Research Paper: Specific Architectural Ornamentation by Louis Sullivan

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Louis Sullivan

"Form Follows Function" in Sullivan's Guaranty Building

"It is the pervading law of all things…that form ever follows function," Louis Sullivan stated in "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered."

Once upon a time recognized as the "father of skyscrapers," Sullivan and his influence would indeed leave their stamp on the next generation of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.

However, unlike the brutalism of Marcel Breuer, Sullivan's facades carried with them a distinct ornamentation -- or, in other words, the Sullivan signature -- distinguishing them from other modern works of architecture of the 20th century. For while Sullivan acknowledged that "form followed function," he never forgot that ornamentation also has function -- just as leaves of a tree have function. This paper will show how Sullivan's architectural ornamentation of the Guaranty Building both deepens the meaning of "form ever follows function" and reminds the student of architecture of the functionality of aesthetics.

Sullivan's Concept in His Own Words

The Guaranty Building (now named the Prudential Building) is located in Buffalo, New York and was the combined effort of Louis Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler. Constructed in 1894-95, the Guaranty Building resembled in many ways an earlier work of Sullivan -- the Wainwright Building: "The programs of the two buildings were essentially similar, the same logic of design obtained, and with the exception of minor details, the buildings are twins."

Of course, of the two, the Guaranty Building stands out with its completely ornamental facade -- but as far as function goes, the Wainwright is on par with the Guaranty.

Yet, if "form follows function," as Sullivan himself conceived, one must ask how ornament contributes to function? The question immediately lures one into the realm of aesthetics -- a realm on which modern artists hold varying views. Sullivan's view appears at first to be rather utilitarian, but it is not. At root it is a simple acknowledgement of the essence of all things -- as Sullivan states in his "Tall Office" essay first published in 1896 one year after the Guaranty had been completed. "It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical…of the heart, of the soul, that life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function."

Architecture for Sullivan was thus more than a mere rudimentary office in which no creativity or artistic expression was bound to be found. Architecture, like art, was a bound to a certain eloquence -- a kind of poetry that could be found in all of creation -- whether natural or man-made.

Yet, Sullivan understood that the modern-day skyscraper was a new type of project -- one the world had never before seen. Its design would have to facilitate its purpose -- but its design would also have to be aesthetically pleasing lest the balance of "all things" be lost and law of "heart" and "soul" be broken. If the function of the "tall office building" was to provide space for offices "necessary for the transaction of business," there were other parameters the architect had to bear in mind:

the invention and perfection of the high speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable; development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, economical constructions rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers and rise in value of ground, stimulate an increase in number of stories; these successfully piled one upon another, react on ground values and so on, by action and reaction, interaction and inter-reaction. Thus has come about that form of lofty construction called the "modern office building."

Here was, essentially, the matter: the architect (as artist) now had to address the problem, which Sullivan put tersely thus: "Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of these higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?"

Sullivan's concern was not simply with designing a facility to house offices. His concern was primarily artistic. A true artist, Sullivan realized the importance of ornamentation.

Aesthetic Necessity

"The higher life" as he called it had to be eminent in the structure he was commissioned to design. The higher life was a life of aesthetics -- of transcendental qualities -- and these qualities are all over the facade of the Guaranty Building, giving the office high rise an almost spiritual feel. At least, the ornamentation speaks to the soul of the viewer and lifts it higher than the ceiling of the skyscraper itself, pointing out an even more important and more transcendental home in the heavens above.

How so? Let us assess the ornamentation of the Guaranty. Although the Guaranty and the Wainwright are often compared, the fact is that the Guaranty has more in common with the Gothic architecture of the European past. With the Guaranty, Sullivan attempted to match function with soul: "The Guaranty followed Sullivan's new Gothic-like style. Now his piers could indeed 'seem to grow' with the 'soaring Gothic' while at the same time they transferred loads down to the foundations."

Of course, practically speaking, the Guaranty also fulfilled its function: at its completion just before the turn of the century, it stood at thirteen stories -- a "152-foot high skyscraper…(with) room for some 200 offices on its upper floors with retail spaces on its first and second; its 125,000 square feet were served by four passenger elevators."

Yet, Sullivan did not let the function depress the form, as Breuer would have done. Sullivan's Guaranty retains an elegance and character that elevates the skyscraper to a new class -- a dignified class. Like his other famous works, this one showcased "simple vertical emphasis externally, rich but appropriate decorative detail, and public-space interiors filled with fine ornament."

Still, the ornament that covers the facade of the Guaranty does indeed tell us something about the expression which Sullivan coined -- that "form ever follows function." As Joseph Korom notes, "the steel framework of the Guaranty Building was seen as a great trellis from which to hang, to drape, a host of geometric and foliate design motifs in terra-cotta."

Of course, the ornamentation of the Guaranty Building does give it a particular identity amidst a host of other buildings. But might there not be an aesthetic function that appears alongside the practical function? The ornamentation does indeed do what it is designed to do -- it attracts and pleases the eye. It draws consumers to the retail shops on the ground floor. It draws attention to itself -- and promotes business and prosperity.

The characteristics of the Art Nouveau are never far from the Sullivan facade, and these characteristics imply a kind of reluctance to depart from old-styles even as the "father of the skyscraper" is said to look forward. Ornamentation (whether Gothic or Art Nouveau) is part and parcel of the architect's business: he must please aesthetically as well as practically. Form does follow function -- but that is not to suggest that all form must be mechanistic. Function in nature is anything but mechanical -- and human nature is dynamic, colorful, transcendent (and so, Sullivan's Guaranty seems to suggest, should humanity's architecture be). For Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan's disciple, "Love of an idea (was) love of God" -- and the that same principle had to be apparent in architectural ornamentation, which essentially served to remind the viewer that he was not as mechanistic as the strange buildings appearing around him.

Ironically, therefore, Sullivan's notion that "form follows function" was sad but true -- and his Guaranty is an attempt to alleviate the function. No sooner, however, did lesser architects begin designing the skyscrapers than form truly did follow function -- and all ornamentation ceased. It was largely due to the aesthetic sense of Sullivan that his skyscrapers retained any humanity at all. Wright attempted to preserve Sullivan's aesthetic sense -- but Wright himself reflected more of the modern spirit than he perhaps perceived.

Indeed, the ornamentation -- the hieroglyphics, the "intricate patterns in an all-over coating of rectangles, circles, ellipses, and semi-circles; oval milkweed pods…(and) delicate leafy patterns" -- all of it speaks of an articulation of soul -- of a heart and mind that the new towers of "functionalism" would lack.

Implicit in Sullivan's creed of "form follows function" was the sense that form should never lose its soul -- or never cease reflecting the transcendent quality of the human spirit. This idea did transfer on to his pupil Wright, who identified it as "the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods and men, to put man into possession of his own earth."

However, where Sullivan announced that "form follows function," Wright went on… [END OF PREVIEW]

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