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Louis Sullivan

American architect

Movement: Art Nouveau

Born: September 3, 1856 - Boston, Massachusetts

Died: April 14, 1924 - Chicago, Illinois

Louis Sullivan Timeline

"The tall steel-frame structure may have its aspects of beneficence; but so long as man may say: 'I shall do as I please with my own,' it presents opposite aspects of social menace and danger...the tall office building loses its validity when the surroundings are uncongenial to its nature; and when such buildings are crowded together upon narrow streets or lanes they become mutually destructive. The social significance of the tall building is in finality its most important phase."

Summary of Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan pioneered modern design principles in North America, designing buildings that grew from and for the changing commercial needs of the urban and rural Midwest. Sullivan's buildings were both economical and beautiful, with streamlined forms and decoration that emphasized their purpose. He is known primarily for the creating a form for skyscrapers, office buildings that pushed upward rather than outward, that highlighted their verticality and for the strength of his decorative work, which highlighted the underlying form of buildings and introduced Art Nouveau to North America. Sullivan's style of architecture influenced those working around and for him, with both the Chicago School and the Prairie School developing from his work, and his emphasis on beginning a design for a building with that building's purpose in mind guided architects working across the twentieth century.

Key Ideas

Sullivan's work was guided by the adage that "form follows function," a phrase for which he became known. He believed in looking at the purpose of a building before devising an architectural form for it and in ensuring that usage was reflected in both the structure and the decoration.
Sullivan was known for the high quality of his decoration, which he used to emphasize the structure of buildings and unify disparate components rather than to distract from structure. He regularly repeated motifs, particularly semi-circular arches, and used materials that could serve as decoration rather than requiring additional ornamentation. He used twisting, organic motifs on terracotta facades and in ironwork, pioneering Art Nouveau in the United States.
Sullivan drew from earlier precedents. He reconceived the classical column as a basis for a skyscraper and created Romanesque portals that elevated commercial buildings. This innovation had a significant impact on American architecture; his vertical designs created the form from which most skyscrapers evolved, while his buildings with horizontal emphasizes created a distinctive architecture suited to the flat American Midwest. This introduction of classical elements into the modern architectural vocabulary was continued, later, through the Interwar Classicism movement.
Louis Sullivan Life and Legacy

Louis Sullivan was born in Boston in 1856, the younger of two sons. His parents were both immigrants; Patrick Sullivan was born in Ireland while his wife, Adrienne, came from Switzerland.

Important Art by Louis Sullivan

The below artworks are the most important by Louis Sullivan - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Auditorium Building (1889)
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Auditorium Building (1889)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Auditorium Building was the largest building in the United States and the tallest in Chicago when completed in 1899. The structure housed a theatre, hotel and offices, with the entrance to the auditorium on the south side; this auditorium, fronting onto Michigan Avenue, was surrounded by 136 offices and a 400-room hotel, arranged into a uniform ten-storey building. This was embellished with a square tower, with an additional eight storeys, above the entrance to the auditorium, offering views over Lake Michigan. The Chicago Auditorium was particularly striking, externally, when buildings of this size were uncommon. It made a strong visual impression through the heaviness of the rough stone and through its ordered symmetry, with the height emphasized through the unembellished arches above the windows. Inside, the arch motif is repeated in the theatre's proscenium arch and ceiling, which is highly ornate, and the barrel-vault of the hotel's restaurant.

This project was a collaboration between Sullivan and Adler, with the assistance of engineer Paul Mueller. The building is based on H. H. Richardson's Marshall Field Warehouse, which adapted the Romanesque style to suit a modern commercial building, but sets itself apart through innovative engineering and interior embellishment. The foundation of the building operated like a raft, built from crisscrossed railroad ties with a double layer of steel rails embedded in concrete, allowing the building to stand on a site where soft blue clay made conventional foundations impossible. This raft also served to distribute the weight of the load-bearing outer walls over a large area.

Sullivan's contribution to modern ornament can be seen in the repetition of the arch motif on the façade and within the auditorium itself, which allows decoration without compromising simplicity and the overall integrity of the building. His French training is also clear, with the curvilinear motifs throughout the theatre's interior providing an American equivalent to the plant-based decorative systems developing as Art Nouveau in Europe at this time.

