Monday, November 29, 2010

We Couldn't Get Much Higher

The final, inescapable fact remains that architecture is now breaking scale, and style, everywhere. (In his secret heart there is hardly an architect who doesn't want to do so.) The objective historian realizes that the twentieth century is in transition to a remarkable new technology and a formidable new environment, before we have learned how to handle the old one. Who's afraid of big bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so many things about gigantism that we just don't know. The gamble of triumph on this scale--and ultimately it is a gamble--demands an extraordinary payoff. The Trade Center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.
--Ada Louise Huxtable, May 26th, 1966

There have been quite a few lines that made me almost gasp and think "Holy @#!+ can this person ever compose a sentence." But the end of that paragraph I'm pretty sure made my jaw drop open. So profound, so prophetic, and with such a deep understanding of what it means to create architecture and the inherent implications of what we build. And I think most appropriate considering where I was headed on the train.

This was what I'd just finished reading when I arrived to see the premiere sponsored in part by DOCOMOMO (who, by the way, have a newly revamped website which looks great) of what turned out to be a gorgeous documentary about Louis Sullivan, titled for him with the subheading The Struggle for American Architecture. It's a wonderful film directed by Mark Richard Smith, and the icing on the cake was that the premiere was held at the showroom for the greatest American furniture manufacturer of the twentieth century: Knoll. There's almost a kind of electric buzz about being in the Knoll showroom, almost as if you're in the vortex of a much bigger storm of creativity and design history.

I was very surprised to hear that no one has ever made a documentary about this man. Actually, there was just one, called Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan from 2006 which concentrated on only one aspect of his career. But really? That's it? There's at least sixteen or so about Sullivan's protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright. For crying out loud, Sullivan pretty much invented the skyscraper, put Chicago on the map as an architectural wonderland, and coined one of the most famous lines in all of architecture: "form (ever) follows function." He's probably the architect most integral to the transition into the twentieth century.

Photo courtesy Photosfan.
The film is brilliantly framed. It starts with the Chicago fire of 1871. It was an obvious choice, but it works so well, both narratively and thematically, because it makes the city, itself, a blank sheet of vellum. The photographs of what remained after the fire are incredible. It was a virtual wasteland, with only a wall still standing here and there. They actually remind me a bit of the shots of European cities immediately after World War II. But Chicago's infrastructure--namely the train lines and the stockyards--was left unscathed, which meant the city could be rebuilt. And was it ever. It was during this boom, needless to say a great time and place to be in any way involved with the building industry, that Sullivan arrived in Chicago and decided it was right where he needed to be.

It was a bit of a bumpy start, because a recession hit that slowed down new construction a bit. Sullivan took this opportunity to go to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, which he found insufferably boring. While making a side trip to Rome, he discovered Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which had a profound influence on him. When he returned to Chicago, he teamed up with Dankmar Adler, who was a fantastic engineer and acoustician, but nowhere near as talented a stylist as Sullivan, making them the perfect team.

It was well known that, if you wanted a great theater, you hired Dankmar Adler. Ferdinand Peck did just that for the design of the Chicago Auditorium. The exterior was uncharacteristically bland for Sullivan, inspired by the adjacent Marshall Field Warehouse (1885) by H. H. Richardson. But it was the largest building of its kind ever constructed at the time.
Image courtesy Chuckman's Photos.

Photo courtesy Sampleboard Online.
The interior of the opera house, on the other hand, was an absolute symphony of ornament and decoration, color and luxurious materials, which Smith's cameras captured with the most loving admiration to the sound of a Richard Wagner swell. The film makes a point to note that, because of the intimate collaboration between the two partners, everything was seamlessly integrated into the interior's style, down to the ventilation grilles and the lighting, which was the frighteningly-new electric technology. It was a gargantuan job, self-inflicted by Sullivan, who wanted to design all the ornament from scratch to cover every inch of the place. A young Frank Lloyd Wright, hearing that Sullivan was swamped, sent over some sample drawings asking if they needed another draftsman. Quite wisely, Sullivan hired him. The Auditorium catapulted the team of Adler & Sullivan to fame. They also made their new home in offices in the building's tower.

His next big breakthrough was a result of his attitude toward buildings, that they should look like what they are. Sullivan was dismayed by the handling of height. The technologies making it possible--namely steel frame construction and the elevator--were too recent, and architects were not sure yet how to deal with it. These early tall buildings were typically in any number of different architectural styles stolen from Western Europe and stretched vertically. His response in 1891 was "every inch a proud and soaring thing," the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri.
Photo courtesy Brandon.
Because Sullivan thought the main problem was that tall buildings didn't realize what they were, he strongly emphasized the Wainwright's height. His model was the classical column, with base, shaft, and pediment. If you look at the building at a sharp enough angle, you can very much see the fluted column in it. Five years later he did something very similar with the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York. Guaranty, however, was an explosion of ornament in terracotta that adeptly masked the necessity of terracotta to be installed in tiles.
Photo courtesy Cuda swiata.

