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Monday, November 28, 2011

Louis Sullivan

Adler & Sullivan's Transportation Building,
Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
In 1992, this country celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.  The place, appropriately enough, was Columbus, Ohio, with something called the Ameriflora Exhibition. I recall it well. I was there. It was beautiful. An entire park with its own conservatory (glorified greenhouse) was transformed into a botanical wonderland. It was very tasteful and low-keyed--so low-keyed in fact, probably few of you even knew of it, much less remember it now. In contrast, a hundred years before, the city of Chicago decided to put on a show for Christopher Columbus' four-hundredth anniversary. It was so big and extravagant, it was a whole year late getting off the ground. However to this day, the history books still talk about it. The 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition was a mind-boggling extravaganza of wedding cake-style, Neoclassical Beaux-arts architecture trying desperately to house the newest in modern technology. Its vast "Lagoon of Honor" was totally encircled with one glistening, white, over-decorated Roman temple after another (mostly made of wood and plaster), crowned in the center with a Venetian barge made of stone.  Frank Lloyd Wright claimed the fair set back modern architecture by twenty years.

Adler & Sullivan's Wainwright Building,
Chicago, 1891
Actually Wright had a hand in making the fair what it was. He worked for the architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan at the time and no doubt helped in designing one of the few buildings on the grounds that was not a Neoclassical confection. Tucked away off to the side so as not to clash with the rampant Romanism of the main concourse, was Louis Sullivan's highly individualistic Transportation Building (top, left) which was demolished after the fair. To see it, one couldn't exactly call it "modern" looking--eclectic maybe, but certainly it was not Classical. The arch...whole rainbows of them...was the primary design element in the building resting uneasily amidst a highly decorated, rectilinear structure breathing a hint of Egyptian, Japanese, and Romanesque qualities. It may have been off to the side, but it certainly stood out from the crowd, richly ornamented in Sullivan's trademark Art Nouveau motifs and polychromed in red, orange, blue, yellow, and green. (What, no purple?)

Chicago Auditorium (interior) 1889,
Adler & Sullivan
Sullivan was born in 1856 in Boston. He studied briefly at MIT but was lured away by a Philadelphia architectural firm. However, by 1873 he realized all the groundbreaking work in urban architecture was happening in Chicago following the fire, so that's where he settled. He spent another short period of time studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (one summer) and came away knowing exactly what he disliked. Restless, he returned to work for Dankmar Adler and ten years later became a partner in the firm, responsible for the design work of the much-praised Auditorium Building (right) completed in 1889. The Transportation Building (top, left) bore a strong resemblance on the outside to the interior of the Auditorium building (above, right). By 1891, skyscrapers in Chicago, such as Adler & Sullivan's Wainwright Building (top right), were reaching an astounding ten stories in height. Built just eight years after H. H.  Richardson's rather clunky, chunky, medieval fortress-like Marshall Field warehouse (below), the contrast could not be greater. Sullivan was the first to realized that old European architectural styles did not translate to the high rise buildings being demanded by the costly limitations of expensive urban real estate. A whole new style was demanded, emphasizing the verticality of such structures rather than trying to cloak it in any number of antique coats of armor. Despite his taste for highly decorated surfaces, Sullivan's theories and designs had an enormous influence upon Frank Lloyd Wright and other twentieth century architects. As a result, he has often been called the first modern architect in America.
Marshall Field Warehouse, 1883,
H.H. Richardson.  Compare to the
Adler & Sullivan Wainwright Building.

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