Louis Sullivan may be the most underappreciated of American architects. A man of undeniable genius, he left the world with perhaps the most famous maxim in all of architecture: “form ever follows function”. He established the proper philosophical approach for building tall structures, and is identified by many as the “father of the skyscraper”. He is also referred to as “the father of Modernism”. The man was on track to establish an architecture unique to our country, but was thwarted.
Sullivan’s story is one of triumph and tragedy. After a number of early career successes, he ran afoul of fashion. He was interested in establishing an architecture that was as new, robust and unique as our new country. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of those with the means to commission new buildings were only interested in replicating stale European style. Sullivan eventually went broke, turned to the bottle and died alone in a Chicago hotel room.
The Sullivan story breaks my heart. He was a genius, he was a man of action, he had original thought, he was right! Our society, however, somehow missed that. His story is one of those sad reminders that life isn’t fair and the good guy doesn’t always win.
The decline over the last twenty years of his life are excruciating for me contemplate; yet they also were filled with genius. As most of his design work dried up, he turned to writing. His Autobiography of an Idea is an extraordinary work (and fantastically written in the third person). Kindergarten Chats is outstanding and a must read. A System of Architectural Ornament is by all accounts a tour de force (and with both Father's Day and Christian-mas rapidly approaching, please consider gifting me this first edition).
He was, however, granted a last chance for design. This world-class architect, this giant thinker, was approached by a few modest banks to design a number of tiny structures. Rather than turn his nose up at the projects, he embraced them. The result is The Jewel Boxes- eight tiny buildings sprinkled in small towns through the mid-west. It is obvious that he poured his heart and soul into the design of these masterpieces. All eight still exist and this summer I’m going to visit them all.
You’re coming with me...leggo...
The Henry Adams Building
Algona, Iowa 1912
Modest and dignified, exquisitely scaled. Algona (in BFE) has a pretty cool downtown save for one-way streets.
National Farmer's Bank
Owatonna, Minnesota 1908
This is a perfect example of a building that expresses both function and location through design. Its strength, stature, and solidity say "I am a bank." The effusive and exuberant detail suggest growth, harvest and abundance- befitting this storehouse for the farming clients of the bank. The language of the building is undeniably free and optimistic- the essence of America. This is one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen.
Two down six to go. Stay tuned for more Summer of Sullivan...