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Louis Sullivan: Autobiography of an Idea

Louis Sullivan - Autobiography of an IdeaLouis Sullivan enjoyed quite an extraordinary life, and both his architecture and his ideas about architecture have been immensely influential. After all, he helped create that amazing Chicago skyline. He must have been quite a character as well, here he writes about himself in the third person, writes expansively and exultantly with great gestures of his arms and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject and belief in his own talents.

I like him.

The third person thing almost works when he looks back to childhood, but it is mostly a little annoying. Still, this is packed full of amazing thoughts, insights, a bit of gossip, a good view into the mind that helped create the skyscraper and transformed our cities. Especially as he hated cities as a child. Here are his earliest feelings towards Boston:

As one might move a flourishing plant from the open to a dark cellar, and imprison it there, so the miasma of the big city poisoned a small boy acutely sensitive to his surroundings….Against the big city his heart swelled in impatient, impotent rebellion. Its many streets, its crooked streets, its filthy streets, lined with stupid houses crowded together shoulder to shoulder like selfish hogs upon these trough-like lanes, irritated him, suffocated him; the crowds of people, and wagons, hurrying here and there so aimlessly… (99)

He remembers being in awe of men at work, the power of the worker (he is a little obsessed with power as you will see), the wonder of the things they created. But still, he was most attuned to the natural world (as shaped by mighty farmers perhaps) than the urban one:

Thus there gradually arose within his consciousness a clearing sense of what a city meant objectively as a solid conglomerate of diverse and more or less intricate activities. He began indeed to sense the city as a power–unknown to him before–a power new-risen above his horizon; a power that extended the range and amplified the content of his own child-dream of power…In the open all was free, expansive and luminous. In the city all was contraction, density, limitation, and a cruel concentration. He felt that between himself and the city, as such, lay a harsh antagonism that seemed forever insoluble; as though men had made the city when they were mad; and that as it grew under their hands it had mastered and confined them. (102)

He studied at MIT in Boston, moved to Philadelphia to work with an architect, studied architecture in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts for a year. That is when Louis came to Chicago to work, as it was still recovering from devastating fire. He felt the power of the vast prairies and the vast lake and the vast skies, and writes:

The train neared the city; it broke into the city; it plowed its way through miles of shanties disheartening and dirty gray. it reached its terminal at an open shed. Louis tramped the platform, stopped, looked toward the city, ruins around him; looked at the sky; and as one alone, stamped his foot, raised his hand and cried in full voice:


That day was the day before Thanksgiving in the year Eighteen Hundred Seventy-Three. (197)

Louis Sullivan circa 1895
Louis Sullivan circa 1895

That gives you a good sense of the flow and nature of his book. He describes Chicago as the Garden City — as it was before the great fire and its rebuilding.

There was a time a city some three hundred thousand strong stood beside the shore of a great and very wonderful lake with a wonderful horizon and wonderful daily moods…Around this city, in ever-extending areas, in fancied semi-circles, lay a beauteous prairie…while within this prairie, at distances of some seven to twelve miles from the center of the Garden City, were dotted villages, forming also an open-spaced semi-circle… (241)

He later describes Chicago again and its move from garden city to agricultural centre to industrial centre:

inasmuch as the reporter’s first query would be: “How do you like Chicago?” Next invariably: “Have you seen the Stock Yards?” and the third, possibly “Have you viewed our beautiful system of parks and boulevards?”

Then presto, as it were, came a magic change. The city had become the center of a great radiating system of railways, the lake traffic changed from sail to steam. The population had grown to five hundred thousand by 1880, and reached a million in 1890; and this, from a pitiful 4,00 in 1837, at which time, by charter, the village became a city. Thus Chicago grew and flourished by virtue of pressure from without–the pressure of forest, field and plain, the mines of copper, iron and coal, and the human pressure of those who crowded in upon it from all sides seeking fortune. (308)

In a way this really is an autobiography of THE IDEA…it is deeply personal in some of the childhood memories, vivid memories of feelings and events and people that shaped him and moved him closer to his understanding of man’s place in the world, and based on that, the role of architecture. There is nothing included here that does not move him closer — and perhaps nothing is more indicative of how he arrived at this idea and what it meant than the fact that it was not wife, children or friends that helped him arrive at it, only key family members from his childhood, teachers and a handful of work colleagues.