Photo courtesy SFSU.
The end frame for the story appears in 1893: The Chicago World's Fair. The gleaming white architecture of the fair by Daniel Burnham (with Frederick Law Olmstead) was strictly Beaux-Arts (though built, characteristic of our Drive-Thru Fast-Food culture, like a stage set).

Sullivan had rejected all this contrived pomp for being decidedly European. He felt American architecture deserved its own idiom, rather than simply deriving forms from another time and another continent. As the title of the documentary suggests, he was looking for a truly American architectural vocabulary. The country, however, was too young, too fragile in the wake of the Civil War. So while European visitors to the fair were fascinated by Sullivan's unique and colorful Transportation Building, American visitors were much more turned on by the pretense of legitimacy neoclassicism could bestow upon the United States. Sullivan said it set back American architecture by forty years.

From that point on, classicism was it. Every substantial commission purchased a big, white marble Beaux-Arts temple. Nobody wanted Sullivan's eccentric, unfamiliar brand of Americana. His last great large building would be the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago.

Photo courtesy iReference.
Quite amusingly, outside of this store is where one can purchase a demon-possessed Good Guy™ doll from a homeless man.

Finished in 1899, this building is easily twenty-five years ahead of its time and about as modern as any building could have been in the nineteenth century. Additionally, his nature-inspired ornamentation was the perfect complement to what was beginning to be understood as the market driving force behind the art of the fashions sold inside the store, namely the changing of the seasons.

Photo courtesy Exoterika.

Sullivan died penniless and broken in 1924. Despite the fact that he'd built one of the most beautiful tombs in the world--for Carrie Eliza Getty--his friends could only scrape together enough money to buy him a sad, forgettable headstone. His last work wasn't even a building, but merely the façade of a tiny little music store. That a man of such unbelievable talent should meet such a tragic end is shameful and disheartening.

The sort of happy post-script onto the story, though, is a flurry of incredible creativity and exquisite work he did for a bunch of small banks in mid-western farm communities. He built eight of them, from 1908 to 1919, in Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, two in Ohio, and three in Iowa. In my opinion, it's some of the best work he ever did.
Photo courtesy Primitive Screwheads.

His use of ornament had reached a level of sophistication that could be matched only by a true genius, like Michelangelo himself, isolated to brief moments of explosion and intricacy, while tempered by expanses of serenity and restraint.

The modest scale and proportions presented a welcoming, down-to-earth stance to the farming communities and very much appealed to them, quite contrary to the overblown elitism of the common neoclassical approach to bank architecture. Furthermore, his use of natural, organic ornament here spoke to the lives of townspeople who earned their living from the land. The banks became beloved. They also ended up in small towns where little ever changes. So in one last, small victory, while much of Sullivan's work was heedlessly demolished, the banks all remain standing as jewels on the countryside.

One of the great things about them is that he'd begun "signing" his buildings. Right underneath the bank's sign, it would say "Louis Sullivan Architect." It sort of reminds me of how Fellini started to put his name into the actual titles of his films: Fellini Satyricon, Fellini's Roma. But entirely justified because Sullivan's work was so distinctive and at the same time, in a way, quite modest.

After the screening, there was a short talk by the director and a Q&A session. He said he'd never made a film before, which made this project a bit difficult to get produced, and makes it even more impressive as a debut effort. I asked Smith if, while shooting the film, there'd been any one building that really grabbed him, that really took his breath away. He said the Guaranty in Buffalo. He lamented the fact that, due to issues with the current owners, Prudential, it was just not possible to get inside it. But he did manage to get some stunning photography of the exterior with the help of a window-washing platform. A couple other questions and we all headed over to finish off the wine they'd so nicely supplied.

I'd said hello to Kathleen, John, and Leslie from DOCOMOMO when I arrived. I'd met them all at their Kips Bay Towers event for Open House New York, which will be the subject of a later post. But afterward I got the chance to chat with John Arbuckle, who I was impressed to discover works for Gwathmey Siegel. He was telling me all about Buffalo since it's the location of the building Smith said most grabbed him. He reminded me that Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House is also there and is now open to the public, and a few other things that all together might make it worth a trip to Buffalo. I think he might have sold me on going at some point.

I also asked Smith if this might be picked up by PBS or a similar network. He said he had spoken to people at PBS, but that they already have their own stable of directors with whom they work almost solely. I think this is very ridiculous and unnecessary. It limits the voice of their programming and means that some very good material (this film, for instance) will never see air time on their stations.

You can purchase a copy of the DVD (also available on Blu-ray), Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, on the website for the film (link at top). I highly recommend seeing it. Personally, I'm looking forward to buying my copy when the expanded edition is released with (perhaps) behind-the-scenes footage and commentaries and whatever else.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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