destined for the use of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. In these two growing structures Louis's soul became immersed. In them he lived. Were they not his bridges? Surely they were his bridges. In the pages of the Railway Gazette he saw them born, he watched them grow. Week by week he
grew with them. Here was Romance, here again was man, the great adventurer, daring to think, daring to have faith, daring to do. Here again was to be set forth to view man in his power to create beneficently. Here were two ideas widely differing in kind. Each was emerging from a brain, each was to find realization. One bridge was to cross a great river, to form the portal of a great city, to be sensational and architetonic. The other was to take form in the wilderness, and abide there; a work of science without concession. Louis followed every detail of design, every measurement; every operation as the "two works progressed from the sinking of the caissons in the bed of the Mississippi, and the start in the wild of the initial cantilevers from the face of the cliff. He followed each, with the intensity of personal identification, to the finale of each. Every difficulty encountered he felt to be his own; every expedient, every device, he shared in. The chief engineers became his heroes; they loomed above other men. The positive quality of their minds agreed with the aggressive quality of his own. In childhood his idols had been the big strong men who did things. Later on he had begun to feel the greater power of men who could think things ; later the expansive power of men who could imagine things ; and at last he began to recognize as dominant, the will of the, Creative Dreamer: he who possessed the power of vision needed to harness Imagination, to harness the Intellect, to make science do his will, to make the emotions serve him for without emotion nothing.
This steadfast belief in the power of man was an unalloyed childhood instinct, an intuition and a childhood faith which never for a day forsook him, but grew stronger, like an indwelling daemon. As day by day passed on, he saw power grow before his eyes, as each unsuspected and new world arose and opened to his wonder eyes; he saw power intensify and expand; and ever grew his wonder at what men could do. He came in a manner to worship man as a being, a presence containing wondrous powers, mysterious hidden powers, powers so varied as to surprise and bewilder him. So that Man, the mysterious, became for him a sort of symbol of that which was deepest, most active in his heart. As months passed and the years went by, as world after world unfolded before him and merged within the larger world, and veil after veil lifted, and illusion after illusion vanished, and the light grew ever steadier, Louis saw power everywhere; and as he grew on through his boyhood, and through the passage to manhood, and to manhood itself, he began to see the powers of nature and the powers of man coalesce in his vision into an IDEA of power. Then and only then he became aware that this idea was a new idea, a complete reversal and inversion of the commonly accepted intellectual and theological concept of the Nature of man.
That IDEA which had its mystical beginning in so small a thing as a child's heart, grew and nurtured itself upon that child's varied consistently continuing and metamorphosing experiences in time and place, as has been most solicitously laid bare to view in detail, in the course of this recital. For it needs a long long time, and a rich soil of life-experience, to enable a simple, single Idea to grow to maturity and solid strength. A French proverb hat it that "Time will
not consecrate that in which it has been ignored," while the deep insight of Whitman is set forth in the line, "Nature neither hastens nor delays."
Louis's interest in engineering as such, and in the two bridges in particular, so captivated his imagination, that he briefly dreamed to be a great bridge engineer. The idea of spanning a void appealed to him as masterful in thought and deed. For he had begun to discern that among men of the past and of his day, there were those who were masters of ideas, and of courage, and that they stood forth solitary, each in a world of his own. But the practical effect of the bridges was to turn Louis's mind from the immediate science of engineering toward science in general, and he set forth, with a new relish, upon a course of reading covering Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and the Germans, and found a new, an enormous world opening before him, a world whose boundaries seemed destined to be limitless in scope, in content, in diversity. This course of reading was not completed in a month, or a year, or in many years ; It still remains on the move.
What Louis noted as uppermost in the scientific mind, was its honest search for stability in truth.
Hitherto he had regarded his mathematics as an art; he had not followed far enough to see it as a science. Indeed he had hitherto regarded every constructive human effort as an art, and to this view he had been held through the consistent unfolding of the Idea. Inevitably this view was to return in time ; through the channels of science itself. For that which at once impressed
Louis as new to him and vital, was what was known as "The Scientific Method." He saw in it a power of solution he long had fruitlessly been seeking- His key to an outlook took shape in the scientific method of approach to that which lay behind appearances; a relentless method whereby to arrive at the truth by tireless pursuit. He now had in his hands the instrument he wanted. He must learn to use it with a craftsman's skill. For the scientific method was based on exact observation from which, by the inductive system of reasoning, an inference was drawn, an hypothesis framed, to be framed tentatively in "suspended judgment" until the gathering of further data might raise it to the dignity of a theory, which theory, if it could stand up under further rigorous testing, would slowly pass into that domain of ordered and accepted knowledge we fondly believe to be Truth. Yet science, he foresaw, could not go either fast or far were it not for Imagination's glowing light and warmth. By nature it is rigid and prosaic and Louis early noted that the free spirits within its field were men of vision masters of imagination, men of courage, great adventurers men of one big, dominant idea.
The danger here is obvious. One big idea, untethered from the discipline of function, can render forms of exactly the ugliness and inutility that have blighted our landscape since. Perhaps it is well that Sullivan, when he is remembered at all today, is remembered most for the buildings themselves and for the former idea rather than the Idea.