Louis saw power everywhere; and as he grew on through his boyhood, and through the passage to manhood, and to manhood itself, he began to see the powers of nature and the powers of man coalesce in his vision of an IDEA of power. Then and only then he became aware that this idea was a new idea, — a complete reversal and inversion of the commonly accepted intellectual and theological concept of the nature of man. (248)

That’s still a bit broad of course, what does it really mean? I’m still not sure I know what he means by power except that it is tied to his childhood awe at workmen creating, at bridges, trains, waterfalls. Slowly we arrive at a better sense of it:

…he saw set forth the emergence and the growth of science as the spirit of man sought and found freedom in the open. This coincided with his own belief, that man’s spirit must be free that his powers may be free to accomplish in beneficence. He had discovered, to his annoyance, that in the architectural art of his day, the spirit of man was not free, now were his powers so liberated and trained that he might create in beneficence….for centuries it had been the case that art had been belittled in superstitions called traditions….That Man, past and present, must and would become more and more significant, would be found to have filled a greater role than any art, than any science. That man, perhaps and probably was the only real background that gave distinction to works appearing in the foreground as separated things, — or perhaps was it the invisible spirit of mankind that pervaded all things, all works, all civilizations, and informed them with the sense of actuality? (254)

It’s about freedom and choice — and that choice is morally guided to create a better world. It’s a very manly choice however:

Implicit in true freedom of spirit lies a proud and virile will. Such glorious power of free will to choose, envisages beneficent social responsibility as manifest and welcome. Here now stands in full light Man erect and conscious as a moral power. The will to choose aright lifts him to the peak of social vision whence he may forecast new and true situations. (268)

It’s all quite gloriously overblown, isn’t it? It captures the sense of this age poised on the edge of a new time of plenty but still well aware down to its bones as it emerges from a depression of the farm, the hard work, the difficult life where survival must be fought for. Louis Sullivan himself goes on to list mankind’s primary powers: the worker, the inquirer, the chooser. But these are tied into his senses, his ability to take information in and to learn and grow and observe, and then to apply imagination and will. In that it is vaguely reminiscent of Holmgren’s permaculture principal actually, this book shows a very keen eye for observation and detail abounding in nature and the desire to draw from those the designs for buildings that shape our lives.

In the next quote, he reminded me immediately of Marx:

He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution….For he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man’s nature, he must seek the solution within man himself, that he would surely find the suggestion within man’s powers…(299)

in talking more about the solution contained within the problem, he is echoing a key permaculture idea as well as fully explored by Fukuoka:

…it is invariably found to be simple in nature, basic, and clearly allied to common sense. (311)

And his dream of a solution?

Our dream shall be of a civilization, a social fabric squarely resting on man’s quality of virtue as a human being; created by man, the real, in the image of his fruitful powers of beneficience; created in the likeness of his aspirant emotions, in response to the power and glory of his true imagination, the power of his intelligence, his ability to inquire, to do, to make new situations befitting his needs.

Such a dream is the vigorous daylight dream of man’s abounding power, that he may establish in beauty and in joy, on the earth, a dwelling place devoid of fear. That in so doing he shall establish an anchorage within his universe, in courage, in the mighty spirit of adventure, of masterful craftsmanship, as he rises to the heights of the new art of all arts, — the art of upbuilding for the race a new, a stable home. (273)

Everything here I rather love — though perhaps it is more nostalgia I feel towards an age where everything, including hope, looked possible. I love everything except the reference to race. It crops up a number of times in this rather messianic way. Makes me sad to be almost entirely certain he is meaning the white race when he uses that word, and the implications, well, I hate the implications. His partner was a Jew (as he notes), so at least he was including them in his vision. And maybe I am doing him a great disservice, I will reserve judgment.

