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The spin on Louis Sullivan

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:52 AM
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by Edward Lifson ( last modified Jan 19, 2011



At the show of the year, "Louis Sullivan's Idea", at the Chicago Cultural Center you see

Sullivan ornament from the ceiling of the Auditorium Hotel barber shop, Chicago 1886 - 1890.

Sullivan's swirling, rotating, counter-clockwise and centrifugal forces danced across the ceiling, repeated at intervals.  He builds in you the tension we "naturally" feel between the organic and the geometric; as in the tension between straight line and curve, male and female, city and nature, indoor and outdoor, private and public, one and many, Federal and Antifederal.

A century before Sullivan's Auditorium, mostly on the east coast, Americans debated between the Federalists and the Antifederalists.  Alexander Hamilton advocating order over anarchy; Thomas Jefferson advocating freedom over tyranny.  Here in the first truly American city - Chicago - Louis Sullivan balances the debate.

Sullivan's desires and prescription for how to live are shown in this geometric framing with the organic at the prime place of importance- the center.  The organic even grown out over the geometric.  As the fine exhibition wall text says, "encountering a potentially obstructive architectural molding as it nears the outer edge, the leaves refuse to be stopped."  Their life force is great, unstoppable, and they reach with determination.

Sullivan's protege´ Frank Lloyd Wright will develop this, based on his encounters with Sullivan and other great art from various places and periods.  In his plans for modern houses, Wright radiates the wings outward from the center - often the hearth - as at Wright's Wingspread (1938) - the Herbert F. Johnson house - just north of Racine, Wisconsin.

Wright's windows frame nature, as Sullivan does in the ornament above.  The space in most of his rooms radiates out to continue out over the open land.

And they have continuing influence.  When I saw the Sullivan ornament I remembered this piece by American Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, recently posted on Eric O'Malley's always inspiring

Image via

Is there a connection?  Eric points out that Tony Smith studied under Frank Lloyd Wright.  Smith moved to Chicago in 1937 to attend the New Bauhaus under Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.  Not finding what he wanted there, he took a job as an office clerk for Frank Lloyd Wright.  Not bad to have such choices.  Then for seven months in 1939-40 Tony Smith apprenticed at Taliesin.

Today's urbanists would do well to keep Sullivan's ornament in mind.  After decades of insensitive building, American cities, like cities in Asia and elsewhere, wish to re-harmonize with nature.     




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