- Chicago, Illinois

Carrie Eliza Getty Tomb (1890)
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Carrie Eliza Getty Tomb (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: This Tomb is one of three mausoleums that Sullivan designed in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery. This, the most significant of the three, was commissioned by Henry Harrison Getty after the death of his wife, Carrie Eliza Getty, and intended to serve as a tomb for the pair. The tomb stands on a triangular plot and takes the form of a square prism. The structure is composed of limestone, which are arranged in large, regular blocks on the lower half of the tomb. The upper half is more decorative, with a regular pattern of octagons, each of which contains a starburst design. The cornice features a band of smooth limestone above another with an intricate spiral pattern and the roof above is flat. Approaching the tomb, the visitor's focus is drawn by the ornate bronze gates at the center, over which is a semi-circular arch composed of wedge-shaped voussoirs with bands of ornament and engraved letters spelling 'GETTY.'

This mausoleum marks a clear departure from earlier funerary monument traditions along with clearly illustrating Sullivan's approach to ornament. This structure rejects the figurative sculpture and gothic features that distinguished nineteenth-century tombs, instead embracing pared back decoration that consists largely of geometric forms. Sullivan's use of a limited palette clearly articulates the structure of the tomb, with the bronze entrance drawing the visitor's focus, connected to the stone walls above through the repetition of the starburst motif on the gates. Sullivan's use of curvilinear forms, particularly on the gates, can be linked to Art Nouveau, but the use of simple, geometric decoration in order to accentuate form, rather than obscuring or embellishing it, proved influential in movements including the Prairie School and, later, Interwar Classicism.

- Chicago, Illinois

Wainwright Building (1891)
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Wainwright Building (1891)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Wainwright Building, a nine-story office building with a terracotta façade, is Louis Sullivan's first skyscraper and one of the most influential buildings in the United States. The base of the structure contains retail stores with wide windows; above the second floor is a simple cornice that separates the lower floors from the grid of identical windows above. The supporting piers are designed to appear as pillars, drawing the eye upward and emphasizing the verticality of the structure. While the terracotta at street level is plain, the windows above the second floor are separated by carved inset terracotta panels and the building finishes with a frieze, carved with celery leaf patterning, and overhanging cornice, beyond which is a flat roof.

While the Wainwright Building was not the first skyscraper to be built, it was the first to define the form, creating a modern visual language for the new building type. Prior to this, skyscrapers were designed following Beaux-Arts rules, with an aesthetic emphasis on horizontal bands rather than unified vertical facades. Sullivan's design for the Wainwright Building took advantage of steel-frame construction, recently developed, to create a façade without masonry, emphasizing the revolutionary engineering through design that emphasized its new possibilities, reaching toward the sky.

The Wainwright building is dominated by its vertical lines, with windows and horizontal panels inset so as to make the piers leading upward more pronounced. Sullivan's overall conception of the building is similarly based on the structure of a classical column, with a simple yet weighty base giving way to a plain shaft and ending with an ornate attic, though the specifics of his detailing is resolutely modern, with plain terracotta on the lower floors and the celery leaf used as the basis for the decoration of the frieze.

Sullivan's insistence on a vertical aesthetic drew from his tenet, "form follows function," which would come to dominate modern architectural approaches. The Wainwright Building was highly influential; almost every skyscraper designed over the following quarter-century borrowed directly from Sullivan's approach, as can be seen in Daniel Burnham's Flatiron Building (1902) and Holabird & Roche's Brooks Building (1909-10). In Chicago, particularly, Sullivan's approach was widely adopted, resulting in a skyline that appeared uniform and coherent when seen from a distance.

- St. Louis, Missouri

More Louis Sullivan Artwork and Analysis:

Transportation Building (1893) Guaranty Building (1896) National Farmer's Bank (1908) People's Savings and Loan Association Bank (1911)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Louis Sullivan
Interactive chart with Louis Sullivan's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Show influences

Artists

Dankmar Adler
John Edelmann
Frank Furness
Major William LeBaron Jenney
Eugène Letang

Personal Contacts

André Bouilhet
Lewis Mumford

Movements

Art NouveauArt Nouveau
Japanese art
Neo-Gothic Style
Romanesque architecture
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Louis Sullivan
Louis Sullivan
Years Worked: 1873 - 1917
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Dankmar Adler
Max Dunning
John Edelmann
George Elmslie
Frank Lloyd WrightFrank Lloyd Wright

Personal Contacts

André Bouilhet
Paul Bourget
Lewis Mumford

Movements

Art NouveauArt Nouveau
Chicago School of Architecture
Prairie School of Architecture
Art DecoArt Deco
Interwar ClassicismInterwar Classicism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair
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First published on 08 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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