What I do love is his commitment to democracy (though it is perhaps in the end more troubling than anything else depending on his view of race, and the massacre of Native American still taking place and etc):

For us the chief impress of the self-revealing story of mankind lies in the perception that all sanctioning power comes from below. From the vast human plenum we have called the multitudes, it arises gently, massively, step by step, stage by stage, height upon height…The spectacular and imposing groups and summits of the feudal superstructure have no other base, no other sanction.

His sympathies were always with the workers (though again, I wonder what his attitude was on unions), and later in describing this vast human plenum, he writes of all the people who worked their way up from nothing and states:

that this, their Country, was vastly more than the land of the free and the home of the brave; it was the noble land of equal opportunity for all; the true democracy for which mankind has been waiting through the centuries in blood and tears, in hope deferred. This, they cried, as one voice, is the Hospitable Land that welcomes the stranger at its gates. this is the great Democracy where all men are equal and free. (315-316)

That is the noble dream people still cling to I think. Yet this age was one of Indian wars, Arizona and much of the west were still only territories, the Monroe Doctrine had been in place for fifty years…it wasn’t innocent at all, but reading this you have to keep reminding yourself of that.

Anyway, the gossipy bits really come in relation to Daniel Burnham, rival architect who also gets much of the credit for Chicago and its skyline. Louis writes:

And the while, Burnham’s megalomania concerning the largest, the tallest, the most costly and sensational, moved on in its sure orbit, as he painfully learned to use the jargon of big business. He was elephantine, tactless, and blurting. …

Thus, there came into prominence in the architectural world of Chicago two firms, Burnham & Root, and Adler & Sullivan…Daniel Burnham was obsessed by the feudal idea of power. Louis Sullivan was equally obsessed by the beneficent idea of Democratic power…Each brooded incessantly. (288)

Pretty awesome.

Monandock Building, Chicago, seen from VanBuren Street.
Monandock Building, Chicago, seen from VanBuren Street.

I loved finding his views on the Mondanock, by Burnham & Root — the model for the skyscraper of Henry Fuller’s novel The Cliff-dwellers.

Then the “monadnock” went ahead; an amazing cliff of brickwork, rising sheer and stark, with a  subtlety of line and surface, a direct singleness of purpose, that gave one the thrill of romance. It was the first and last word of its kind; a great word in its day, but its day vanished almost over night, leaving it to stand as a symbol, as a solitary monument, marking the high tide of masonry construction as applied to commercial structures. (309)

This was about as high as masonry could go. I’m so looking forward to seeing it.

There were two other quite curious asides in here. One that just so strongly brought alive Edna Ferber’s So Big, and just how hard life was for women and how it turned them into things utterly negligible to men other than perhaps objects of pity

There were also the farmer, a typical extra-nasal Yankee; the faded, shriveled, worn-out wife… (20)

As we go back to a world closer tied to the soil through energy descent, we’d do well to remember this and avoid it if possible.

the other curious aside was about the Irish — Louis Sullivan’s father obviously was Irish but his mother and the grandparents who played a great role in raising him were Swiss.

The Sullivan could not be helped. It was scorned by all but its owner. They detested the Irish, whose peaceful penetration of Boston had made certain sections thereof turn green. (36)

That made me a bit sad, but this was the age of anti-Irish sentiment.

Louis Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright and would help inspire the first Chicago School of prairie architecture. This Dover edition of his autobiography is full of plates of his work, but without context and he himself writes very little on that. So I feel another book is in order, but to return to perhaps what was best (and perhaps worst) in him — the dream of architecture:

Such a dream is the vigorous daylight dream of man’s abounding power, that he may establish in beauty and in joy, on the earth, a dwelling place devoid of fear.