Louis Sullivan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

“Throughout his life,” Robert Twombly writes, “Sullivan seemed intent upon revealing almost nothing personal about himself, either in print or in public.” The biographer of Louis Sullivan is, therefore, forced to construct a collage of evidence in which the architect’s character and genius can be discerned, to draw conclusions from what went unwritten, and to read between the lines of those documents Sullivan did commit to paper. Thus Twombly’s account of the early years of Sullivan’s life draws heavily on Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea (1924) yet judiciously questions the accuracy of much that is recorded there. The portrait of Sullivan’s dancing-master father, for example, is “not to be trusted,” Twombly says. Because Sullivan wrote the autobiography only two years before his death, when his own career was in eclipse and he had suffered both economic and physical decline, he may well have felt an urge to exaggerate his father’s physical repulsiveness and poor immigrant origins. The tale Sullivan tells of his father’s coming to America is “full of improbabilities,” according to Twombly, who hypothesizes, “Had he written in 1893, from the height of glory, his feelings about his father might have been altogether different.” In form, too, the autobiography is deceptive. Rather than refer to himself as “I,” which would be customary in such a work, Sullivan wrote about himself in the third person, implying that his story should be read not as the life of one individual but as “a case study in human development.” Twombly sensitively characterizes the effect of this formal decision, noting that although Sullivan’s life story at first appears quite revealing, “his seemingly candid self-analysis was, in fact, a kind of scrim through which the real man was only vaguely perceived.”

Perhaps because the challenge of writing a personal, informative, and revealing study of so guarded and private a person is great, Twombly’s biography is the first major account of the architect’s life to appear in fifty years. Yet a reassessment of Sullivan’s work is long overdue. In 1935, when Hugh Morrison’s Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture was published, a modernist aesthetic prevailed among architectural critics. Those aspects of Sullivan’s work which foreshadowed the sleek office towers of the mid-twentieth century were celebrated. It was as “father of the skyscraper” that Sullivan was admired; his formula for the tripartite division of the tall office building into base, body, and capital, which allowed for undifferentiated and easily convertible office space throughout all the floors of such a building’s shaft, and the strong vertical thrust of his designs were praised as progressive, while his opulent use of applied ornament was overlooked as an embarrassment. Twombly’s study helps to rectify this injustice. In dealing with some of Sullivan’s early works, such as the six-story building he designed for A. F. Troescher in 1884, Twombly sometimes seems to follow conventional modernist standards, arguing that the ornamental arches with which the building is capped “weaken the effect” of a structure which might have been “a clean, successful composition of geometrical relationships.” Yet in dealing with the later buildings, Twombly properly appreciates the complex interplay of structural form and surface ornament that Sullivan achieved.

Twombly rightly praises the florid cast-iron decoration of the base of the Schlesinger and Mayer (now Carson Pirie Scott) store constructed in Chicago in 1902 and 1903. This ornamentation, according to Twombly, associated the large plate-glass windows along the street with a row of paintings enclosed in ornate frames, thus presenting commodities in an aesthetic form designed to attract the eye of a new type...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)