Dave Buckhout .
One of my favorite college courses was a one-semester class on American architecture. More an overview and ‘history-of’ concerned with aesthetics, it nonetheless veered into the evolution of building practices enough to serve as a primer on the craft of construction. My degree was Art & Design; but having taken 4 years worth of drafting & printing in high school, and spending many more hours in darkrooms (high school and college), I already held a high appreciation for the technical arts. It spawned an all-important lesson: a facade is just that without a solid structure holding it up. The art-of-aesthetic and the art-of-engineering—in union—would be the thing that drew me to the interactive media industry in the early 1990s. The two do not even line up on parallel tracks. They are every other car in a single train. In producing lasting works, the harmony of the two move forward together, or not at all … And I had heard the theory used a lot in school, in all my creative coursework; for it is common sense to anyone with creative aspirations: “Form follows function.” I never forgot it (embedded as it has become in the creative-cultural lexicon). But, sadly, too often forgotten is the man who coined the original phrase: “Form ever follows function.”
I learned a lot about Louis Sullivan in that architecture class (he and Sullivan’s protégé / one-time employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, my all-time favs). But I don’t think I ever fully realized just how important a character Sullivan was; and it would seem he got a lot of that. His firm Adler (his partner Dankmar Adler) & Sullivan, was one of, if not the most innovative of the late-19th / turn-of-the-century era. They lifted the monolithic load-bearing-wall constructions of the time into the sky, reverse-engineering the outside-in support structure by utilizing inside-out support skeletons made of lighter / stronger steel. This vertical thinking is the same approach still used today. But Sullivan is not just the father of the skyscraper, he was also a peacemaker. He fused the often at-odds relationship between form and function, reminding us—with common sense wisdom extracted direct from nature itself—that both are practical if we are to live in a world-of-our-making that is not just a grey drab zone where we are born, work and die, but also a place where we can all do some good living while we do our functioning. Why does the superior highly-evolved vertical structure of a living tree also produce a fiery blaze of brilliant color once photosynthesis begins to slow down in the fall? Why even ask? Practical function meets practical beauty. One allows the other, and the natural world is the better for it. Sullivan’s organic detailing—reducing the Victorian ornament-for-ornament’s sake tradition to the level of ‘impressive without needing to be an end unto itself’—gave the cities where his structures were built something beautiful to look at, while providing functional space to work in. It seems a very natural relationship.
But like many visionaries, Sullivan did not receive the ‘bona fides’ he had coming while alive. It was only after he—and many of his buildings—were long gone that the culture caught up to his impact and began to realize the lasting influence of his creative addition (Sullivan having died in 1925, near poverty, and left behind in the modernist dust he had originally stirred up). He has gotten some love of late, and it is good to see. A monster volume of Adler & Sullivan’s work tells the comprehensive story of architectural transformation and signal creative vision via essays and photography. Benjamin Schwarz’s review in the March 2011 issue of The Atlantic is a timeless piece. But architecture is best when viewed. So, to do my part in heaping on the love, here also are a few links to Sullivan essentials:
Publication Date: March 30, 2011