A walk down a street during this day and age gives us a lot of opportunities to applaud and often be surprised by the scale the buildings carry around us, but these experiences are part of our everyday lives and almost every step we take along these streets. But once upon a time that was not the case. Today’s generation can only wonder what that era would have experienced when one of the first few tall buildings started to have a conversation with the cityscapes.

The Sullivan Center by Louis Sullivan: Temple of Commerce- Sheet1
The entrance that is visible from every corner. ©Marshall GeromettaCTBUH

In the late nineteenth century, architecture witnessed a time where the building scapes started getting mildly acquainted with the skies. Horizons were perceived from new heights, and proportions were stated from different points of convergence. The verticality had started to speak volumes, and that era began giving birth to the now commonly used term “skyscrapers”. While the concept of modernism started to see a new light in the field of architecture, Louise Sullivan also known as the “father of modernism”, like the title says it all, was one of the essential guides to the world for revolutionary ideas in the field. 

The Sullivan Centre, also known as the Carson, Pirie and Scott Store (built-in 1899 and expanded in 1904) is one of the initiating giants that seemed to be an advocate for the architectural ideologies Sullivan had. “Form follows function”  , the famous phrase by Sullivan, that is quite the architectural mantra in today’s day and age, and the articulate nature the monumentalized tall buildings had at that time, very evidently cascades over this architectural intervention.

The Sullivan Center by Louis Sullivan: Temple of Commerce- Sheet2
One of the first skyscrapers that the world began to experience (1904) ©Harvard University Graduate School of Design

A department store usually needs to align its purpose with the commercial aspect of the human dwelling and the economical principals also would often govern the manifestation of the flow of requirements these spaces would hold, and this commercial building did it all.  Hence the design of these buildings also began to abide by that function, and that is what Sullivan believed in his theory of form following function. And the Sullivan centre very clearly demonstrated its business of being a part of the Chicago skyline.

The Sullivan Center by Louis Sullivan: Temple of Commerce- Sheet3
Ornamented scale  ©Chicago in photographs

The ornamentation is vividly pronounced in the architectural language of the building and the major role that the ornamentation plays is to gel with the commercial requirement of the building, to make a loud statement that invites people’s curiosity and hence increase the flow of crowds into its space.  The intricacy in the ornamentation subtly conceals the signature of the architect and this added feature has demonstrated that one of the intentions behind the creation of the building was to make a mark in its time and also this siphoned the vision the architect had into the manifestation of the building.

The Sullivan Center by Louis Sullivan: Temple of Commerce- Sheet4
Ornamented scale ©Article: Ten Design Details: The Sullivan Center And It’s Famous Cast-Iron Façade-by Bill Motchan

The entrance to the building wraps itself around the corner, and this makes it visible from all directions, and this attributes more towards the commercial requirement of the space as it attracts more customers. The materiality that is used as a unifying language is the steel frame structure and cast Iron Facade. The steel frame structure allowed the building to have large windows that behave as inviting portals for potential customers because the merchandise is visible from the street.

The Cast iron facade was envisioned to be bronze but due to the economic drawbacks, it materialised into cast Iron that eventually accentuates the rustic look of the building. Another Interesting way that the rest of the ornamentation was crafted was with the terracotta. The contrast of Iron and terracotta was an unusual mix of materials and was a rare creation. The Interior spaces are generously blessed with a lot of natural light through the large windows which were repetitively and uniformly distributed along the facade. The circular columns that also provided a relatively open floor plan were also carrying the same ornamentation, the language as the facade. 

The Sullivan Center by Louis Sullivan: Temple of Commerce- Sheet5
Ornamented Piller ©Article: Ten Design Details: The Sullivan Center And It’s Famous Cast-Iron Façade-by Bill Motchan

The Industrial era had witnessed a lot of groundbreaking and revolutionary movements in its time, and Louis Sullivan’s work, one of the first generation architects; a mentor to l frank Lloyd Wright and the father of modernism was certainly an initiating framework for a stronger and architecturally articulate time. He believed in challenging simpler times with mere simplicity and many of his buildings subtly do play along with those objectives.


  1. https://study.com/academy/lesson/louis-sullivan-biography-quotes-architecture.html 
  2. https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/IL-01-031-0080
  3. https://www.chicagoarchitecture.org/2015/10/12/ten-design-details-the-sullivan-center-and-its-famous-cast-iron-facade/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sullivan_Center
  5. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/modernity-ap/a/sullivan-carson-pirie-scott-building

She has always been a storyteller at heart, right from when her world started to make sense. Essentially an aspiring writer and storyteller with a degree in Architecture and a recent graduate. She thinks mindful discussions and telling the right story can help shape the right intentions.