Yes, I'm back on a Louis Sullivan kick. God willing and the creek don't rise, I will get to visit another of his masterworks this week. Today, I will share a few quotes from a most astounding book. If you have not done so already, you owe it to yourself to read Kindergarten Chats by the great Mr. Sullivan. The book is a short collection of essays on architecture and life that is formatted as if Sullivan is in dialogue with a young design novice. It can be a difficult read, if only for the fact that it is crammed with meaning and insight that might be lost without attentive reading and rereading.
Until next week, enjoy this short essay on value.
“How will you contrive to make your subjective my objective? How will you shape up something tangible for me? How will I get a footing in the fog?
In many ways. For the present let us take a single illustration – that of values.
Everybody knows, or thinks he does, what value means. Crudely it is expressed in Dollars and Cents: we say, such a thing is worth so many Dollars; and there, usually, the matter rests. Also, we regard other things as of value, and these values we recognize in medal, diplomas, eulogiums, or monuments. To an heroic fireman we give a medal, and thus we express the value, to the community, of his act of devotion. To the memory of a great poet we set up a monument; to this man, we give fame; to that one, reverence; to the other, love. And so it goes, through the range of values and compensations. Theoretically it is fine. In practice it is not always so fine, for some men have been crucified, others burned at the stake, for wishing well to their fellows.
Still, taking it all in, there is a general sense in the community that there are certain values which money cannot and does not measure; certain services rendered, of which money is not the impelling cause, or the mechanism of exchange, or the standard of estimate. And it is tacitly felt and recognized that such services are of great and positive value to the community: that they add to its wealth, if wealth be taken in its broad, comprehensive sense.
In its scantest sense, the value of a great painting might be compared on the cost of the canvas, the paint, and a reasonable every-day allowance for the manual labor of applying the paints to canvas. Yet everybody knows that this is not so. Everybody knows and feels that the greatest painter has imparted to the paints a value that they did not before possess. The he has transferred to them something of himself, and something of the world. That he has made subjective what was before objective.
This subjectivity is his art, By virtue of it he has sublimated the material.
This added value we call genius, talent, skill, as the case may be.
Eventually this added subjective value comes under the measure of the standard of all current values – money- but, too often, only when the author of it, the giver of it, the would-be benefactor of his race, has passed under the scrutiny of that final measurer and equalizer of all mankind – the sod.
So with the poet and his poems made of printers’ ink and paper.
So with the musician and his score.
So with the sculptor and his marble block.
So with the soul-inspiring orator, who breathes in the common, physical air and gives it forth, a new, an awakening message to man.
And so all real values are subjective: all objective values are unreal; they dissolve, under analysis, into subjective value after subjective value, and the residuum, if ever we reach it, is not what man made but what nature gave: and what nature gives is never objective – it resolves itself step by step, remove after remove, into the infinite creative mind.
Now shall a building be held to differ from these other things, my list of which is meager, to be sure? Shall this manifest rule hold for other things, and not hold for buildings? By virtue of what wrinkle in the popular mind are buildings to be held exempt? To say the least, is it not strange? There certainly is no doubt concerning the physical fact of such exemption: witness the people, witness the building.
Any good builder can tell you the value of a building in Dollars and Cents. He will figure up the cost of materials and the cost of labor, and the salary and incidental account – and give you the total. He has done his duty, you accept his statement and take it for granted that the matter is closed: and why not?- you have it in Dollars.
Now comes the critic and says: “Here, let me see those Dollar marks and let me see the building: let me take your figures, and confront the building with them. Yes, very good: this is the value of material of every kind, and labor of every kind, but where is the architect? I see no entry, except his fee. I put your cost in one scale of my balance, and the building in the other, but see – the beam is not level- something is lacking either in your accounting or in the building. Who is straddling the scales – who is pressing with his foot? It is a man. I find no man in your account, I find only a name; but I feel the man, I know he is there. Your accounts do not balance the building. Your values must be revalued – your method is crude; it is unwisely selfish. You see no further than the end of your nose. If your nose were longer, you would see that much further than the end of your nose. Have you paid your architect for destroying? Has he added, and you do not know it? Do you balance architecture with a sneer, on your accounting? What is your own value? How much are you worth a pound avoirdupois? Oh, you have a value, have you? The question is impertinent, is it? What is your value outside of your bank account? Who values you, and why? What are you good for, when you are sifted down, and your externals removed? What is your worth? What have you ever done? What can you do? Who are you? What are you? Why are you on earth? Do you think if you were an architect you would be more, or less, valuable than you are? If so, why? What are you? What is an architect? What is a building? What is a dollar? Answer me these things and let me weigh your answer in the scale I hold in my hand – a scale in which I ask only that you balance on little milligram of humanity.”
Are these questions fair, or are they not? Are they in order, or are they not? Are the practical, or are they not? Are they economical, or are they not? Are they social, or are they not? Are they democratic or are they not?
You may think about these things at your leisure. The buildings are there, for good or ill – they cannot run away; they cannot conveniently avoid investigation. And, if the building is there, the architect is there with it; he cannot escape either. Little by little we will ferret him out. There is no hurry.
Very good. But tell me: When you say: The value of a building, do you really lay more stress on the subjective value than on the Dollar value?
On both. For human nature determines that subjective value, sooner or later, becomes money value; and the lack of it, sooner or later, money loss. The subjective value is far higher, by far more permanent; but money value is inseparable from the affairs of life; to ignore it would be moonshine.